Woman as sign is a semiotic construct developed by feminist scholars trying to explain the ways in which women’s status in patriarchal society is understood, communicated, and acted on through institutional practices. Film scholar Laura Mulvey’s (1975) application of psychoanalysis to film theory was foundational to the construct’s development. Mulvey argued that woman stands in patriarchal culture “as signifier for the male other” within a symbolic system in which men are permitted to live out their fantasies of domination both linguistically and through images they create (1975, 7). Feminist anthropologist Elizabeth Cowie (1978) coined the term “woman as sign” on the basis of her work with Claude Lévi-Strauss on kinship systems that featured the exchange of women (e.g., a bride leaves her father’s house to live in her husband’s house). Woman’s status in such systems, she said, is economic but also that of a sign, which conveys an understanding of subordination and enables her to be exchanged physically among men. Cowie advocated a revolution in kinship systems to create more egalitarian sex roles and the meanings associated with them.
Feminist communication scholars Lana F. Rakow and Kimberlie Kranich (1991) are credited with giving the construct “woman as sign” a place in more recent feminist media theory. These scholars placed the construct at the center of their study of television news in the late 1980s. Like other critical scholars (e.g., Molotsch 1978; Hartley 1982) Rakow & Kranich recognized the news as an essentially masculine narrative in which women function as a sign in men’s discourse. To investigate more specific ways in which women function as sign in television news, Rakow & Kranich conducted a two-part study. First, they examined 1,203 news stories contained in one month’s news programs aired on NBC, ABC, and CBS networks in the United States. They found that women were largely absent from newscasts, with only 15 percent of all stories containing any women as on camera sources. Second, they examined six months’ news transcripts in which women were more likely to be important to the story (and thereby more able to be examined as signs in news). They found that women were most likely to appear as private (not public) individuals, serving as signs of the times “to make a connection between the private sphere of home, family, emotions, neighborhood, and personal experience and the public world of politics, policy and authority” (1991, 16). In their association with the private realm, women were also allowed to serve as signs of support, endorsing an action or policy, often through institutional affiliations that do not represent women.
Conversely, the study showed, women were much less likely to appear as experts, politicians, or political activists or in other public roles. Even stories that might logically have a woman speak to the issues – e.g., a story about men’s battering or killing of women – generally did not. In order to speak for women, they found, a woman must signify as feminist, and in six months of stories examined, they found a feminist source only seven times. In addition, they found that only white women were allowed to signify as “woman,” another way that news homogenized all women’s experiences, except in cases where a news item specifically involved race or ethnicity. They found a few stories in which women became news by disrupting the social order, and in these, women were often pitted against each other, arguing different positions. Like Cowie, Rakow and Kranich leaned toward a radical solution to women’s disregard and misrepresentation in television news, one that would require feminizing the masculine news narrative and altering the symbolic system positing woman as objects of men’s exchange.
- Cowie, E. (1978). Woman as sign. M/F, 1, 49–63.
- Hartley, J. (1982). Understanding news. London: Methuen.
- Molotsch, H. L. (1978). The news of women and the work of men. In G. Tuchman, A. K. Daniels, & J. Benét (eds.), Hearth and home: Images of women in the mass media. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 176–185.
- Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. Screen, 16(3), 6–18.
- Rakow, L. F., & Kranich, K. (1991). Woman as sign in television news. Journal of Communication, 41(1), 8–23.