Media Images of Women

Women are one of the main objects and targets in media. There is a variety of media images and representations of women but many of them are based on and promote stereotypes, which reflect and reinforce sexism in society.

The media has several common themes on the representation of women. The so-called artificial look, defined by Jean Kilbourne (1943-), refers to an ideal of female beauty often promoted in media that is impossible to achieve for most women and sometimes even unhealthy. These artificially created images usually promote a body type that is characteristic of only about 5 percent of real-life women. However, many women are judged and judge themselves against this artificial and unrepresentative standard, trying to transform themselves instead of being who they naturally are. Statistics show that some 75 percent of normal-weight women see themselves as overweight and 50 percent of all women are on diets. The artificial look actually turns women into objects (dolls, puppets or masks) rather than human beings.

Another theme is the so-called dismemberment of women, which represents women as fragmented, ideal body parts (lips, legs, breasts, butts, torsos). Such images often do not include the woman's head, which shows that females are not valued for their intellect. Women are seen as objects rather than real people with feelings, dreams and desires of their own, according to Sut Jhally (1955-).

Women are also often presented as commodities for male pleasure and consumption. For example, in some advertisements females are associated with the product being advertised, thus promoting the idea that they are equivalent and interchangeable pleasure objects. Through this commodification women are denied their humanity and subjectivity.

Another theme, identified by Erving Goffman (1922-1982), is the so-called feminine touch. Women's hands in mass media images are often shown tracing the outlines of objects or caressing their surface which conveys the message that the product is precious and desirable. Self touching is a variation of the feminine touch pattern, the precious product being the woman's body itself.

According to Goffman, positioning women in relation to men so that this displays certain socially acceptable roles is also a common way to represent females in media. A person's position and behavior toward other people can be expressive and symbolic, revealing his or her social identity and relationship to others. Every culture develops symbolic codes, so-called codes of indicative behavior that express idealized social identities and relationships. For example, females are often shown as shorter than men although this is not always the case in real life. This is done because if the woman is taller than the man she is seen as the one having the power in the relationship, which is against the stereotype. This pattern of media representation of women is called the relative size.

Besides a person's position in relation to others, activities can also symbolize social rank - this theme is called function ranking. Very often men in media images are presented as carrying out the senior functions (executive or leadership role), while junior functions (supportive, assistant or decorative role) are left to women.

Indicative behavior shows subordination of females to males in a number of symbolic ways, according to Goffman. This is the so-called ritualization of subordination. One way to indicate the subordinate position of a woman is to place her physically lower than a man, for example on a floor or bed. In addition, in images showing a kiss or embrace, women are most often shown leaning back and submitting to men. In many music videos, for example, females are being chased by males and they actually want to be caught. In real life this may lead to expectations that women should always submit to men's sexual desires and that when women say no they actually mean yes.

Another role that is often assigned to women in media is a childlike role, such as sitting on a man's knee, being lifted up in the air or being protected by a man. This may be interpreted as a message to women asking them to stay passive, powerless and dependent, according to Kilbourne. In addition, women are often shown as withdrawn from active participation in the social scene and therefore dependent on others, for example looking dreamy and introverted, overcome with emotions or symbolically silenced with hand over the mouth. On the other hand, the stereotype for men is to represent them as active, engaged and in charge of the situation.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Media, Gender, and Identity: An Introduction
David Gauntlett.
Routledge, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "Representations of Gender in the Past"; Chap. 3 "Representations of Gender Today"
Imaging American Women: Idea and Ideals in Cultural History
Martha Banta.
Columbia University Press, 1987
Critical Readings: Media and Gender
Cynthia Carter; Linda Steiner.
Open University Press, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Includes essays on representations of women in a variety of media.
Dangerous Curves: Latina Bodies in the Media
Isabel Molina-Guzmán.
New York University Press, 2010
Pimps Up, Ho's Down: Hip Hop's Hold on Young Black Women
T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting.
New York University Press, 2007
Disfigured Images: The Historical Assault on Afro-American Women
Patricia Morton.
Praeger, 1991
From Bananas to Buttocks: The Latina Body in Popular Film and Culture
Myra Mendible.
University of Texas Press, 2007
Growing Up Girls: Popular Culture and the Construction of Identity
Sharon R. Mazzarella; Norma Odom Pecora.
Peter Lang, 1999
Spectacular Girls: Media Fascination and Celebrity Culture
Sarah Projansky.
New York University Press, 2014
Media and Society: Critical Perspectives
Graeme Burton.
Open University Press, 2005
Librarian’s tip: Especially Chap. 5 "Women's Magazines," Chap. 10 "Television Soaps," and Chap. 12 "Sport and Representation"
You've Come a Long Way, Baby: Women, Politics, and Popular Culture
Lilly J. Goren.
University Press of Kentucky, 2009
Women, Feminism and Media
Sue Thornham.
Edinburgh University Press, 2007
Delights, Desires, and Dilemmas: Essays on Women and the Media
Ann C. Hall.
Praeger, 1998
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