Sexualization is a concept used in communication research, primarily by feminist and gender studies researchers, to describe an increasingly close link between media images of men, women, and inanimate objects and human sexuality. Historical portrayals of sexuality tended to focus on psychological characteristics such as passivity and domesticity for women, and aggression and work for men. In recent years, representations of sexuality have centered on the eroticized body (Gill 2007). This is an important cultural shift, demonstrating an increase in the use of bodies and physicality to sell consumer products. The commoditization of sexuality increases as value and sexual appeal are linked. Additionally, developments in media production and technology, including satellite television and the Internet, have helped provide a cheap and easy forum for consumption, marketing, and distribution of sexualized images (Arthurs 2004).
It is no longer enough to be masculine or feminine to achieve one’s desires. Instead, media messages appear to suggest that one must be openly “sexual,” which in turn means having a young, beautiful body and a luxurious lifestyle. In tandem with this change, Gill (2007) has argued that there have been cultural shifts in the media around the world from portraying women as objects of (male) desire to women (described by the notion of objectification) who sexualize themselves to seek out their own (consumer oriented) desires. One of the most visible changes in recent years is the increase in the erotic codification of men’s bodies, emphasizing, as Laura Mulvey (1975) stated in relation to women, their “to-be-looked-at-ness.”
Feminist communication scholars have been at the forefront in conceptualizing and researching media sexualization. While some have applauded the shift from media images of women in traditional (passive) feminine roles, others question whether the increased sexualization of women’s (and men’s) bodies is “liberating.”
Studies focusing on media stereotypes or representations preceded contemporary research on media sexualization. Research examining stereotypical media images has paid close attention to the broad mental images that are presumed to result, and their supposed effects on human attitudes and behavior toward women. Studies of gender representation, on the other hand, are grounded in the assumption that the mass media contribute to systems of representation that structure ideological processes in society. Image and representation studies have been used mostly to explore two themes: sex roles and gender roles.
Some feminists’ concern with sexism led its proponents to seek to better understand “sex roles” – or the false belief that women and men are innately different, and that men are “naturally” dominant and aggressive, whereas women are “naturally” subordinate, passive, nurturing, and compassionate. The difference between sex and gender is that “sex” is based on assumptions about biological sex differences that are widely regarded as “natural,” whereas the notion of gender is based on the idea that sexuality (femininity and masculinity) is socially constructed and maintained through the presence of a structural ideology of hierarchical sexual difference. Sex-role studies have typically criticized media images of women (and men) and deemed many “negative.” As a result, there has long been a demand for more “positive” and “realistic” portrayals. Representation studies have attempted to identify underlying gender ideologies and to encourage wider social/structural change in order to challenge the hierarchical binaries of masculinity and femininity. While scholars have identified that women have tended to be portrayed in a narrow range of sex-role stereotypes, there was not always something innately sexual about these roles. Therefore, some scholars argue that it is not sensible to apply the same framework for describing media images in the 1970s to today’s media. This can be attributed to two main factors: first, the feminization of the media, and second, the growing sexualization of social life in many parts of the world.
Patricia Holland (1998) has argued that media sexualization does not mean the same thing, nor necessarily always lead to increasing media feminization. In some western countries, the feminization of news began as early as the 1880s with the introduction of soft news features. Feminization describes both an increase in the numbers of female journalists and producers, and an increase in human interest, entertainment, and photography. While not everyone agrees on why feminization occurred, there are two main schools of thought. The first includes changing definitions of what is “newsworthy”. The second has to do with the economics of newspapers, targeting female audiences as an important consumer group (van Zoonen 1998).
Michel Foucault (1981) suggested that it is untrue that sex only recently emerged into public discourse. The widely held idea that until recently it was difficult to discuss sexuality is not backed up by historical evidence. The Victorian era, perceived to be a time of sexual repression, was actually one in which sexuality was constituted as a central feature of western social identity, and produced a proliferation of discourses. There are numerous records of public discussions around sex and sexuality in the early 1900s, and from the 1940s onward, research from sexologists such as Kinsey (1948) and Hite (1976) became widely deliberated. With the rise of new social movements in the 1960s, such as those of women’s and gay rights, media discussions about sex increased in frequency and frankness. The media tapped into such social changes – during this time, for example, US magazines such as Playboy and Cosmopolitan first appeared. In other parts of the world, however, such as India, the media are often the only public spaces today where sex and sexuality are openly discussed (Ramasubramanian & Oliver 2003).
One of the most concrete examples of media sexualization is in the UK tabloid newspaper the Sun. In 1970, one year after Rupert Murdoch bought what was then a politically left of center broadsheet newspaper, editor Larry Lamb introduced the first topless model – the “page three girl.” The feature proved to be extremely popular with readers, and contributed to an impressive rise in circulation for the paper. This success prompted other newspapers to adopt similar formats not only in the UK, but also in the Sexualization in the Media
US, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere (although few went as far as the Sun, by featuring topless models). While the Sun’s editors said that the page three girl sent a message to women that they were free to be sexual subjects, scholars such as Holland (1998) have argued that the page was really designed for men and their sexual pleasure, not women’s. Others have argued that page three has a positive influence in encouraging women to be proud of their bodies. Researchers have also noted that some newspapers now feature images of semi-naked men, and that women have helped create and produce these sexualized images.
Research on media sexualization has taken many forms, focusing on different media institutions, forms, and practices around the world. Studies have examined, for example, sexualized representations of women in sport, television drama, the news, advertisements, cinema (including genres such as film noir and Bollywood), female rock stars, women in cartoons, minority women, men’s magazines, and so forth. In addition, the rise in sexualized images of men has prompted research that explores portrayals of men across a range of media genres. The sexualization of children (mainly young girls) is also a new and growing area of inquiry, particularly with regard to their use in advertising (Hartley 1998).
Magazines have always been a popular medium for sex- and gender-role inquiries, and therefore it is unsurprising to find media sexualization researchers have also examined these publications. British studies have documented an increasing media focus on sexual representation in the past 30 years that has contributed to greater complexity around the construction of sexual identities (McRobbie 1996). In recent years, men’s lifestyle magazines (such as Loaded and FHM) have appeared replete with images of scantily clad women. Some suggest that the sexual objectification of women in these publications (“lad” magazines) can be tied to a “backlash” against women’s social and political gains as well as to the supposed rise of the “new man” of the 1990s, who was supposed to be more caring, sensitive, and supportive (Benwell 2003).
In the 1980s and 1990s, the sexual performance from female characters became more explicit and central in Hollywood films such as Basic Instinct (1992), Body of Evidence (1993), and Sliver (1993). In India, Bollywood films featured highly eroticized images of women, as women’s bodies became increasingly associated with sexual fantasy, a standard feature of these films (Rai 2006). In the US, filmic images of African-American and Latina women have long stereotyped them as sexual, and whose purpose is to pique the male sexual appetite (Bobo 1988; Valdivia 2000).
Though most studies on media sexualization appear to have been conducted in western countries, there has also been research on this issue in the Middle East, India, China, and central and eastern Europe, to name only a few. Sexualization is culturally specific, and the boundaries are not all drawn the same. For example, a study of Jordanian cartoons found that women tend to be portrayed as submissive and sexualized, particularly “liberated women” – a negative feature equated with moral “looseness” (Al-Mahadin 2003). Ramasubramanian and Oliver’s (2003) study of contemporary Hindi films demonstrates that the sexualization of women in these films tends to portray sexual and social submission to men – to both heroes and villains who sexually harass or assault them. The frequency and social acceptability of sexual harassment and assault in many of these films, the authors argue, contributes to a normalization of such behavior both in the films and in society more generally as an inevitable part of romantic relationships.
Research on advertising has found that many of the sexualized images of men portray those whose looks are “Latin” (the “Latin lover”). Black men, when represented, are usually associated with sporting products, once again tied to the stereotype of their “natural” physical prowess and sexuality. Asian men are rarely portrayed in a sexual way in advertisements (a typical stereotype used is the martial artist; Wilson and Gutiérrez 2003). Recently, there has been an increased presence of gays and lesbians in advertising, although it has been noted that more of these images portray women in a highly sexualized manner (kissing or embracing other women) primarily for (straight) male consumers. Gay men, when represented, are rarely, if ever, touching or kissing (Fejes 2003).
Audience studies have focused on how people tend to negotiate women’s representation on television, concluding that it tends to be oversexualized, stereotyped, and predisposes minority women to ethnic subordination and disempowerment (Rojas 2004). There is very little audience research on media sexualization. What has been done is limited in its scope and claims because it is difficult to prove direct or even indirect correlation between consumption of sexualized imagery and people’s actions, behaviors, and thoughts about gender.
It is also useful to note that while not all studies use the label “sexualization” to refer to the phenomenon addressed here, many researchers nevertheless interrogate its concepts and theoretical implications in their work. Regardless of the term used, media sexualization studies have been conducted across a wide range of media forms and focus on an array of different groups portrayed, including women, children, men, ethnic and sexual minorities, and older people.
- Al-Mahadin, S. (2003). Gender representations and stereotypes in cartoons: A Jordanian case study. Feminist Media Studies, 3(2), 131–151.
- Arthurs, J. (2004). Television and sexuality: Regulation and the politics of taste. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
- Benwell, B. (ed.) (2003). Masculinity and men’s lifestyle magazines. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Bobo, J. (1988). The color purple: Black women as cultural readers. In D. Pribram (ed.), Female spectators: Looking at film and television. London: Verso, pp. 90–109.
- Fejes, F. (2003). Advertising and the political economy of lesbian/gay identity. In G. Dines & J. M.
- Humez (eds.), Gender, race and class in media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 212–229. Foucault, M. (1981). The history of sexuality. London: Penguin.
- Sibling Interaction
- Gill, R. (2007). Gender and the media. Cambridge: Polity.
- Hartley, J. (1998). Juvenation: News, girls and power. In C. Carter, G. Branston, & S. Allan (eds.), News, gender and power. New York: Routledge, pp. 38–70.
- Hite, S. (1976). The Hite report: A nationwide study on female sexuality. New York: Macmillan.
- Holland, P. (1998). The politics of the smile: “Soft news” and the sexualisation of the popular press. In: C. Carter, G. Branston, & S. Allan (eds.), News, gender and power. London: Routledge, pp. 17– 32.
- Kinsey, A. (1948). Sexual behavior in the human male. Philadelphia, PA: W. B. Saunders.
- McRobbie, A. (1996). New sexualities in girls’ and women’s magazines. In J. Curran, D. Morley, & V. Walkerdine (eds.), Cultural studies and communications. London: Arnold, pp. 172–194.
- Mulvey, L. (1975). Visual pleasure and narrative cinema. Screen, 16(3), 6–18.
- Rai, A. S. (2006). “Every citizen is a cop without the uniform:” The populist outsider in Bollywood’s new angry young man genre. Interventions, 8(2), 193–227.
- Ramasubramanian, S., & Oliver, M. B. (2003). Portrayals of sexual violence in popular Hindi films, 1997–99. Sex Roles, 10, 327–337.
- Rojas, V. (2004). The gendered Latina: Latinas speak about Hispanic television. Communication Review, 7, 125–153.
- Valdivia, A. (2000). A Latina in the land of Hollywood and other essays on media culture. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.
- van Zoonen, L. (1998). One of the girls? The changing gender of journalism. In C. Carter, G. Branston, & S. Allan (eds.), News, gender and power. London: Routledge, pp. 33–46.
- Wilson, II, C. C., & Gutiérrez, F. (2003). Advertising and people of color. In G. Dines & J. M. Humez (eds.), Gender, race and class in media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 283–292.