Our sex identity, whether we are male or female, is perhaps the most basic aspect of our whole identity. The first thing people want to know about a new-born baby is whether it’s a girl or a boy. Sex is so important partly because of what a society or culture adds to it - the idea that there are different roles for males and females. We are reared from a young age on the premise that men behave one way and women behave another, and that this behaviour is all part of our physical makeup over which we have little or no control. Much of our understanding of what it means to be male or female comes from the information we are fed from the media. We live in a media-saturated world and the common representations of gender, while improving enormously over the past few decades, are still prone to stale stereotypes and typical misconceptions (Eldridge et al 1997). In this discussion we will look at ways in which media representations of gender have changed in recent decades, and in particular will highlight whether these changes have led to improvements in the way in which women and men are portrayed by the media.
Before World War Two, it would have been unusual to see a man changing a nappy or feeding a baby because this was considered a woman’s job. This created a dilemma for men who wanted to have a genuine relationship with their children. It was also considered the man’s role to be the disciplinarian as women were viewed as the softer face of parenthood (Guardian 1996). There is no doubt that the media were responsible for many of the images people were exposed to at this time just as they influence people’s views today. However, there have been some radical changes in the way men and women are portrayed by the media, particularly in relation to the way women are viewed. If we look at the feminine aspect of gender stereotyping, the media view of femininity has changed drastically. If we think back to the way in which women were portrayed in the 1950s and 1960s, they were invariably presented as housewives, mothers, nurses, teachers, or in some other form of caring role (Trowler 1988). Today, the traditional view of a woman as a housewife or low-status worker has been exchanged for the successful woman in a position of power such as a business leader (Gauntlett 2002). Women now see their lives as more meaningful and they are anxious to have their say in the way the world is run. Women have become more optimistic, enthusiastic and confident, setting themselves high standards. They are ambitious and aim to be financially independent, no longer happy to rely on a man to support them and their children. Young girls today differ from their mothers in that they do not see their futures merely in terms of marriage and children. They can look to positive female role models in the world of entertainment, politics, business and fashions. By the 1990s, work and career had become more important than family commitments (Wilkinson 1994). Women were beginning to flex their muscles, egged on by the media which unveiled the idea of ‘girl power’. The media also reinvented the masculine ideals of toughness and self-reliance in the form of men who have emotions and who need to seek advice (Gauntlett 2002). It is true that gender categories have not been totally eliminated, and the numerous alternative ideas and images have provided space for a much greater diversity of identities. (Gauntlett 2002).
In the mid-20th century, the pressure to conform to what was expected of boys and girls came not only from parents and peers, but perhaps even more strongly from the media. The risk of being labelled as effeminate by other boys or ‘butch’ by other girls was a very powerful factor. In today’s world, such media stereotyping is not as strong and girls and boys have more freedom to be who they want to be. However, from early childhood we still continuously take in messages and images from the media about what men and women are like and how they should behave (Morley 1986). It was because of the content of such media that many young girls who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s believed that women should stay at home to take care of their families. It was regarded as a man’s job to go out to work to provide for his family. Women back then were discouraged from getting involved in politics and their world consisted of the family and the home (Eldridge et al 1997). Thankfully, things have changed for the better, albeit very slowly, and we have access to alternative ideas from our own lives, and even from the media themselves., but the overall effect is a slow shaping of what we think of as natural and normal.
The media has been forced to change to keep up with changing styles and lifestyles. It was acceptable half a century ago to promote the theory that men and women, though speaking the same language, have distinctly different communication styles.
Unquestionably, men and women do have their differences and a woman is not simply a revised model of a man. Biologically, men and women have physical, emotional and mental differences, but these differences do not make women the weaker sex or men the stronger. They are both subjected to the various complexities of individual upbringing and life experiences and they are strongly influenced by culture, environment, and society’s view of what is manly or womanly. Because of these influences, it may be possible to isolate certain patterns in the way males and females communicate. But the elusive “typical man” or “typical woman” may exist only in the pages of psychology books and popular magazines (Trowler 1988). Not all women are emotional, just as not all men are unemotional. Each person should be taken as an individual, and the media has started to reflect these views in all areas.
If women and men are to be respected more equally than at present, and if representations of gender are to reflect reality, when and where must the change begin? To answer this we must look at when and where such biases and prejudices usually form. It is usually at home and at school, during the formative years that we develop our attitudes and to a large extent this is done under parental influence. So who, logically, can have a powerful effect on the future attitudes of young men and women? Obviously, the father and the mother are the key people in young people’s lives. When we look at the attitude of many parents, one of the keys is proper education that can penetrate homes and influence parents. Just as feminine roles have changed, masculine ones have too, and parents are equally influenced by these roles by what is presented to them via the media (Eldridge et al 1997). They take in the information fed to them by the mass media and pass this on to their offspring as the ‘normal’ way to behave.
For decades in the 20th century, women were conditioned by the media to think that they were lesser creatures than men. Sometimes even their parents made them think in this way because it was the accepted belief at the time. Female self-esteem was often based mainly on bodily proportions and endowments or the lack thereof. Men were not judged in the same way. However, although boys are still brought up to conform to masculine roles, the media has ensured that these roles are a little more flexible than they used to be. Not all men can be or want to be macho he-men. Men must also come to terms with the way feminism has changed. There are more fashion products and cosmetics for men, something that would have been unheard of a few decades ago. The media has changed its attitude towards men who take time and care over their appearance. They are no longer viewed as effeminate, and in fact personal hygiene is positively encouraged. After all, it is a multi-million pound industry (Courtney at al 1983).
The media, while acknowledging it has improved for the better, still continues to perpetuate traditional gender stereotypes because it reflects dominant social values (www.aber.ac.uk). It is by reflecting such stereotypes that these images are reinforced and this therefore presents them to the audience as 'natural' (www.aber.ac.uk). The media is still largely dominated by men, and men therefore dominate TV production. It is therefore understandable to see how and why the media is still influenced by such dated gender stereotypes, and why TV is presented from a 'masculine' perspective (www.aber.ac.uk). It is still true that women in media roles are still judged by their gender rather than by their experience, ability, and intelligence. Many women are extremely frustrated by such blatant sexism and do not wish to be put me down on the basis of their sex any longer. Although the media has tried to rid itself of its old, typically offensive gender stereotypes, old habits certainly die hard.
To be fair to the media in the UK, much has been accomplished in the realms of masculinity and femininity. Feminism has drawn attention to the amount of violence and abuse by men against women and children. Boys still tend to be brought up to conform to masculine roles, but these roles are a little more flexible than they used to be. For example, there are more fashion products and cosmetics for men; it is no longer thought effeminate for men to be interested in their appearance and attractiveness (Trowler 1988). Men can now show emotions more than before. One new role that has been much discussed in the media is ‘New Man’. New Man has listened to feminists and is anti-sexist and non-aggressive. He is willing to do his fair share of the housework and childcare as well as working full time. He is more faithful and considerate to his partner than men in the past used to be.
On the other hand, in complete contrast to New Man is ‘New Lad’. He is catered for by magazines such as Loaded. New Lads leer at women, make sexist remarks about them, drink too much and are very much like men supposedly used to be (Courtney et al 1983). It is a form of rebellion against feminism. Many men feel the media has gone too far the other way, making it difficult for them to be accepted in society. They blame feminism and media hype for the fact that boys do not do as well as girls at school. They feel that they are expected to fight and be ready to die in wars or to save others, but their lives are values less than women’s. While it has become easier for women to do jobs traditionally done by men, it is still hard for men to do work seen as women’s work.
In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a great deal of media hype about the education girls received. At that time there was systematic discrimination to ensure as many boys as girls went to grammar schools (Eldridge 1997). However, the tables were turned and there was much publicity given to the fact that girls were deserving of an equal chance in the area of education. However, in the past few years the concern has been with boys underachieving rather than with girls. Although boys today are doing better than a few years ago, their performance has not risen as quickly as that of girls. Many blame the culture of ‘male bashing’ which permeated the media in the late 1980s and 1990s (Trowler 1988). There has therefore been a complete turnaround in thinking about gender in schools, from concern about discriminations against girls to concern about boys underachieving.
Media values and attitudes do seem to have changed fundamentally. Sexual equality seems to be taken for granted among young people. But it is by no means certain that the confidence and even the success in school exams of girls today will lead to high paid, high powered jobs in years to come. There are still many barriers in the way. Confidence may not survive setbacks as girls inevitably encounter sexism and pressures to conform to traditional gender roles. Young girls face problems that undermine their new confidence. The media continue to push the idea of thin as attractive, leading many girls to worry unnecessarily about their weight and appearance (Eldridge 1997). Girls often know they are being manipulated by media images, but this doesn’t make the pressure to be thin any easier to deal with.
So, it is evident that there have been improvements in the media in regards to gender representations. This has led to improvements in women’s situations in British Society, and big changes in the aspirations and confidence of young women. Men are also able to reveal their sensitive sides without fear of being ridiculed or called effeminate. This has led to predictions of fundamental changes towards sex equality, but it is too early to tell whether changes in values and attitudes will really lead to a different kind of society (Trowler 1988). The media have significant and long-term effects. Some feminists argued that, particularly in the past, from early childhood we continuously take in messages and images from the media about what boys and girls, men and women are like and how they should behave (Trowler 1988). Because of the content of the media, many people have grown up with preconceived ideas of what is suitable behaviour for men and women. Although we all have access to alternative ideas from our own lives, the overall effect is a slow shaping of what we think of as natural and normal.
The media has gradually changed in its attitude to gender, in particular through its gradual abandonment of sexist stereotypes. The mass media see themselves as objective, independent sources of balanced information, serving the public in a neutral way. The media has often been biased in what they choose to report and how they report it, and gender stereotypes were rife at one time throughout the whole of the media. However, the situation has improved in recent years and old-fashioned sexist stereotyping is no longer as common as it once was.
Courtney, A E & T W Whipple, 1983, Sex Stereotyping in Advertising, Lexington Books, Lexington, MA.
Eldridge, J, Kitzinger, J, Williams, K, 1997, The Mass Media and Power in Modern Britain, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Gauntlett, D, 2002, Media, Gender and Identity: An Introduction, Routledge, London.
Lennon, P, The men we used to be, The Guardian, 6 March 1996, London.
Morley, D, 1986, Family Television: Cultural Power and Domestic Leisure, Routledge, London.
Trowler, P, 1988, Investigating the Media, Collins, London.
Wilkinson, H, 1994, No Turning Back - Generations and the Genderquake, Demos, London.
http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Modules/TF33120/gendertv.html#E. Accessed 25th April 2005.
http://www.brunel.ac.uk/about/acad/sssl/ssslresearch/centres/cmcr/research/. Accessed 25th April 2005.
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