Gender and Media

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Any understanding of everyday life and experience at the beginning of the 21st century must have at its heart an understanding of the workings of the mass media. The media are crucial to the economic, political, social and cultural spheres, at the global, national and local levels, as well as to everyday life in the private sphere -- where they are a primary source of information and entertainment. They operate as virtual public spaces for debate and discussion and play significant roles in setting agendas for what and how issues will be discussed. The media do not simply disseminate particular messages to passive audiences. Instead, they provide the resources -- repertoires of ideas, ways of thinking, ideas, images, values -- through news and entertainment, which we use to understand the world and our relationships to others. Such understandings shape our everyday lives in many ways: they influence our social relationships as well as the identities we develop in terms of ethnicity, culture, class and gender. They also have a direct impact on decision-making processes and policy formation in the public and political spheres. For these reasons, such understandings can play a fundamental role in bringing about social change.

First, there are different aspects of women’s everyday experiences which are never portrayed or discussed in the media, such as those linked to significant changes taking place in the workplace, in gender relations and the family.

Second, the portrayal of women and of gender inequality is constructed by the media. It is the result of specific decisions and choices made by specific gendered entities and is shaped by broadcasting goals, professional practices, artistic and cultural conventions, political and ideological positions, economic and institutional limitations; as well as the historical, social and cultural context in which the media are embedded. Whereas this context may be a factor which currently limits the ways in which women and gender issues are represented, it can also be significantly changed by media production which provides the resources for women to understand themselves in empowering ways and for gender inequality to be challenged. These discourses also value women solely for physical abilities and attributes. They result in an overwhelming emphasis on motherhood, physical health and beauty. The portrayal of gender in media fiction is often discussed in terms of stereotypes. A stereotype is a generalisation made about a group of people which is supposed to be necessarily true for everyone in the group and which works to "erase" differences within the group. However, it is tricky to think about stereotypes in relation to media fiction, because television programmes and films are often complex and constituted through so many multiple and often contradictory different elements -- through the characters (the way they behave, look, dress, and through their body language), their multiple roles, the dialogue, choice of language, the story lines or narratives, the settings and much more.

A more productive way of thinking about media fiction in a gender sensitive way, is to think about the resources it produces on gender and the spaces it provides for gender issues to be considered, discussed, negotiated and contested from multiple points of view and positions. Media fiction in many places in the world provides a very limited range of resources (ideas, assumptions, values, images, ways of thinking) on gender. This means that: Female characters are defined in extremely limited ways, usually only as mothers or objects of male desire.

They are overwhelmingly portrayed with the same limited characteristics and interests. The story lines, or narratives involving women are limited and predictable -- for example, women get married and have children, they sacrifice their own needs and desires for those of others, they are punished for leaving their husbands or for exploring...
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