Images That Divide: Faith and Feminism in Television and Film

By Winters, Rachel; Stiehler, Erin et al. | Media Report to Women, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

Images That Divide: Faith and Feminism in Television and Film


Winters, Rachel, Stiehler, Erin, Peuchaud, Sheila, Media Report to Women


Often commodified as sex objects or trivialized as accessories to male-centered plots, mediated images rarely represent women as the protagonists of their own stories. Women of faith are largely ignored in the media or are portrayed as scary extremists standing in the way of a well-rounded society. Scholars have given significant attention to the media representations of Muslim women (Ali 2008), and Catholic nuns (Sabine 2013), but relatively less to the portrayal of faithful Protestant Christian women. This work builds on the contributions of Hill-Collins (1988) who showed that the archetypical representations of Black women serve to normalize and reinforce both patriarchy and white supremacy. Hooks (1992) observed that, to understand race in the United States, and its intersections with gender and class, it is necessary to develop a deeper understanding of whiteness as a construct.

White women who identify as Evangelical or Mainline Protestant represent the largest religious demographic in the United States. Approximately 48% of Americans who identify as white also identify as either Evangelical (29%) or Mainline Protestant (19%); within both religious groups, 55% are women. Across all religious groups, 59% of women say that religion is "very important" to them (compared to 47% of men) with an additional 23% saying it is "somewhat important" (26% for men). These figures suggest that understanding the mediated relationship of faith to feminism would provide valuable insight into the current state of American social affairs (Pew 2014).

The purpose of this paper is to describe the tropes that dominate media portrayals of White Protestant women found in television and film since the 1990s and to discern the ways that these tropes define and reinforce patriarchal structures in society.

Literature review

The interaction between religious faith and feminism has been treated in scholarly theological literature, but the media component remains underexplored. This literature review will begin by reviewing scholarly work on the theological relationship between faith and feminism, followed by applicable media studies theory.

Feminists often presume that Christian women submitted to patriarchal religious belief systems that embolden the will of their male counterparts over their own rights to sexual freedom or bodily autonomy, both cornerstones of the feminist movement (Stacey 1983). For their part, women who identify as Christian are much more hesitant to align themselves with the feminist movement than non-religious women. According to All's study, 14 women between the ages of 25 and 43, seven of whom identified as protestant Christian and seven who identified as Muslim, were evaluated based on their feminist ideas and practices. Of the seven Christian women more than half stated that their faith empowers them to care about feminist issues such as equal pay, access to education, and domestic violence. On the other hand, participants did not necessarily feel the need to associate themselves directly with the movement's core values because of its radical character they perceive through the media (Ali 2008).

Paludi and Rodriquez (2016) identified biblically-based gender roles, such as "man's helper" and "procreator" which have been translated into media tropes, contributing to the impression that Christian women may not be considered feminist. In a study conducted by Hoover (2011) it was found out of the 19 Protestant Evangelical men interviewed during the study all blamed the feminist ideals portrayed in modern media for redefining gender roles within our culture, ultimately stripping them of their "rightful" God-given role. These men believe that if gender roles were to once again reflect those within the Bible, men and women's positioning within society would be restored and happiness would ensue. Another common belief, exemplified by influential evangelical figure Mark Driscoll, is that women must sacrifice their rights to be "saved" through God's love (Worthen 2009). …

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