How has feminist media theory discussed media representations of women? Which of these theoretical observations do you find most convincing?

February 16, 2009


In this essay I intend to discuss the different strands of feminist media theory, with particular reference to the ways in which women are represented within the media, including things such as stereotypes. In order to do this I believe it will first be necessary to talk about early feminist theory as well as discussing some of the theory that surrounds representation in general. Following this I will continue to discuss the four main strands of feminist media theory more specifically, these being liberal, radical, socialist, and post modern feminist media theory, I will illustrate these by providing examples of how each has been applied to the media. In doing this I hope to show that all four aspects of feminist media theory have both advantages and disadvantages, the most significant of which is the dates in which they are mainly used and discussed which lessens the extent to which they are relevant, however, I think that each strand of feminist media theory has significant points to make, points that can be translated and applied to our current time, rendering them each useful when placed within certain contexts, meaning that no one set of ideas is any more convincing than another. A expect to conclude that no media text should be considered regarding solely feminist media theory due to the fact that it disregards so many important factors of a text, such as production as well as ownership and control.

 

An understanding of the theory of representation is important if we are to apply this to a specific example, such as women, and the different branches of feminist media theory. Stuart Hall describes representation as an ‘essential part of the process by which meaning is produced and exchanged between members of a culture’ (Hall, 1997a: p15). Hall explains that there are two major ways in which representation works, the first is to depict or describe something, to be able to picture it in ones mind, as a consequence of a description or portrayal, because something bears a likeness to the thing being represented. The second form of representation, according to Hall is that of symbolism, when one thing stands for, or is a symbol for something else, the thing being represented (Hall, 1997a: p16) there is a lack of logical connection between the two things, or to use Ferdinand Saussure’s terminology ‘the signifier’ and ‘the signified’ (in Easthope and McGowan (eds) 1992: p6). Hall also suggests that representation is the thing that connects meaning to language, both verbal and written as well as less obvious forms of language such as images, However, as Hall states, there must be a group of people to whom the language, the signifiers have meaning for them to be used and for representation to be achievable. The most obvious example of this is different languages that are used in different countries, a person must have knowledge of the German language to recognise that ‘lesen’ means ‘to read’ or ‘schreiben’ means ‘to write’.

 

Early feminist media theory began to emerge in the mid 1960s-70s and included the work of people such as Betty Frieden and Germaine Greer, producing work such as ‘The Feminine Mystique’ (1963) and ‘The Female Eunuch’ (1971) wherein they raised many important and relevant issues. For example, in ‘The Female Eunuch, Greer discusses romance novels, and the ways ion which they promote unrealistic ideals and beliefs centered on heterosexual romance. She mentions magazines or ‘trash weeklies’ as she calls them, including ‘Mirabelle, ‘Valentine’, and ‘Jackie’ (Greer, 1971: p173), the latter of which we see used by McRobbie in her socialist feminist media research. In ‘The Feminine Mystique’ Frieden raises the issue of magazines and how they endorse myths of fulfilment through domesticity in a chapter called ‘The Happy Housewife Heroine’ where she states that ‘the image of… the suburban housewife with an up and coming husband and a station wagon full of children...this image- created by women's magazines, by advertisements, television, movies…shapes women's lives today and mirrors their dreams’ (1963: p30).

 

Because liberal feminist media theory uses the term stereotype to a significant extent, Tuchman in particular, and her discussion of symbolic denigration, therefore I think it is also important to understand what is meant by the term as a form of representation. Dyer describes stereotypes as a form of social construct, and states that they are mainly used as a way of referring to or talking about people that one does not understand or know (1993: p138). According to Weedon a stereotype is a the ‘construction fixed and often negative images of another social group, which is then applied without differentiation to all members of that group’ (2004: p167) by which she means that stereotypes are generalisations based on a small minority of people and subsequently applied to a larger group. Weedon continues to use an example, explaining that ‘the assumption…that all women are less rational or more emotional than men, [is] based on reductive, stereotypic thinking’ (2004: p167). Sometimes these generalisations have a basis in the history or past of the people concerned but they are also based on not much if anything at all. This is problematic for a number of reasons, such as the way in which they are typically negative, as Barker says  ‘a stereotype involves the reduction of a persons to a set of exaggerated, usually negative character traits’ (Barker, 20005: p307), Stuart Hall emphasises this point by stating that ‘stereotyping reduces, essentializes, naturalizes, and fixes difference’ (Hall, 1997b: p258)

 

Liberal feminist media theory has its basis in a number of things; it claims that the media fails to reflect change within society, including the role of women within it. Gaye Tuchman wrote about ‘The Symbolic Annihilation of Women by the Mass Media’ in 1978, wherein she states that where women are absent or under represented, shown as a minority within media texts, they are in fact being symbolically annihilated. She quotes Gerbner to reiterate this point ‘absence is annihilation’ (Tuchman, 1978: p406). Tuchman continues, supporting the idea that the media do not reflect change in society, stating that ‘the mass media deal in symbols, and their symbolic representations may not be up to date…’ (1978: p407).

 

Tuchman continues to discuss the problems surrounding symbolic annihilation, by also talking about symbolic denigration, whereby, the small portion of women that are present within media texts are represented in a negative way, they are condemned and trivialised, and in short, they are misrepresented. This is problematic, and a huge social setback, because these sort of representations, or lack of, are in fact stereotypes, and will be applied relentlessly to all females, creating a widespread misunderstanding of the roles that women play within the home, within the workplace, and even within society as a whole. Tuchman backs up her claims by providing information, for example, she states that ‘two out of three television women are married…by way of contrast most television men are single and have always been single’ (1978: 408). Tuchman talks about the ways in which women are symbolically denigrated through the use of stereotypes and generalisations, when discussing television commercials, after a process of content analysis she claims that ’16.7% showed women as sex objects…(and)…42.6% showed women as household functionaries’ (1978: p409) ideas that she argues are outdated. She also claim that women are also often presented as conventionally pretty, and defined in relation to men.

 

Liberal feminist media theory has positive and negative aspects to it, advantages would include the way it records the use of stereotypes within media texts and the introduction of ideas such as symbolic annihilation. However, disadvantages could also include its lack of focus of media genre and the important role that plays in the production and use of stereotypes and representations, but also the way in which it assumes media effects rather than questioning the way an audience may consume a text, and denying their awareness of the way the media works. The year in which the piece is written must also be taken into consideration, as society and the media will be likely to have changed considerably over the last 28 years.

 

Radical feminist media theory focuses largely on the idea of patriarchy, an important notion, and discusses the social organisation in terms of gender. Another key concern of radical feminist media theory is pornography, one theorist in particular places a significant amount of importance on this issue, namely Andrea Dworkin, who wrote the book ‘Pornography: Men Possessing Women’ in 1981. Throughout this book she raises a number of concerns regarding why pornography is problematic for women. She states that pornography objectifies women for pleasure or gain on the part of the male, presents women as objects or things rather than human beings, or individual people, and subsequently encourages men to do the same. She states that ‘to the child, there is no clear line separating objects from living things; and whatever has life has life very much like our own. But adult men treat women, and often girls, and sometimes other males, as objects. Adult men are convinced and sincere in their perception of adult women in particular as objects’ (Dworkin cited in Craft, N, 1995).

 

Dworkin also talks about the way in which pornography eroticises men’s power over women, showing constraint and domination as positive things. She discusses whipping, talking about ‘a pornographic scenario in which she is the dummy forced by the pimp-ventriloquist to say the ubiquitous No-That-Means-Yes. It is not the usual sexual provocation created by pornographers using a woman's body, the subtext of which is: I refuse to be whipped so whip me harder, whip me more’ (Dworkin cited in Craft, N, 1995).This shows the subservient situation that women are being positioned in within pornography. Another way in which Dworkin illustrates men’s power over women within pornography is by quoting the women that feature in it, she states ‘as Linda Marchiano said of Deep Throat, "every time someone watches that film, they are watching me being raped"’ (Dworkin cited in Craft, N, 1995).

 

 Another suggestion that Dworkin makes is that watching pornography means that men consequently expect sex to work in the same way, pornography constructs the way in men think about sex and sexuality. Again Dworkin uses the actual experiences of women to demonstrate this idea, she talks about one woman in particular saying that ‘She was raped by two men. They were acting out the pornographic video game "Custer's Revenge." She was American Indian; they were white. "They held me down and as one was running the tip of his knife across my face and throat he said, 'Do you want to play Custer's Last Stand? It's great… You like a little pain, don't you, squaw …there is a lot of cock in Custer's Last Stand. You should be grateful, squaw, that all-American boys like us want you. Maybe we will tie you to a tree and start a fire around you”’ (Dworkin cited in Craft, N, 1995). The way the two men in question are actually mimicking a specific pornographic text clearly illustrates Dworkin point, and the obvious presence of violence within the acts that take place goes on to demonstrate another idea that she has about pornography, the thing she sees as the most problematic, that pornography structures within men a hatred of women, encouraging them to dislike them as human beings, promoting misogyny. She states that ‘pornography is the orchestrated destruction of women's bodies and souls; rape, battery, incest, and prostitution animate it; dehumanisation and sadism characterize it; it is war on women, serial assaults on dignity, identity, and human worth; it is tyranny’ (Dworkin cited in Craft, N, 1995).

 

There are both advantages and disadvantages to radical feminist media theory, and Dworkin’s approach to this more specifically, one positive aspect of this is the introduction if the idea of patriarchy, but also the original and controversial subjects matter, notably – pornography, as this is something that has not been looked at in great detail. However there are of course also a number of disadvantages to this approach, rather significantly, at no point does Dworkin make any efforts to define pornography, which in turn makes her work quite ambiguous. It has also been said that Dworkin assumes that the media have an effect, however it could be argued that her use of real life accounts is her way of providing evidence for this claim.

 

Socialist Feminist theory is largely based on capitalist values and ideas, largely contesting Marxist theories and communist ideals. While Marxist media theory focuses on the relationship between the elite and the media (Instrumentalism) and also the economic determinants on media production and output (Political Economy) socialist feminist media theory focuses on things such as the nurturing role that women must play within the capitalist society. This role is essential because a capitalist society needs healthy able workers, men, in order to function. The media plays an important role in enforcing these ideas, and socialist feminist media theorists believe that it positions women in this nurturing role, and also positions them to willingly do unpaid labour, in their role as ‘housewife’ or ‘mother’.

 

A study was done by Angela McRobbie in 1980, wherein she used content analysis to look at a magazine called ‘Jackie’, a girls magazine aimed at eight to fourteen year olds. After conducting her research one on McRobbie’s main criticisms of the magazine was its focus on romance and unrealistic situations within that, she says that ‘they make life revolve around romance and therefore be defined either in terms of joyful moments or else painful interludes, my complaint was grounded in the search for a realistic account of girls lives’ (1984: p159). Among the things McRobbie talk about, and where a large number of her problems with ‘Jackie’ stem from are the picture stories and the ways in which they depict girls and their lives. She says that they limit the things a girl should aspire to, most of the time the stories involve a girl fighting for a boy in some way, and they suggest that other girls are untrustworthy. McRobbie elaborates, saying that the magazine’s contents ‘girl on cover, two picture stories, problem page, fashion/beauty feature and pop pin up’ (McRobbie, 1981: p113) limits a girl’s world and her concerns, going on to say that the magazine ‘encourages girls to value themselves only in so far vas they are valued by boys’ (McRobbie, 1981: p116). However McRobbie goes on to say that the world that ‘Jackie’ seems to promote may not be reflected in real life, she states that ‘although girls can live the ‘Jackie’ dream, this does not necessarily mean that they apply its wisdoms to their everyday lives’ (1981; p116). She goes on to suggest that if there is a situation regarding the role of women in society it is due to a whole range of contributing factors ‘if girls end up in boring unsatisfying jobs and…return to the home, to housework and child-rearing which turns out to be even more unsatisfying… this is because a whole range of factors militate against them having any alternative’ (McRobbie, 1981; p116).


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Socialist feminist media theory has both negative and positive aspects, the way it provides a critique of social processes and roles, as well as socialization could be seen as advantages, as well as the way in which it considers audience awareness and does not like other theories go to the same extent in assuming that the media has an effect, and considers other factors in why society is the way it is. However is also has a number of disadvantages including the closed reading that it presents, magazines do not stay the same over years, ‘Jackie’ itself started in 1960 and McRobbie’s research was done twenty years after this, and that was twenty five years ago, so its relevance today is questionable in that respect. Also, despite some of McRobbie’s claims to the contrary, there is at least some assumption that the media will have an ideological effect, because if there weren’t the research would not have been necessary.

 

Postmodern feminist media theory is grounded largely in a view of popular culture that reflects ideas of general postmodern theory, since it regards postmodernism as a cultural shift rather than a change in society itself. Postmodern feminist media theory focuses chiefly on the way that audiences read texts, whether they are affected by the media and the degree of control that the audience have over this. Another main concern is the fluidity of meaning, the way in which it is continuously changing, and the audiences role in why meaning changes and how, as Collins says when discussing postmodernism ‘technological developments of the recent past have made “meaning” an antiquated concept, because all signs have been…exhausted’ (Cited in Allen et al (eds), 1992: 332).

 

A key study that has derived form postmodern feminist media theory is that of Madonna, by both Fiske and Kaplan, who discuss many things about her music, her constant reconstruction of her image, and also the reading of Madonna herself as a media text. Its is Kaplan who focuses mainly on Madonna reinvention of her image, but Fiske however talks about how this presents the audience with gaps within the text (Madonna), in the form of her ever changing image and musical style, allowing them to avoid or even escape ideological control. Fiske talk about the assumption that ‘all Madonna fans are ‘cultural dopes’, able to be manipulated at will and beyond their own interests by the moguls of the culture industry. Such a manipulation would not only be economic but also ideological, because the economic system requires patriarchal capitalism to underpin and naturalize it. Economics and ideology can never be separated’ (Fiske, 1991: 97).


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As with the other strands, postmodern feminist media theory also has advantageous and disadvantageous points. The main advantage being the way in which it considers a view of an active audience, and acquires this from an understanding of the text. However, it places too much importance of signification and meanings, as well as audience interpretation, ignoring important factors such as the ways media texts are produced. Also, postmodern feminist media theory does not question whether or not the audience do react in the ways discussed, a reaction or effect is assumed, if this is not the case, ‘if studying Madonna can only tell us about Madonna…why should we bother?’ (Boyle cited in Curran and Gurevitch (Eds) 2005: p37)

 

I believe that although all four stands of feminist media theory have both positive and negative aspects, and can, as we have seen, be applied to various different things, a large portion of the studies conducted is outdated, the most recent one discussed being from the early 1990’s. However, many of the ideas and issues raised are still relevant today and the theories used can be applied when discussing more recent media texts or feminist issues. I think that each strand addresses one thing in more depth than anything else, such as Radical feminist media theory’s allegiance to the notion of patriarchy, therefore I believe that when applying them to current issues one should consider all four. Even so, I do not believe that one should consider feminist media theory exclusively because it also disregards certain things, such as media ownership or production, and since this is a major factor in why texts are the way that they are, because of the desire to make profit from them, the fact that they are in fact commodities, I think it is both ignorant and naïve to simply look at feminist media theory, from any single perspective or even as a whole.

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