The study of representations of gender in the media understands gender to be socially constructed – an ongoing process of learned sets of behaviors, expectations, perceptions, and subjectivities that define what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a man. The main assumption of these studies is that a cultural ordering that presents gender differences as biologically determined and “natural” conceals the working of patriarchal ideology. “One is not born a woman, but becomes one” is Simone de Beauvoir’s formative statement that captured the essence of this process (1989, 1st pub. 1949). Accordingly, gender is not viewed as something originally existent in human beings, but rather it is a representation produced by how we relate to our bodies through behaviors and social relations in the practices of daily life. As such, gender is distinct from the biological, sexual differences characterizing humans from birth. It is understood to be a product of “social technologies” (de Lauretis 1987), including media texts, the arts, and institutionalized discourses. For example, while it is a biological fact that women can give birth, it is a social construction that women in most societies are expected to be better suited to be the dominant caregivers of children.
Media And Gender
The media are central mechanisms in this process of construction since representations of femininity and masculinity are produced, reproduced, and circulated by them as part of a shared culture. Media are deemed an influential socializing force through which people learn to define themselves and others by their gender and through which they develop their own subjectivities. As a result, the media have become a central focus of analysis and critique by feminist scholars.
The theoretical point of departure is the premise that media representations are grounded in contemporary ideological assumptions and discourses about worldviews and belief systems, in general, and gender in particular. Thus, gender representations are understood to be signifiers of dominant modes of ideology in which they are rooted, as well as at the same time the practices of these ideologies. They have been blamed for reaffirming and supporting gender hierarchies existing worldwide, maintaining the social status quo and the general subordination of women by reproducing social perceptions that legitimize dominant ideologies (such as patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism).
However, given that representations are discursive constructions, they are also assumed to be able to take different forms and meanings in different places and times, under varied political, cultural, social, and economical contexts, and within diverse ideologies. As a result, gender representations are understood to be dynamic – always being fluid, changeable, and contesting social practices and perceptions. Analysis of representations thus becomes a central way of understanding gender and part of the feminist project of problematizing and critiquing our ways of knowing.
Representations And Reality
The complex relationships between gender representations and reality have been the focus of much academic contemplation and debate, particularly in the cultural studies tradition in general, and more specifically that which developed in the UK from the 1950s onwards, including attention to the formation of social and cultural feminist thought, drawing insights from structuralism and poststructuralism. These approaches take the view that representations do not have an original, authentic “reality” that can be represented or misrepresented accurately, but rather that gender is a form of “performance” of expected social scripts (Butler 1990).
Since gender itself is understood to be a construction, rather than a material reality, gender representations in the media are understood themselves to be representations of representations, standing for the meaning of the original subject, rather than the material subject itself (Rakow & Wackwitz 2004). In contrast to studies of sex-role stereotyping and images of women, it does not assume that there are right or wrong, good or bad ways of representing a woman or a man. Rather, this perspective moves the emphasis from concerns for individuals to the larger categories of femininity and masculinity and shifts the burden of responsibility from the critique of “accuracy” of representations to challenging the systems that construct and create them, their political economy, power hierarchies, ideological infrastructures, and goals.
A related argument builds upon Spivak’s development of Marxist theorization and claims that gender representations in the media have two complementary meanings (Ganguly 1992). One meaning refers to representations as “portraits,” or the “making present” of women and men and their gendered realities in the media. This meaning of representation calls attention to those ideologies, interests, life circumstances, and privileges (be they class, race, sexuality, or others) that influence the way gender is constructed. The second meaning relates to “proxy,” or “speaking out for” women and men. In this regard there is a need to ask: who gets a voice in the media? Who speaks on behalf of whom? And, who gets to represent themselves?
The difference between these two meanings and their interdependency can be illustrated by a discussion of women and news. The first refers to women as subjects in the news – the ways in which they are being portrayed (e.g., as victims, as trophy wives, as celebrities). The second refers to women as producers of news (e.g., reporters, editors, spokespersons for organizations). These two meanings are clearly interrelated, combining issues of culture and politics and challenging dominating power systems that influence both how gender is “made present” and who is making it present, as well as who is “speaking for” themselves and others, and how they are “speaking for” them. Following Michel Foucault, the study of representations thus recognizes that power operates in cultures through its various discourses and is located in the analysis of the symbolic systems through which people communicate and organize their lives.
However, what unites many of the intellectual readings of representations is the premise that representations are related to subordination and oppression in the material world. More specifically, in regard to certain genres of representations, as in the case of pornography, the debate over the interrelationships between reality and representations becomes compounded, since in the process itself of producing pornography, women are abused, humiliated, harassed, and raped not only the symbolic but in the material world (Russo 1992).
Femininity Versus Masculinity
A central critique of gender representations is the well-entrenched, historical construction of femininity and masculinity as binary as well as hierarchical oppositions (Cirksena & Cuklanz 1992). While men have been mostly presented as the “normal,” representing the majority of society, women have been presented as the minority “other,” the “second sex” – the exception, the incomplete, the damaged, the marginal, and sometimes even the bizarre. Such a dichotomization can be tied to other forms of dualistic thought rooted in the Enlightenment worldview, including such divisions as those constructed between rational/emotional, spirit/body, culture/nature, public/private, subject/object, west/east, modern/traditional. Systematically, men and women have been constructed as inhibiting the opposing sides of the dualities, with the masculine associated with the highly valued rational-spirit-culture-public-subject-west-modern, and the feminine with the devalued body-nature-private-object-east-traditional.
Critical examinations of media representations throughout the second part of the twentieth century revealed the existence of these very same fundamental principles of patriarchal thinking around the world, including relegating the feminine to the private sphere, restricting presentation of women to the bodily functions of sex and reproduction, and locating women within the world of emotions where rational thought is lacking and behavior uncultivated. Personality traits of women are depicted as being fundamentally different in nature from those of men: on the whole, women have been represented as less logical, ambitious, active, independent, heroic, and dominant.
In contrast, they have been represented as more romantic, sensitive, dependent, emotional, and vulnerable. Such representations have been accused by critics of perpetuating another form of dichotomy – the one reserved in patriarchal culture for women: the “madonna” on one hand and the “whore” on the other. As “madonna,” women are cast in the role of mothers, the one who gives birth, nurtures, raises, sacrifices herself, and finally the one who mourns her loved ones. As “whore,” they are pressed into the mold of sexual object, the essence of whose existence is tantalizing and threatening to the male, and whose ultimate fate is to be punished as a victim of violence and exploitation. Such media representations, claim critics, legitimize the de-humanization of women and relate to them as objects lacking consciousness or individuality.
Hegemonic masculinity, too, has been constructed as a “natural” state of being, commonly conceived and framed within several normative expectations: physical domination and subordination of others (humans and nature alike); occupational achievements and a purposeful and rational attitude; familial patriarchy, the man being the protector and provider; daring and staying outside the domestic sphere; sexual lust with heterosexuality as the dominant model (Hanke 1998). Deviation from these norms is prohibited, both socially as well as psychologically, as any departure is seen to be threatening to hegemonic masculine identity.
As a result, media representations emphasize a masculinity associated with the public sphere and world of occupation, competition, achievements, and social status. In comparison with women, men have been largely portrayed as more rational, individual, independent, having difficulty with expressing emotion or displaying weakness. They are shown to be more culturally and technologically oriented than women, exercising self-restraint, and tending to dominate both women and nature. They demonstrate the bonding of “men in arms” through expressions of solidarity, loyalty, determination, and a sense of purpose. They are constructed in association with action, adventure, aggression, competition, and preoccupation with vehicles and weapons. Their subordination of women is presented as related to their sexual drive. In contrast to the emphasis on women’s appearance, men are defined by their action: women “appear” and men “do”.
One important mechanism through which these constructions of femininity and masculinity are maintained and perpetuated is the development of social “myths,” in the sense explained by Roland Barthes (1957). Accordingly, myths are understood to be ways of conceptualizing gender within particular historical and cultural contexts, in ways that make it seem natural, a taken-for-granted commonsense way of what it means to be a man or a woman. In this way, myths perform as mechanisms that disguise ideologies and the power systems behind them. The media produce and reproduce these myths in the gender representations they offer to their audiences.
One such prevalent myth is the most popular beauty myth (Wolf 1991). It constructs a certain kind of femininity and masculinity, and a relationship between them according to which women are defined by their beautiful appearance and men by their desire to conquer such women. This emphasis on a particular form of beauty (largely rooted in white femininity, and characterized by a limited range of physical attributes) has been accused of sending women on an endless quest for an appearance that is unattainable and guarantees a life of frustration, feelings of inadequacy, and a wasteful exploitation of emotional, intellectual, and material resources, as women’s happiness and self-fulfillment becomes dependent on her appearance.
The glorification of women’s external appearance as the most central characteristic of a woman’s essence is directly related to the media’s overemphasis on portrayal of women as sexual beings whose central function is relegated to being objects of male sexual desire and pursuit. Thus, such dominant media messages continue to promote restrictive ideologies of femininity, glorify heterosexual romance as a central goal for women, encourage male domination in relationships, and stress the importance of beautification through consumption, while dismissing the validity of women’s own sexual feelings and desires apart from masculine desire.
Difference And Diversity
However, developments in feminist theorizing recognize that gender is an unstable and highly contested social category, and that gender experiences and identities are heterogeneous, fluid, ambiguous, incoherent, and ever-changing. Gender is always situated in a particular cultural context and historicity, and conflated with other social categories such as race, class, ethnicity, religion, and sexuality. As a result, the process of gender representation is strongly linked to other socially constructed systems of difference and exclusion. The problematization and rejection of binaries, including Said’s (1978) critique of east/ west and traditional/modern divisions, brought to the forefront an interest in multiculturalism and diversity. The challenge to social systems that privilege men’s representations of women and men speaking for women has been expanded and reconceptualized to include critique of other forms of subordination. This includes the analysis of texts in which the colonizer represents and speaks for the colonized, and the resulting process of “internalized colonialism” through which the subordinate incorporate such constructions into their self-imagined subjectivity. This way, as Stuart Hall (2003) argues, dominant regimes of representations have the power to impose on audiences a perspective on themselves as “other,” much in the same way that women are taught to view themselves as “other” in relationship to men (Valdivia 1995).
Such contributions of postcolonial and postmodern theorizing to feminist studies of representation bring forward the need to confront the challenge of representing marginalized others, unraveling the relationship between diversity and inequalities, between representations and the power systems that make them possible. The discussion of a need to “decolonize” representations and for development of a transnational perspective (Hegde 1998) is also related to the question of representational “silences,” i.e., what and who is not represented, what and who is missing. Critical analyses of “white femininity” as reproduction of the supremacy of white culture for example, as is evident in a variety of cultural icons (e.g., from portrayals of the late British Princess Diana, the American soldier Jessica Lynch, or the many prime-time American serials and commercial heroines traveling globally), highlight the conflation of gender and race and the complexities of the power systems involved. Women around the world do not have the same options and choices, as their location in the power structures vary. As a result, the gaps between popular representations and the life of the majority of women around the world are often inconsolable.
The growing diversity of gender representations and the construction of multiple variations for what it means to be a woman and a man in popular culture have resulted in an array of gender options and contradictions (Meyers 1999). Attributes of such media representations that are often coined “postfeminist” include portrayals of females who are complex and distinct from one another on a variety of variables (including those mentioned above – such as race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, and religion – but also education, age, marital status, motherhood, personal abilities and disabilities, and the like). The breaking down of dualities include, for example, female characters who “want it all” rather than making a choice between family and career; who refuse to choose between feminism and femininity, i.e., leading an active and independent life but choosing to cater to traditional requirements of appearance, and the like. Representations of “power feminism,” moving away from women’s oppression to a celebration of women’s abilities and achievements, are becoming more commonplace in popular media. Deconstructing binary categories of gender and sexuality, in particular, and perceiving them to be flexible and indistinct, allows the growing experimentation with representations of gay, transgender, transsexual, and bisexual lives. Contemporary struggles faced by women are raised and examined, including explorations in issues of gender politics and feminism and its goals (Lotz 2001).
The emergence of innovative representations of women as well as men has also been explained by the influences of commercial forces. Such, for example, is the assertion that the growing emphasis on “career women” or “sensitive men” and the presentation of sexually active women and men as objects of desire reflect as much the pressures brought about by consumer culture as deep structural changes in ideological underpinnings. As a result, the new type of strong woman is deemed acceptable as long as she is not only strong, but also sexy, and the new type of sensitive man is becoming more acceptable as long as it is clear that he is not only sensitive but also successful.
Despite such developments, change is rather slow, and there is an overall agreement in the study of gender representation that this form of patriarchal ideology serves to naturalize and justify male domination as well as contribute to the internalization of this ideology through the acceptance of differences between men and women as real, essentialist, and natural. It is argued that as a whole, this representational system has been detrimental to both women and men, in varying degrees, since it teaches both to adopt particular perceptions, roles, and practices that reinforce their differing placements in the social hierarchies as they continue to perpetuate the supremacy of white men. Feminist analysis of gender representations thus points toward a need to engage in reflexive critique and deconstruction not only of representations but also of the institutions that produce them.
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