Sociology

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Outline and assess feminist views of media representations of gender [50]

Feminism is a theory that is united in opposing patriarchy, which means a system of male power and rule that implies the subordination of women; but the various strands within feminism offer different overviews on gender inequality in media representations. For example, liberal feminists tend to be more optimistic about the possibility of change in media representations of gender; whereas radical feminists see little change and would persist that stereotypes of women are ever-present; and Marxist feminists would always link media representations of gender with both capitalism and patriarchy. We shall also note that it is hard to fit individual feminist neatly into one spectrum.

Early research produced in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s found that portrayals of men and women were distinct and different, with women in a limited number of roles as housewives, mothers and sex objects and men taking the leading roles with a wider range of mostly strong, dominant characters. For example, the sitcom ‘Butterflies’ in the 1970s portrays a housewife character Ria, who is lack of confidence, feelings of failure, uselessness and sexual frustration. Another American TV series ‘Bonanza’, which also published in the 1970s, shows no female character in the whole programme. All these have indicated that the representations of women in the media is biased and limited; the media emphasizes women’s domestic, sexual, consumer and marital activities to the exclusion of all else, and once it portrays women outside this narrow stereotype, it is often in negative terms. For example, a study of gender representations in the American media from the 1950s to the 1970s found that women shown in paid employment on TV programmes often had unstable or unsatisfactory relationships with male partners. Tuchman (1978) coined the term ‘Symbolic Annihilation’, which refers to the absence, trivialization and condemnation of women’s representation in media, describing the ways in which the media promotes stereotypes and denies specific identities of women. Evidence of this might be ‘The Devil Wears Prada’, which portrays an icy female editor-in-chief who is successful in business but unhappy with private life. A summary by Tunstall (1983) states that just as men’s domestic and marital roles are ignored, the media also ignore that well over half of British adult women go out to paid employment, and that many of both their interests and problems are employment-related. From feminist perspectives, the gender representations outlined above are examples of patriarchal ideology, which means a set of beliefs that distorts reality and supports male dominance. In this case, women are portrayed either as domestic servants providing comfort and support for men, or as sex objects to service men’s sexual needs; and in both cases, women play subordinate and subservient roles.

However, recent studies acknowledge a shift from the 1990s onwards towards a more varied range of representations of males and females. It is suggested that traditionally limited roles for women in early films and TV programmes are less likely to be found in modern productions. For example, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘ is quite a different sort of model of young woman when compared to the roles played by women in the 1950s-1970s. Meanwhile, representations of man have softened too, with the “Superman of Smallville’ being quite different from earlier versions-- more sensitive and ‘feminine’. Evidence of changes in gender representations are also seen in magazines targeted at young women. A study from Ferguson (1983) found that young women’s magazines from 1949 to 1980 promoted a traditional idea of femininity, which assumed that girls should aspire to be beautiful in order to get a husband and once married, should become home-makers and carers. By contrast, the focus of magazines since the 1980s is on young women seeking to...
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