Learning Gender through the Media

Sophie Sharps

Both Rosalind Gill’s “News Gender and Journalism” and Jennifer Pozner’s chapter in “Reality Bites Back” really got me thinking about the messages we are sending to girls and women both within America, the perceptions of Americans from foreigners due to media depictions, and what the American values have become.

When introducing the depictions of women in the media, Gill explains two interesting phenomena; first, women are rendered practically invisible in the news and media and second, when they are portrayed, they are depicted incorrectly and one-sidedly. These problems are the two extremes. While ideally, the news and media should create an environment in which men and women share equal visibility and are evenly and holistically portrayed, it got me thinking whether it is more detrimental for women to be invisible in the media or inaccurately portrayed. On one hand, I think that it is incredibly important for young girls and women to grow up with female role models in all fields. However, I would rather these young girls and women to experience male journalism than to see women reporting solely because they are attractive and sexually appealing. This only serves to set back the work that we have done to push for highly qualified women to serve in the same field at an equal level as men.

Gill’s discussion of women holding senior positions of high public media made me think of the documentary “Miss Representation” and more specifically how the media portrays Hillary Clinton, which is still incredibly relevant today. The media constantly explains the double binds Hillary Clinton often finds herself in, or at least the double binds that the public ascribes to her. Gill explains her construction by the media as a “gender outlaw” which is so apparent through the depiction of her pantsuits. For me, the most sickening part of Gill’s chapter was the fact that after the Monica Lewinsky scandal, media depictions of her switched from “over-ambitious and power-hungry” to “constantly receiving sympathetic media reporting” (120). Gill quotes another author who concludes from this shift, “we are to fear women with power, yet admire women with the status of victim” (120). Wow. This is incredibly dangerous and telling of our cultural values, because our society has grown to see and desire women to be the victims. We are only comfortable with women when we can place sympathy on them, and it is somehow comforting to most people that Hillary Clinton does not have everything. While this may reflect more of a connection to ordinary lives and conflicts, I think it goes beyond this connection and to the point of jealousy.

Picking up where Gill left off, Pozner uses her analysis of reality television shows to explain the jealousy that women so often display on television, which transfers to the jealousy that women are socialized to believe is how they should feel in various situations. Pozner’s first trope, “women are catty, bitchy, manipulative, not to be trusted” gets at the heart of women as jealous, insecure, and in constant competition with one another. Women are taught both in these television shows and through watching them as entertainment that it is acceptable to be a “backstabber” and it is better to create enemies than to create friends. As Pozner mentions, this has huge and dangerous implications for the women’s movement and female organization for better treatment and conditions in the future. Women are taught to tear one another apart rather than work together. What kind of world are we creating where women are not allowed to have friends and should immediately assume everyone is out to get them? Yet, at the same time, it makes sense that this is the case because men benefit from women who compete rather than collaborate. As the media are predominantly owned by upper/middle-class white heterosexual men, the shows they have created successfully subordinate women and set the oppressive standards with which women themselves comply.

Tyra Banks from America’s Next Top Model is a great example of a woman who has based her show off of the strict hegemonic forms of racism, sexism and masculinity. Pozner gives the example of Tyra Banks telling black girls that their speech patterns make them sound “ghetto” or “inferior to other girls” (112). Tyra Banks, an African American woman herself, is normalizing “whiteness” and reproducing racism on her show. Deciding that this woman’s “voice could not sell makeup,” Tyra Banks conforms to hegemonic masculinity and the racist and sexist rhetoric of her business. What amazes me is if Tyra Banks chose that girl to sell makeup, she would have done so successfully because she had the approval of Tyra Banks. Pozner also uses the example of Tyra Banks sending one woman home because intelligence “can intimidate people” (115). She sent someone home for being too smart. Banks does not recognize the immense power she has and the role she could play in changing these social structures and gendered norms. Powerful women like her are instrumental in creating change, and the next step is to make it worth their while. But how?

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5 thoughts on “Learning Gender through the Media

  1. I agree with Sophie’s point that it is women like Tyra Banks that really have the power and the means to make a change, but too often they fall into the norms that media has set for women. It was disheartening to read this article on women in the media. Regardless of the shows that we watch, we all know the way that women are portrayed on these shows, but we don’t often think about the fact that the contestants are manipulated into being the people that the producers want them to be. Women like Tyra Banks, women with the power to change this, should be fighting for women because they too are a part of a world where they are forced to use their looks to get what they want and ignore the fact that they are strong intelligent women.

  2. The idea that we are only comfortable with women when we place sympathy on them, definitely rings true. Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani girl whose life was nearly taken away by the Taliban as she attempted to receive an education. After Malala nearly lost her life to these twisted men, she become a symbol for hope and a hero. As she continues her advocacy for freedom the entire world celebrates what she stands for. She is the perfect female hero in our society because she is not only someone we can admire but also a victim. That along with the fact that she is only 16 years old makes her a more easily accepted female hero for us. When compared to Hillary Clinton who is much older and more powerful we will always choose the girl we can sympathize with and who hasn’t had to do anything controversial as a politician does.

  3. Luis Ramos:

    This video came to mind as I read this week’s articles on women in the media.

    Most of the comments the viewers posted revolved around gender inequality and their rage against the way women are portrayed. I couldn’t agree more with them. WHY IS IT SO HARD FOR GENDER EQUALITY TO EXIST? I’ve had enough.

  4. Sophie, I’m glad you brought up the example from the reading of Tyra Banks and Americans Next Top Model. I have seen a lot of the show, because it would always run day long marathons and I would watch them when I stayed home sick from school. I specifically remember watching the episode in which Tyra sends a woman home because she was too intelligent, and supposedly would “intimidate people”. I remember watching it with my mother, who gave a fierce critique of Tyra’s actions and really put the whole thing in perspective for me. However, as Pozner mentions, young people are watching unprecedented amounts of TV and these messages are powerful and often internalized leading to harmful notions of hegemony. I think that if it wasn’t for the fact that I had my mothers steadfast opinion, I too may have fallen for the trap.

    Gracie Hall

  5. I would like to bring all this discussion back to how men, and specifically white men, have dominated our economic system. They have dominated this system for so long that it is tied to their masculinities so they have created a system that portrays all other peoples as sub-par. These images become popularized so they become images of truth to all non-white males. This is immense power that has been controlled by white men for the history of capitalism and before. They hold the power to control truth. Scary stuff. And we see in our articles how they have done that. I wonder if any women driven industry will be powerful enough to change something like that.

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