Since the 1970s, media representations of women and men have evolved. If several decades ago it was easy to point out blatant sexism in media texts, nowadays the sophistication of films, ads and TV shows makes such criticism much more difficult. Female characters are often strong, active and independent, and male characters have become more vulnerable and sensitive. Some scholars and activists are still concerned about the influence that media representations of gender can have on audiences. To learn more about these concerns you can watch such fascinating documentaries as Miss Representation, Killing Us Softly (plus its three sequels), or Dreamworlds (and its two sequels). Authors of these films offer evidence to support their opinion that women are still largely objectified and sexualized by the media, and their importance for society is trivialized as they are reduced to their appearance. Men, these authors argue, see “real masculinity” represented as dominant and aggressive, which leads to high levels of gendered violence (physical, verbal, sexual) and helps gender inequalities maintain their positions.
However, other scholars are more careful as they discuss (possible) connections between media representations of gender and social ills. They note that, although we might be tempted to criticize some media texts, we may never really know how media audiences interpret them. Each of us views films, ads and TV programs through the unique prism of our experiences and expectations. For somebody Lara Croft can be a symbol of sexism, for others – a symbol of liberation. Which one is she? Well, she is both.
The other day I watched an episode of How I Met Your Mother, in which the show’s narrator Ted asks his love interest of seasons three and four, Stella, to go out on a date with him. She refuses, explaining that as a single mother she cannot spend time romancing. As she is saying that, Stella looks like a well-groomed model – sexy dress, perfect hair and make-up. If she has time only for her daughter, how on Earth does she manage to always look so perfect, even by the end of a busy workday? One can find multiple problems with this representation. It can be seen as a manifestation of the overwhelming pressure to always mind their appearance that women experience; as an unattainable and unhealthy ideal of motherhood; as reflecting the conviction some people seem to have that women can now have it all – career, family and looks – without much effort and/or help from men. Of course, one can say that there is no evidence (and might never be) that this particular media representation has a negative impact on audiences. So is all this criticism useless? Not at all!
What is useless is trying to prove that a certain media portrayal is “certainly bad”. Neither that, nor the blissful relativism – if there is no good and bad than anything goes – is a way to go. Instead, we should use media texts as a springboard for starting discussions about all too real social inequalities.
When people began to study the media, the dominant opinion among scholars was that media texts shape our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. This thesis has never been proved. However, what we know for sure is that our attitudes, beliefs and behaviors shape media texts we produce. The media is but a part of the environment we live in. Blaming them for all our problems does not make much sense. The best thing we can do is to discuss media representations of gender as reflecting problems that we need to deal with in order to make our society truly free, just and equal. Oh, wait… Actually, no. The best thing we can do is to actually deal with these problems!
(previously published by http://www.cultnoise.com)