Images of women in the media have presented a serious problem and challenge to feminist activists and scholars concerned about women’s status in society. In the US in particular, but also in other parts of the world, the type, quality, and number of images of women in various fictional and nonfictional genres (in film, television, and magazines especially) have been well documented since the 1970s. Consistently, such research documents women’s subordinate status to men, demonstrated by their key absences (such as in news) and attention to physical appearance or domesticity (such as in commercial advertising). While documenting problematic visualizations of women has been a dominant approach to assessing women’s relationship to the mass media, other approaches have raised challenges about the theoretical and political shortcomings of a focus on “images.” Consequently, more sophisticated understandings of the relationship between mass media, reality, and political and economic structures have taken hold in feminist communication scholarship.
Nonetheless, analysis of women’s media images in countries around the world has been important in efforts to make changes for women. The International Women’s Media Foundation (www.iwmf.org/resources/stats.php) compiles study results showing, for example, how few women in southern African countries are news sources in political stories, the state of images of women in the European Union, the coverage of women’s rights in Arab countries, and the small percentage of women’s appearances in Canadian newspapers. While there are notable similarities in women’s images in many countries, there also are important differences related to religious, political, and cultural contexts, as demonstrated in a study of sexual advertising content (Nelson and Paek 2005). These differences dispel the assumption there is a universal image and meaning of “woman” across countries as well as within them (for examples, see Hill & Ly 2004; Woodward & Mastin 2005).
Media And Women’s Movements
The scholarly and systematic documentation of women’s media images got its impetus from what is now called the second wave of feminism in the US. The second wave of feminism, as compared to the first wave beginning in the nineteenth century and fading with the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment granting women the right to vote in 1920, was concerned more with the legal and economic rights of women in the home and the workplace. It is often criticized as a movement that focused on the issues of white, middle-class women. Indeed, journalist Betty Friedan’s landmark book The feminine mystique, published in 1963, identified the “problem that has no name” of primarily white, middle-class women dissatisfied with their lives, which were focused on domestic and family responsibilities, despite the way in which women’s magazines at the time idealized such a life.
Second wave feminism, like the first wave, rested on two different theoretical positions, now identified as liberal feminism and radical feminism. Liberal feminism accepts many of the features of US liberal social theory, including the notion of the autonomous individual with inherent rights to the equal chance to compete on the basis of merit in a democratic and capitalistic society. Hence liberal feminists typically have argued for equal opportunities for women, insisting that the country’s fundamental principles of citizenship should be extended to all, advocating that women be treated the same as men. While women and men may be biologically different, liberal feminists hold, their social roles can be adapted and even interchanged, if we can overcome stereotypes of appropriate behavior and activities.
Radical feminism, on the other hand, views women and men as distinctly and importantly different, with women’s attention to relationships, nurturing, and cooperation to be valued over men’s competition, hierarchy, and aggression. Overcoming men’s domination of women requires, from a radical feminist perspective, resistance to oppressive structures and relationships and a critique of patriarchy as one if not the most significant feature of US society.
Given its theoretical basis, which matched that underlying most US academic institutions, especially in journalism and mass communication programs, it is no surprise that liberal feminism was able to make the greatest headway in establishing a research agenda for issues about women and media. Women researchers, often in contexts in which their work was not rewarded and their own positions as faculty were tenuous or isolated, began accumulating empirical evidence that women were absent, denigrated, and devalued throughout much of the mass media. An important step in the process of documenting and theorizing these images occurred with the publication of a book in 1978 edited by Gaye Tuchman, Arlene Kaplan Daniels, and James Benet, Hearth and homes: Images of women in the mass media. Tuchman’s concept of “symbolic annihilation” to describe how women were invisible and devalued in much mass media content is still used today.
Research results consistently demonstrated that in programming aimed at women, particularly in soap operas on television and in magazines directed at women, storylines and commercial advertisers took the cue of radio soap operas sponsored by manufacturers of soap and other domestic products, making women’s domestic responsibilities as primary caregivers of families and homes seem their natural fulfillment. On the one hand, media content directed at men, including news, fictional action narratives, and pornography, displayed women as sexual enhancements of male power. The sexualization of women’s images began in mainstream mass media in the 1960s, in what many feminists considered a co-optation of the women’s movement and its attention to reproductive rights and freeing women from oppressive restrictions on sexuality. Media-created and media-perpetuated myths of feminist bra-burning and “free love” in the 1960s era of the student and peace movements made women’s sexuality a new sales tool for advertisers, who began draping bikini-clad women on cars, and for television and filmmakers, who seized the opportunity for increasing audiences through increasingly escalated sexual and violent content.
Sexual and violent content became a concern not only of researchers on images of women but also of public policymakers and conservative social commentators. Feminist activists and scholars, reflecting liberal and radical feminist positions as well as others such as postmodern feminism, remain divided about how to understand and change such images, especially given the political consequences. At issue, on the one hand, have been concerns that attacking pornography will lead to restrictions on free speech, including sexual content created by women for women. On the other hand, there have been concerns that women as performers, models, and the objects of men’s fantasies are harmed by images that make women men’s (apparently) willing and unwilling sexual objects (see Russo 1992; Wackwitz 2001).
From Images To Representations
While images research has been criticized as under theorizing both gender and media, the analysis of women’s images became more theoretically and ideologically complex through feminist analysis of film. Of particular importance was the work of Laura Mulvey, who in 1975 published a piece on “the male gaze” in cinema that, although much refined and critiqued since its original publication, reverberates in feminist work today. Mulvey’s work ushered in psychoanalytic feminism to the task of understanding women’s images in media. She argued that the camera is a male eye with women as its object. Men look; women are to be looked at. Contemporary manifestations of the problem are revealed by the alarming rise of eating disorders in girls and young women, suggesting that men’s surveillance of women results in women’s self-surveillance in order to achieve a particular shape and look.
A further advance was made when images research was scrutinized for differences among media images of women along racial lines. It became clear that images of white women were different from those of women of other racial and ethnic groups. While white women often were portrayed as madonnas or whores (Kuhn 1985), Native American women were shown as beautiful Indian princesses or unattractive squaws (Bird 1999), African-American women as mammies or matriarchs (Collins 1990), Chicana/Latina women as Spanish noblewomen or beautiful cantina girls (Fellner 2002), and Asian/AsianAmerican women as sexually servile geishas or powerful dragon ladies (Kim 1986). The differences in images among women of different “races” illustrate the need for the larger meaning systems within which the images appear to be examined.
More recent images research has taken on changes in women’s portrayal, such as the phenomenon of the “tough chick” image of women in some television programs and movies, producing feminist discussion of whether or not these images represent an advance by showing powerful women, despite exaggerated physical characteristics emphasizing sexuality (Inness 2004). Even if an argument can be made that some images have changed, the limited ability of an images research approach to yield substantive social change has been pointed out on a number of fronts.
First, the approach has been wedded to a liberal social theory that accepts the current commercial media system while arguing for only limited reforms (i.e., making representations of women “more realistic”). Socialist feminists have pointed out that the economic system and the power of ownership and production must be accounted for to produce a sufficient critique of the media. It has been noted that even if some changes are made in women’s images in the mass media, little else changes, including the concentration of media ownership in a few corporate hands and the commercialization and commodification of not only news and entertainment but also much of contemporary life. Meanwhile, the material conditions of the lives of women who are not middle-class continue unexamined and unchanged (Steeves 1987; Ferguson 1990). Other feminists push for changes that would give women access to the means of production and representation, following from the analysis that the media represent men’s interests and experiences that must be countered by the stories and experiences of women. Consequently, these feminists have attended to women’s alternative media as an antidote to mainstream mass media images of women (Ross & Byerly 2004).
Second, the critique has been made that images research based on a liberal feminist paradigm is unlikely to lead to substantial change because of its connection to the dominant “effects” paradigm of much mass media research. Documenting limited and negative images of women is usually insufficient for making a case to policymakers that change is required. Demonstrating audience effects has been a less than straightforward task for media researchers, despite almost a century of attempting to do so. It is not clear what would be done if negative effects of any media phenomenon were unequivocally proven, since the First Amendment rights of media owners, at least in the US, precludes all but minor policy adjustments to the current media system.
Third, images research based on a liberal feminist paradigm has been critiqued for its narrow theoretical understanding of both media and gender. Its epistemological foundation of realism, following from an ontological position giving reality the status of an objective phenomenon existing outside of human meaning, results in a reliance on a mirror-image relationship between reality and media texts. Media texts not only can present veridical accounts of reality, they should, from this theoretical position. In the case of gender, a realist position adheres to an understanding of gender as a condition of difference that pre-exists the social roles, malleable as they are, that women and men occupy. Hence, a realist position on the media supposes that “real” women and men exist outside of cultural texts that should accurately represent them. Postmodern feminists, often working outside of the field of journalism and mass communication, have challenged the position with a constructivist rendering of both social reality and gender. Teresa de Lauretis (1987), for example, showed how gender is both a product and process of representation, not something that exists outside of representation. Even one’s own identity must be represented to oneself. If representations cannot logically be thought of as accurate or inaccurate, it makes little sense to press for accurate representations of women, and more to argue for different meanings about gender.
Internationalizing Feminist Media Research
While research on images of women has been primarily a US liberal feminist project, women around the world have found political and theoretical value in examining and challenging women’s images in media systems. In fact, the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in September 1995, identified two strategic objectives in its platform for action regarding media. These were to “increase the participation and access of women to expression and decision-making in and through the media and new technologies of communication” and to “promote a balanced and non-stereotyped portrayal of women in the media” (UNESCO 1995, 94–95).
By attending to the larger political, economic, and ideological meaning systems within which images arise and function, scholars and activists can elucidate significant issues affecting women and suggest how change might and does occur in gender systems. Myra Macdonald’s reading of media images of veiled Muslim women leads to challenges to western feminist assumptions about sexuality (Macdonald 2006), for example. Barbara Sato’s interpretation of the “the new woman” that emerged in Japan between the two world wars, confronting previous notions of women as gentleness and meekness with a new urban femininity, shows how images of women can be used to explain and manage periods of social change (Sato 2003). These more sophisticated notions of both “images” and “women” have extended and enriched the important work begun by liberal feminist scholars.
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