The ways in which “the audience” has been conceptualized have moved, historically, through an arc from passive to active to interactive, and the embodied audience has become fragmented as the media industry tries to deliver niche audiences to particular advertisers. One such segmented audience is that of the group “women,” even though an archetypal “woman” does not actually exist. However, many researchers have nonetheless focused on the ways in which women, as a specifically gendered audience, have reacted to and engaged with media such as TV and film, and how they consume genres which are supposed to be especially appealing to women, such as soaps, romantic fiction, and magazines. Work in this field has often been feminist in orientation and has mostly focused on women’s relationship with texts, although some work makes comparisons between women and men in terms of their enjoyment of particular media forms. However, the history of researchers’ engagement with the female audience is, in some ways, exemplified by the over determination of research studies on soaps and magazines.
Research on the gendered audience spans more than half a century, although even 50 years ago, there were contradictory views on what kind of women were consuming popular cultural products. For example, while some studies identified the “typical” consumer of radio soaps as working-class women with little education and limited possibilities for advancement, others in the same period suggested that women across all class positions enjoyed this genre. However, there was a little more agreement about some of the other (imagined) characteristics of the typical member of the female audience, including that she was usually married, between the ages of 18 and 35, and with some education. Herta Herzog’s analysis of soap consumers was more “positive” than other studies because she argued that audiences used soap opera to learn about aspirational middle-class values and behaviors (1944). Later studies did begin to conceptualize soap audiences as being more educated than previous studies had suggested but still characterized them (still predominantly women) as being socially lacking or isolated, watching soaps to escape the tedium of their dull lives.
By the 1980s, much mainstream work on soap audiences still maintained that there was a correlation between social interaction and sociability in the real world and the extent of soap watching. This reinforced the idea that soaps function as a surrogate friend for social inadequates. But what was often absent from these somewhat positivist and generally harsh analyses of the soap audience was any real sense of the discursive and pleasurable possibilities for social interaction based on a shared enthusiasm for particular shows. This analytical gap was puzzling since there was often an acknowledgment running through such studies that viewers did talk about shows with other people and that they derived pleasure from both individual consumption and the post-broadcast discussion with friends, family, and/or workmates. Arguably, it was the interest of (women) researchers who wanted to explore the genre of soap as a specifically gendered practice, aimed at women and enjoyed by women, that marked a shift in the way in which the audience for soaps began to be perceived during the late 1970s and early 1980s. It became possible and even desirable to think about “popular” texts as foci for serious scholarly analysis, and with that shift came an understanding of the significance of popular culture in the lives of ordinary people.
In particular, Dorothy Hobson’s (1982) ethnographic research on the British series Crossroads made a significant departure from the more usual research mode. Hobson went to women’s homes and recorded the conversations she had about their viewing experiences of and responses to the show. She specifically aligned herself with her participants as a sister fan and was thus able to provoke candid discussions as a consequence of a shared and knowing interest. What Hobson found were viewers who enjoyed the show but were often embarrassed to admit they watched, or defensive about their guilty pleasure, expressing an internalized disdain for the series which they had “learned” from cultural critics.
Focusing on the same genre but using a different approach, Ien Ang’s study (1985) of Dallas found, rather surprisingly, that most viewers who participated in her study believed the show to be “realistic” and congruent with their own lives and experiences. Ang’s answer to this apparent conundrum was to theorize a notion of “emotional realism,” so that the pleasures of affect for audiences were derived from a shared sense of personal tragedy, allowing them to empathize at an emotional level with the pain associated with familiar renditions of domestic dysfunction. Ang’s work also made very clear that women and men derived different pleasures from their watching and were interested in different aspects of the narrative. In contemporary studies of Latin American women, similar understandings of “reality” were also observed, especially the incorporation of existing class-, race-, and gender-based tensions (Mayer 2003; Tufte 2002).
Contemporary work on women and soaps has both continued the ethnographic turn and revived more structured research modes. As with earlier studies, current researchers have been keen to credit audiences with sophisticated deconstructive and interpretive skills, trying to understand their viewing behaviors and pleasures as forms of active engagement rather than passive dislocation, and assuming, for example, that soap fan networks have the potential (and reality) of providing sites of resistance for women to engage in critical discourses about sex-role stereotyping and expectations. In this way, the process of discussing plotlines and character development in their favorite soap can actually enable women to use those narrative themes as a springboard for much wider debates about their own lives and those of other women they know.
The potential of a safe rehearsal of one’s own life choices through the discussion of soap characters’ circumstances is an important function for audiences, where the shared experience of bad luck or poor outcome provides strong identifications between audience and character. It is the narrative produced by audiences which constitutes the primary site of resistance, not the primary text itself, which is more usually encoded in line with the dominant conventions of a patriarchal status quo. However, some scholars have argued that soap opera itself is a subversive genre, since its staple ingredients of broken marriages, casual sex, unintended pregnancies, domestic violence, and petty crime are directly antithetical to the socially acceptable norms of romantic love contained within the domesticated marriage arrangement and good citizenship (Lovell 1981). Soap opera’s interest in and portrayal of women’s lives provides useful gender role correctives to the more normative renditions of femininity and masculinity found in the archetypal Hollywood film.
Women Watching Film
While the principal focus for much academic study of women and film has been textual analysis, the highly gendered nature of which can be partially attributed to the ground-breaking work of Laura Mulvey (1975), part of the development of “seeing” film through a gendered frame has engaged some feminist media scholars in looking beyond the text and their own interpretation toward the views of the audiences. Helen Taylor’s (1989) work in the late 1980s sought precisely to rupture the firm hold that “the text” had on film researchers and to counter the dangers inherent in theories which irrevocably situate women and men in fixed subject positions based on so-called sex-based characteristics. She showed the multiplicity of readings that audiences could bring to a single cultural product, let alone a genre such as the “woman’s film,” and identified the importance of historical specificity in understanding changing responses to texts, since her respondents were women who had seen the original screening of Gone with the Wind in 1939. Such studies placed the female spectator at the center of the analysis in ways which gave her importance in her own right, as possessing agency, rather than being simply “positioned” by the text.
Key tropes in popular culture are those of crime and violence, commonly paired, and researchers have begun to differentiate women and men audiences for this genre, often with surprising results. For example, women can be as enthusiastic for blood and gore as men; although many films in this broad genre frame women as victims, the audience is often encouraged to identify with the woman looking for revenge; and women will sometimes invent reasons for liking certain kinds of films, in say kick-ass martial arts genres, by suggesting they watch because they appreciate the high level of fighting skills displayed by the protagonists. As the audience intellectualizes aspects of the content, the text is transformed into an object of aesthetic appreciation, giving the viewer a high-culture “defense” for her enjoyment. Such are the ways in which women’s position and required behavior in society are constrained by prescribed norms of femininity, it is little wonder that women have had to invent strategies which allow them to breathe.
The Gendered Audience For News
If soaps are regarded as the archetypal women’s genre, then news and current affairs are seen as of almost exclusive interest to men. It is often taken almost as read that women are not interested in news and that as a genre it is very much the domain of men. Consequently, although there have been any number of studies which have focused on how audiences understand news discourse, both print and broadcast, few of those studies disaggregate findings in terms of gender.
Women’s actual interest in politics is rarely reflected in their on-screen characterizations or as a thematic in either fiction or fact-based programs, which ignore the very real interest that “ordinary” women have in the political process and the policies that affect all our lives. Karen Ross (1995), who has conducted research on female audiences for news, explored the ways in which British women viewers engage with the images of themselves routinely portrayed in news media and the extent to which they negotiate or challenge traditional gender orthodoxies. Ross’s participants fully understood the existence of specific slants and foci in news reporting, commenting that programs are too politically biased, too male-oriented, and don’t talk to or about women in any depth. What that study showed very clearly was that, contrary to popular opinion, women do watch news and current affairs programs and when asked specifically about their consumption, the great majority of respondents reported that they always watched or listened to at least one news program every day and most read a newspaper regularly.
Women And Magazines
The ways in which advertising influences girls’ and women’s sense of self-worth through the representation of women and women’s bodies in magazines have received considerable and enduring scrutiny over the past few decades in a number of nations. The vast majority of this work suggests that magazines work to the detriment of their readers in terms of the perpetuation of heterosexist norms about appropriate forms of femininity, causing dissatisfaction among women (readers). This dissatisfaction can turn inward, producing an escalation in eating disorders, as well as outward, as women purchase increasing numbers of products selling the impossible dream which is obviously unrealized (unrealizable), thus perpetuating the tragic cycle of dissatisfaction/expectation/trial/ dissatisfaction.
While much audience research is situated within a white western paradigm, a number of important studies look beyond the Anglophone world. Some of these show that irrespective of the traditional norms of “sanctioned” femininity associated with a particular country, young women may still aspire to the version of white bodily perfection promoted by global (fashion) advertising: they still want to be Kate Moss. For example, although the young Japanese women in one study felt that it was important to have a career, they also wanted to be married (Luther & Nentl 2001). In another, focused on ethnic identification, black women identified closely with black models but white women did not display the same affinity with white models, possibly because black women were more likely to promote positive, community-based self-esteem than their white sisters (David et al. 2002). Another complicated finding is that women will often have contradictory responses to the advertising world’s insistence on what passes for beauty, simultaneously acknowledging the importance of the Eurocentric ideal and admiring specific national norms of beauty, particularly in developing countries.
The Interactive Woman
Most feminist media scholarship on women as audience has tended to focus on women’s appreciation and understanding of particular “female-oriented” texts, what they mean to women and their lives, and how women work with content both on their own and with others. However, these studies have generally assumed the audience is passive, in the sense of simply “watching” or “reading” material. More recently, though, the rapid developments in information and communication technologies mean that we have to rethink what it means to be an audience, including a gendered audience, and consider the (potential, at least) shifts in power between the audience and the artifact. At the time of writing, if women like watching Xena: Warrior Princess but want to see Xena and Gabrielle in a more explicit embrace, they can watch or even create alternative storylines on any number of Xena fan sites. If women want to read news which resonates with their own interests and lifestyle, they can access any number of online newspapers and magazines on both mainstream and women-focused websites (Harcourt 1999). If women want to watch a film but don’t want to go to the cinema on their own, they can rent a DVD and watch it at home, including star interviews and outtakes.
The more active, discerning audience has not escaped the notice of media owners and advertisers, who now recognize the active audience in new ways as they seek to keep their attention and loyalty. For example, the producers of reality TV shows such as Big Brother let audiences play an active part in how the show develops over a period of weeks by voting off contestants. The relative power of the audience would seem to have grown, and although these innovations impact on women as well as men, how women and men actually experience being interactive is often quite different. These differences (and similarities) offer new sites for interrogation for feminist cultural studies scholars keen to understand these new practices of audience-hood and to identify the extent to which traditional discriminations are being maintained or challenged in this brave new world. Feminist political economists are also interested in questions about whether these new interactive arrangements between women audience members really change either women’s relationship to the media industries or their social status. Meehan’s (2002) work, which considers gender in the commodity audience, offers a foundation. Among other things, she asks whether one can understand women’s true power as a commodity audience without also examining women’s economic status, their wages, and their ability to render meaningful institutional decisions made within media industries.
To be sure, for some time now, the emancipatory potential of new technology has been both celebrated and challenged by feminist and other scholars. In particular, there has been anxiety not to over-romanticize the Internet as always and everywhere a force for good. Early supporters of the web celebrated its facility to offer not only a quasicommunity in which to affirm membership but also a safe space in which to “try out” different versions of ourselves, but others have been much more cautious about the web’s allure. In particular, the overt and covert “rules” that limit and delimit user involvement continue to cause concern, as does the increasing availability of pornographic material and images.
Interestingly, the same gender skews which exist in relation to audience involvement and participation in older forms of media are also found in new technologies in terms of access and involvement. In other words, “old” forms of differential access, based on personal characteristics such as gender and age as well as geography (the North–South divide), are replicated in this new medium, as any number of studies on the “digital divide” have found. The male-dominated development of new technologies is thus conceptualized as being yet another way in which to entrench gender divisions. Several studies in both the developing and the developed world show that women’s use of the Internet is often squeezed between discharging their domestic and family responsibilities. Most gender-focused work on information and communication technologies (ICTs) has tended to look at the ways in which women audiences and users are marginalized and even excluded from the marvels of the world wide web. However, a few more recent studies have explored the active relationship which women have as consumers and users of new technologies, both in general terms and in terms of being specifically targeted as niche audiences.
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