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Feminist and gender studies represent key fields of research within communication studies today. It is difficult to discuss their emergence and developments as two separate entities, as the two often overlap. However, it can be noted that mainstream forms of gender studies research tend to differ from feminist studies politically, theoretically, and methodologically. As Dow and Condit (2005, 449) argue, “The field of communication has come too far to categorize all research on women, or even gender, as feminist in its orientation. Rather, the moniker of ‘feminist’ is reserved for research that studies communication theories and practices from a perspective that ultimately is oriented toward the achievement of ‘gender justice,’ a goal that takes into account the ways that gender always already intersects with race, ethnicity, sexuality, and class.”
As a political movement for gender justice, feminist communication scholarship always has at its core a goal of examining how gender relations are represented, or the ways in which audiences make sense of them, or how media practitioners contribute to perpetuating gender injustice. At the center of this is the view that hierarchical gender relations (re)produce social inequalities across time and cultures, thereby making it difficult for men and women to be equal partners in democratic society. Feminist communication research is tied to a political movement for structural social change rather than individual change. As such, feminist scholarly research is inseparable from activist forms of feminism. On the other hand, gender studies are not implicitly political in the sense of having an agenda for social change on the basis of gender equality. Instead, the principal aim has been one of raising public awareness about the ways in which gender affects the individual’s life choices and chances, and thus women’s and men’s relative opportunities for personal and career success.
Gender Studies in Communication
Communication scholarship examining gender issues has a longer history than that of feminist scholarship. “Gender studies” usually refers to the social constructions of masculinity and femininity. However, studies on sex roles – or the false belief that women and men are innately different – are often included in this definition. Gender studies, as a recognizably distinctive field of academic scholarship, dates back to at least the 1960s in the disciplines of psychology, sociology, linguistics, and anthropology. Insights from these disciplines provided a formative basis for the establishment of gender studies in communication from the 1970s onward. Until the 1980s, it was generally assumed that communication studies gender research would focus on women. As the twentieth century came to a close, gender and communication scholars became much more interested in also researching some of the ways in which men and masculinity were portrayed, and began to explore how communication systems and processes contributed to the construction of different forms of masculinity. This preoccupation represented a shift from assumptions about masculinity as an unquestioned norm, to one in which masculinity became the focus of scholarly examination.
As noted above, gender and communication studies have largely been grounded in assumptions about the individual’s acquisition of gendered attitudes and behaviors, and the ways in which socially constructed gender roles can negatively impact on the individual’s life chances, especially in terms of sense of self-worth, social perceptions of women, and their career prospects. Here it is assumed that portrayals of women in the media that depict them as less able, mentally and physically, or where their beauty or domestic service are the aspects most highly valued in them, will hold women back from achieving individual (career, wealth) success. More recently, a central concern with some of the ways in which masculinity is depicted centers on the extent to which the media contribute to the construction of masculinity as inherently violent and out of touch with everyday (domestic) life.
Aside from mass communication research on gender, two keys areas examined by gender researchers in interpersonal and human communication include: (1) the ways in which media organizations portray gender, where the relationship between gender and such organizations is said to shape both individual consciousness and a sense of collectivity within the organization; and (2) women’s and men’s language styles and how these might maintain social inequalities in personal and professional life for women.
In the first area, there has been a growing interest in making global comparisons around the extent to which women appear as news reporters and news subjects so as to judge the extent to which women’s voices are making a contribution to democratic political systems (Sarikakis & Shade 2007). Research projects such as the global media monitoring project, conducted in 1995, 2000, and 2005, for instance, show little improvement over a ten-year period in women’s position as media professionals or news actors (Gallagher 2005). Indeed, this project has consistently shown that female journalists tend to be younger and less authoritative than their male counterparts, and are also visibly less present. Also, women are rarely news subjects. When they do show up in the news, they tend to be in the roles of victim or celebrity (and sometimes both).
In the second area, some researchers have argued that there is in fact little quantitative proof that women’s and men’s language differs. Instead, it is social perception of differences (women are thought to be more talkative, circuitous, and elaborate in their language than men) that in turn holds women back, because such differences are the basis upon which women’s speech and communication come to be less valued than men’s (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet 2003). On the other hand, other researchers refute this claim, providing what they assert to be evidence to show that there are often real differences in women’s and men’s language use and that these differences are what continue to hold women back from achieving personal and career success. More recently, some researchers have claimed that both perspectives are right, in that there are instances when men’s and women’s language is not that different, and others where it is, and it is up to researchers to document when such differences occur and why. Additionally, recent years have also seen an increasing interest in documenting men’s and women’s speech in different parts of the world, with some of this research echoing findings in countries such as the US and UK, whereas some findings are specific to the culture under scrutiny. For example, research in Japan has noted that women’s language more clearly expresses a perception of powerlessness than does women’s language in the US (Mulac et al. 2001). Similar findings have recently been published on women’s language in Morocco (Sadiqi 2003).
Feminist Studies in Communication
Feminist communication studies has only been a distinct scholarly field since the 1970s after the “second wave feminist” movement emerged in western countries and in many others including Japan, India, and Egypt. Feminist thought, political activity, and scholarship comes in a myriad of different forms, from western constructions such as liberal, radical, socialist, and postmodern feminism as well as the more recent phenomenon of postfeminism, to the development of postcolonial and transnational feminist theory. Additionally, more specifically focused forms of feminism have emerged recently. For instance, in the US, examples include Latina, Black, and Asian feminist theory. Elsewhere, various forms of Islamic feminism have developed both within and outside the Middle East. Globally, this range of conceptual and methodological approaches within feminism and their differences as well as commonalities have led to different forms and practices of communication research and feminisms that are increasingly sensitive to cultural, social, and economic differences (as well as points of connection locally and internationally).
In considering the challenges that second wave feminist communication scholars have faced, it is important to note, as Gill (2007, 9) argues, that “the tide of feminist creativity, thinking, and activism that swept the western world in the late 1960s and 1970s faced a challenge that earlier women’s movements had not known: a world dominated by media.” This has necessarily meant, Gill maintains, that since the 1960s, feminists have had to come to terms with the ways in which women are represented in the media. This realization, she suggests, underpins the rapid growth of feminist research and political action over the past 40 years. Typically, early feminist studies emerged from researchers and students in universities, particularly in the fields of communication in the US and cultural studies in the UK, who had become only too aware of the extent to which these disciplines failed to address gender issues (McLaughlin 1993; Carter et al. 1998). As Gill (2007, 9) further states, “Women in universities found that they were up against the ‘male as norm’ problem, in which women were frequently entirely invisible, and men were taken to stand for the whole human population.”
Turning to look specifically at the development of feminist communication studies in the US, Dow and Condit (2005, 448) suggest that, historically, we can trace the emergence of feminist communication research to the growing visibility of feminism in society more generally (from the early 1970s). Early research in media studies, especially on television, showed that women were rarely portrayed and that when they were, such portrayals tended to be heavily stereotyped (Dow & Condit 2005, 448). Other research highlighted the experiences of women working in the media, noting the dearth of opportunities open to women and the difficulties that they faced in seeking promotion.
Many studies during the 1970s, in the US and elsewhere, utilized content analysis to provide evidence for the narrow and often negative fictional roles available to women in the entertainment media as well as the absence or marginal status of women working behind and in front of the camera in journalism. Here, the argument was that all of these things led to an undervaluation of women’s contributions to society and how they were regarded. Some researchers, however, came to the view that content analysis was problematic because it was only able to comment on the manifest media content of specific images rather than wider structures of meaning. Out of this developed, particularly in Europe, critical forms of analysis of methodological approaches, such as the semiotic and ideological analysis of British cultural studies in the late 1970s.
From the 1980s onward, more complex approaches to the analysis of gender in the media were influenced by studies that sought to examine what had become, in some researchers’ view, “a much more plural and fragmented set of signifiers of gender. There was a new playfulness in media representations, a borrowing of codes between different genres, and a growing awareness and interest in processes of image construction” (Gill 2007, 11). At the same time, theoretical advances encouraged a movement away from a transmission model of the media, i.e., the view that somehow its messages were directly conveyed to audiences, carrying with them stereotypical or ideological assumptions about femininity. In its place, new theories put forward by poststructuralist scholars such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan provided feminist communication scholars with a conceptual framework that would allow them to go beyond calls for the media to reflect more realistic images of women (with all of the attendant problems associated with defining what is real and therefore what is realistic), and to embrace a position arguing that the media play an important role in constructing reality. In other words, “rather than there being a pre-existing reality to the meaning of the categories masculine and feminine, the media were involved in actively producing gender” (Gill 2007, 12).
This research eventually led the way to an interest in understanding how the media help to construct gender identity and subjectivity, which are seen to be partial and fragmented, rather than unified and rational, assumptions underpinning previous notions of gender subjectivity. This development allowed feminist communication scholars to see gender as fluid and open to change, rather than immutable and ahistorical. A related point coming out of this theoretical shift was that meaning itself is never fixed across time and culture. “In poststructuralist theory meaning is never single, univocal, or total, but rather is fluid, ambiguous, and contradictory: a site of ongoing conflict and contestation” (Gill 2007, 13).
In opening up gender to this sort of theoretical scrutiny, it also followed that feminism itself was re-examined with a view to exploring the ways in which mainstream forms of feminism could be used to advance the position of certain women (particularly white, middle-class, heterosexual women), while at the same time doing little to raise awareness or improve the position of women of color, working-class women, lesbians, women with disabilities, etc. It was at this point that there began to develop postcolonial and transnational forms of feminism, as well as black feminism, Latina feminism, and third wave feminism, among others, highlighting the extent to which western political thought, including that of some forms of feminism, had tended to silence the voices of those who were not included in the dominant discourses of western feminism.
Gender and Feminist Research by Specific Media Form
In the next sections, gender and feminist research is reviewed by specific media form. No distinction is made between studies that are positioned within gender or feminist scholarship as these have already been noted, as has the point that in scholarly practice there is often much overlap between them.
Feminist and gender communication scholars have examined advertisements, viewing them as potentially debilitating, demeaning, and inaccurate reflections of “real women”. Many initial studies examined women’s sex roles, and found that common images were of submissive wives and mothers located within domestic settings. Other studies examined gender power imbalances and found that advertisements depicted a parent–child relationship between men and women. Women tended to symbolize the child, had less power, and were shown as smaller to men and submissive to them. When other scholars began examining advertisements’ representations of the female body, they found that advertisements often portrayed fragmented body parts rather than the whole person, which had the effect of de-humanizing the subject. While in the past, this fragmentation was reserved for women, gender communication scholars show that it is now evident with men too.
Men and women are typically portrayed advertising gender-specific items – men with alcohol, vehicles, or business products, while women tend to be associated with domestic products. Authority has also traditionally been associated with men, and voice-overs are almost always male. While women have tended to be depicted as passive, sexual objects, more recently there has been an increase in the number of advertisements that show them to be active, sexual subjects. This has coincided with a growing sexualization in the media, meaning that there has been an increase in sexual representations of both men and women. In western countries, the rise of second wave feminism helped incorporate feminist messages into advertising. This has contributed to several changes, including more images of women in the workplace, in positions of authority, and as independent beings. Older and minority women, however, typically have been marginalized in advertisements, depicted in a limited range of roles, or portrayed as having diminished mental and physical capacities (Lauzen & Dozier 2003). Stereotypically, black women have tended to be often represented as exotic or as a mammy (Cortese 2004), while Latinas are often shown to be passionate and emotional (Fregoso 1993) and Asian women as sexually submissive (Espiritu 1997).
Research on magazines has variously examined constructions of femininity, masculinity, the rise of the “lad magazines,” discourses surrounding romance, sex, beauty, and consumption. Feminist media critics, such as Betty Friedan in the US who wrote The feminine mystique (1962), were among the first to become interested in women’s magazines in the 1960s, and argued that they reinforced traditional gender differences and inequalities. As such, they were not a site of innocent pleasure, but instead an arena that undermined women’s “real” identities. Not all scholars were as pessimistic about readers’ relationships with magazine texts, and some viewed them as an arena of political contest, not just ideological manipulation. Magazines therefore became a site where women’s oppression was debated and negotiated, not just reinforced. This meant that despite promoting notions of traditional womanhood and femininity, magazines could still be a source of pleasure for women (even feminists), because their meanings are polysemic, unstable, and subject to subversive interpretations. Second wave feminism brought about changes in women’s magazines. In the UK, as the women’s movement grew in the 1960s and 1970s, there was more coverage of political issues, including those that had previously been described as “feminist.”
Men’s magazines have been the subject of much discussion worldwide (Benwell 2003), and there has been a change toward including more sexualized images and photos of women. Gill (2007) has argued that these “lad” magazines assert their heterosexuality through a “laddish” tone that fetishizes women’s bodies and represents a defensive assertion of masculinity, male power, and men’s rights against feminist challenges. However, men’s lifestyle magazine content is not the same everywhere. An Italian study found that the recent success and growth of men’s magazines signaled a positive and progressive change of gender roles and identities (Boni 2002). Tanaka’s (2003) study of Japanese men’s magazines focused on the difference between the UK’s “new lad,” and Japan’s “city boy,” who is preoccupied by what his girlfriend thinks of him. Tanaka describes how gender lines are more easily crossed in Japan, which is evident in magazine discourses.
For some time, western feminist film studies was shaped by the key theoretical contribution of Laura Mulvey’s pioneering article “Visual pleasure and narrative cinema” (1975), where she argued that psychoanalytic theory could be used to understand how visual pleasure in Hollywood film has been organized around the male gaze or masculine perspective. As such, film audiences experience narrative cinema through the eyes of men, subjugating and objectifying women and suppressing feminine sexual desire.
In recent years, feminist film scholarship has become much broader in its theoretical and methodological orientations. For instance, Shohat’s research (1990) has explored Hollywood’s fascination with the Orient, and found Arab and black women were shown to be controlled by their libidos, while white women needed to be lured, made captive, and almost raped to awaken their desire. Much feminist film research has been geared toward studying pornography and other forms of sexual violence. Horror films have been analyzed to see how men, women, and sexuality are portrayed.
While there are many studies devoted to examining women in different film genres, a growing number of gender researchers are now examining men in films, including sexuality and masculinity. De la Mora (2006) has investigated Mexican films from the 1930s and found that at the time masculinity was deployed differently than in western, and particularly Hollywood films. Studies have also examined heroes in film, heterosexual and homosexual masculinity, and working-class men and the relationship of the body to the male gaze.
Feminist research has also begun to look at political economy of films, examining the integration of patriarchy and capitalism. Riordan (2004), for example, has appraised the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Lee 2006) to see how the film was marketed, and how it constructed and commoditized culture and feminism.
As with the other media, television studies have found women to be shown in a narrow range of roles that tend to revolve around domestic settings or portray women as subordinate or as sex objects. Studies have also found this to be true in nonwestern countries, such as Japan (Suzuki 1995), where there are two images of men for every woman. Thus far, no European study has found a television category where women outnumber men. US television programs from the 1970s tended to ignore feminist characters and themes in television programs. However, by the 1980s there was a marked increase in the use of feminist rhetoric with shows such as Cagney and Lacey (1982 –1988) and LA Law (1986 – 1994) being among the most successful. This continued through the 1990s into the twentieth century in a much wider range of television genres, including drama, situation comedy, and in factual programming.
Media researchers have used ethnography to research television viewing habits and have found that gender affects almost everything about the individual’s relationship with television. At the other end, production studies have shown that women tend to hold lower-ranking jobs, take longer to gain promotions, and often face the “glass ceiling” (Joseph 2004). In addition, the percentage of female reporters diminishes with age, whereas this is not the case with men (Gallagher 2005). There have been several studies on specific television genres such as soap operas, talk shows, and anime. Studies on women from ethnic minority groups in the US have typically revealed the use of traditional racial and gender-based hierarchies. For instance, Gillespie (1999) has established that African-American women have often been depicted as faithful companions to white women and, sometimes, men. In Puerto Rican television, research has found that traditional gender roles are often sustained by showing female characters receiving personal rewards, such as love from a man, for being well-behaved, and, conversely, loneliness for those who behave badly or outside the boundaries of socially constructed gender expectations.
US research examining depictions of men also appears to suggest that men tend to be presented in highly stereotypical ways. “Real men” are inevitably portrayed as dominant, aggressive, rational, and competent, whereas their opposite (desirable, compliant, domesticated women) featured mostly in comedies and soap operas (Craig 1992). Researchers have also examined minority men, male relationships, and the male gaze (see Craig 1992). Findings suggest that men tend to appear more in action/drama programs, and are least likely in sitcoms and soap operas. Men are more likely than women to be depicted as employed in high-status jobs, are less likely to be shown as married, are generally shown as older, and more likely to be involved in violence. The masculinity portrayed on television tends to be white, middle-class, and heterosexual, and more work needs to be done examining black, transsexual, rural, and working-class men (see Craig 1992).
Feminist and gender studies scholars have analyzed the gendered nature of news culture (Carter et al. 1998). More specifically, scholars have researched journalism production, content, the gendered use of sources, reporting men’s and women’s issues, representations of male and female athletes, politicians, war correspondents, and sexual violence, among other topics.
In the US, Croteau and Hoynes’s research (1992) has demonstrated that the newsroom’s gender imbalance has led to male-centered news practices, such as the demand for objectivity and detachment, the importance of public matters over private ones, and limited definitions of what is “newsworthy”. When it comes to stories about women in the US, Rakow and Kranich (1991) have argued that women are rarely, if ever, used as sources, and men speak for them all (see also Chambers et al. 2004).
Gallagher’s (2005) international research on gender and news has found that men tend to report more “hard” news with topics such as politics, business, and economics, while women are most likely to report on “soft” news, or social issues such as health-care and education. Her survey of one day of news (television, radio, and print) in 76 countries (undertaken by volunteers), revealed that 79 percent of news subjects were men, and that one woman appears for every five men. There is no consensus on why this is. Global research examining women’s representation as news subjects have found that women are often portrayed as victims (Lemish 2004; Gallagher 2005). A Chinese study has established that women’s images were more likely to appear in the news than their voices or opinions (Yuan 1999), and in Japan, women tend to be used to give personal reaction to a given news event, while men show up more often in the role of providing expert comment. In India, the increased presence of women in the newsroom has had a positive effect on the macho culture, but much more could be done to speed up progress (Joseph 2004).
When reporting on women in politics, there tends to be a focus on gender roles and domestic and childcare services. Unlike women, men are rarely described in terms of physical attractiveness in news reports. Women’s age and marital status are often discussed, and women are often referred to by their first name, and photographed in domestic settings (Ross 2002). Studies from around the world have found women’s appearance is discussed more than their policies or messages (Lind & Salo 2002).
Very little feminist or gender research has been undertaken to date. That which has been done tends to reflect upon and assess feminist attempts to create gendered radio spaces for female audiences. Many women’s community stations have been feminist projects, where the top priority has been to increase women’s visibility and experience in the public sphere. There is a difference between women’s and feminist production, where the former is not necessarily political, but the latter demonstrates resistance to patriarchal oppression. Feminist radio is grounded in the notion that women have a right to broadcast on their own terms, use their own voices, share their concerns, and represent their own lives. Studies have focused on histories of women’s community radio, and this is one area in which studies are not predominantly from the US or UK.
Many African nations have witnessed an increase in community radio since the 1990s when political systems opened up. These stations have been used to strengthen democracy and increase representation of people (particularly women) and issues previously ignored (Mitchell 2004). Radio listening in many of Africa’s poorer areas has become a communal activity, and “listening clubs” have been developed. Community radio has been around Asia-Pacific, New Zealand, and Australia since the 1980s. Asia has some of the fewest women’s community radio stations while Latin America and the Caribbean have many, often in remote or rural areas. One of the most successful stations is the feminist international radio endeavor (FIRE), an online radio station located in Costa Rica, and broadcast in Spanish and English (Mitchell 2004).
Radio studies show that although women are not represented proportionately in production, radio still tends to be defined as a female medium, as women are frequent users because of its low cost, and their ability to do other work while listening (Hobson 1980). Even though radio tends to be perceived as a feminine space, Gill’s UK (1993) study confirms that there are few female DJs (at the time of her research, male DJs outnumbered female ones by 10 to 1). To explain this anomaly, she discussed several myths about female DJs, including the idea that women could become DJs but chose not to; that audiences prefer male DJs; that women lack the necessary technological skills; and that women who are more interested in broadcasting become journalists rather than DJs.
Internet And New Media
The diversity in research on the Internet and other forms of new media is difficult to summarize because of its expansive and multilayered theoretical and methodological approaches. Though this article mainly focuses on Internet, there is an entire research area devoted to other forms of new media such as young people and new media, and gender and gaming. While other media have a strong focus on the western world, Internet studies tend to be more global. Scholars have examined the relationship between gender and technology, gendered consumption and technological production, activism and technology (particularly feminist-oriented), Internet pornography, technology and gendered identity construction, etc. Much communication technology research recognizes that gender affects how everyday life is organized, and that the home has different meanings for men and women. Taking this into account, some studies have looked at how women use new information technologies at home and found that they consume technologies reluctantly, but feel they need to because of family responsibilities (Sing 2001).
Scholars have identified three distinct narratives surrounding women in technology, all related to views or assumptions about the Internet: (1) that it is a tool for feminists’ search for social activism, organization, and networking, (2) that it is a misogynist sphere promoting sexual harassment, and (3) that it is a tool for women to combat globalization. Lee (2006) argues that new technologies can be problematic because they create and reinforce power imbalances in women’s communication networks, where technological knowledge is unequally distributed. In addition, women use new technologies differently in different parts of the world, and current technological discourses are seen to have a capitalistic, colonial, and western bias (Kurian & Debashish 2003). In addition, some feminists, particularly those situated in the global south, point out that a discourse exists saying that if women do not use technologies to increase and improve women’s organization, they are not seen as putting the technology to good use. When examining policy in developing countries, Steeves (1996) outlines areas organizations should consider, such as women’s employment, access to information, and selection of appropriate technologies (see also McLaughlin, in press).
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