by Mary E. Trapp
Topic is not sex, but genden Sex is biologically determined on the basis of reproductive organs:
Male --"being of the sex that has organs to fertilize ova." (The American Heritage College Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. "Male.")
Female-- "being the sex that produces ova or bears young." (The American Heritage College Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. "Female.")
(Hermaphrodite -- "One having the reproductive organs and secondary sex characteristics of both sexes.") (The American Heritage College Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. "Hermaphrodite.")
Gender:"Sexual identity, esp. in relation to society or culture." (The American Heritage College Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. "Gender.")
We are born a certain sex. Our sexual identity, however, is a cultural construction, like any other aspect of identity.
-- not given at birth but acquired through symbolic interaction Owe learn from
interaction with significant others who we are. Boys who cry are sissies, told to "be a
man." Athletic, active girls are "tomboys." Children learn (are taught) to be masculine or
feminine. Real men don't wear pink. Identity is a social achievement.)
-- not fixed, but fluid (historically specific, negotiated, changeable).
Role of media?
A. Most generally, media are creators, circulators of signs. In American culture, media are a (perhaps the) primary source. of cultural information. The media provide many indications of appropriate masculine or feminine definition. One way to interpret media influence is to imply that the media take on the role of a "significant other" in teaching children how to be feminine or masculine (or homosexual). This metaphor has some problems, in that a TV set or a CD is a piece of technology which an individual must engage with purposefully, not an individual imparting rules and meting out punishment. Nevertheless, it captures the concern expressed when critics say too many parents use TV as a baby-sitter.
Basic criticism of media as primary source of cultural information: All American media content is infused by profit goal. Profit comes from advertising. Advertising subverts content to uniform goal of encouraging consumption. Alternative goals give way to convincing audience to consume, even if consumption goal is counter to best interests of audience. To be feminine is to use the right personal products, buy the right home care products (and not coincidentally care for the home and children), hike your skirt just right -- and smile just the right come-hither smile -- to the jerk dripping ketchup on your car door (if you want him to drop that burger and get in with you), and accept that diamond passively and gratefully from your solid provider on the 10th or 20th anniversary (DeBeers). Easily overlooked is that the message about men is as manipulative. Men have to master the lawn, be the solid provider who can buy a diamond, or be the jerk dripping ketchup. (Rise in 1980s of visual ads showing men as passive sexual objects to be gazed at and enjoyed coincided with new marketing campaigns to increase sales of men's grooming products, toiletries, and consumer magazines. Sean Nixon, "Exhibiting Masculinity," in Representation, ed. Stuart Hall, p.294.) We come to be defined by the media images because the media information causes us to develop a 'talse consciousness" -- in essence, we lose track of what is in our own best interests because the media messages confuse us, and ultimately fool us, about what our own best interests are.
This approach to analysis of media and gender identity is compatible with the semiotic theory of cultural texts and their influence on individuals in a culture. It is applicable to discussions of the construction of femininity, masculinity, and homosexuality -- an alternative gender identity that the dominant culture usually sees as subversive or threatening to the status quo. Media treatments of homosexuality are derisive (the flaming fag), cautionary or threatening (news coverage of Matthew Shepherd, or the Jenny Jones Show gay murder), only recently concerned with naturalizing the homosexual identity, in such shows as Ellen or Will and Grace. The presentation of gender in the media has, with occasional exceptions, privileged the conventionally feminine and conventionally masculine and demonized the gender outlaw, the female who adopts masculine codes, or the male who adopts feminine codes, with the most extreme case being the homosexual. The economic explanation must assume that capitalism benefits from maintenance of the conventional gender code. (Oversimplification.)
Such an approach points up the significance of stereotypes. "Stereotyping reduces people to a few, simple, essential characteristics, which are represented as fixed by Nature." Stuart Hall, "The Spectacle of the 'Other."' in Representation, ed. Stuart Hall, p. 257. Hall notes that stereotyping tends to occur where power inequalities exist "Power is usually directed against the subordinate or excluded group." Ibid., p.258. Power includes not only physical coercion or economic exploitation, but also symbolic power, the power to use representational practices to represent someone ifi a certain way. Ibid., p. 259. We can contest stereotypes -- which are attempts to fix meaning -- only because the nature of signification is such that "meaning can never by finally fixed." Ibid., p.270. (Every mass mediated interpretation of meaning involves: a collection of existing cultural texts, to which every new text will refer; a producer with access to cultural texts and also with an agenda to produce a preferred meaning; a receiver with access to cultural texts but with a unique experiential profile. Interpretation of meaning is always a site of struggle. It is never a given.)
"Breaking Stereotypes," a chapter from the book, When Women Call the Shots, explores the visual stereotypes of women in TV and film, and interactive video games, in America and other cultures.
B. Another approach to the question of the media role in creation of gender identity was suggested by last week's lecture and reading.
The basic argument
A. Identity is created through social interaction.
B. Social interaction takes the form of role-playing. Each individual plays multiple roles. Cflie logical extension of this statement is that each individual has multiple identities.) Each role comprises on-stage and backstage behaviors. Roles are appropriate to situations.
C. Situations are shaped -- to some degree -- by the technologies we have available for communicating with one another. The kinds of roles available, and the separation of on-stage and backstage behavior, will also necessarily be shaped by communication technologies.
Meyrowitz's argument analyzed impact of electronic media on identity. Meyrowitz asserted two key technological characteristics of TV:
1. Television, because of its formal characteristics as an electronic technology, transcends the physical boundaries of situations. Meyrowitz: TV breaks the age-old link between where we are and what we can see with our own eyes. It shows us situations and roles that were once out of reach of masses of people. We become the audience to performances we never could have seen absent television. This expansion of our knowledge of roles and situations expands our identity. The Mead-Goffman model of identity formation "suggests that to 'be' a certain type of person generally requires the appropriate social situations and audiences. Any factor that restructures social stages and reorganizes social audiences, therefore, would have a great impact on social behavior." (Hg Sense of Place, p.33) [Emphasis added.]
2. The intimate distance of TV gives us "side-stage" view of social performances. We see not only front-stage, but also backstage behavior. This gives us access to each other's social performances. We are no longer a naive audience. All authority is demystified.
This means, Meyrowitz argued, that TV expands our identities (the number of roles we have enough information about to play), demystifies roles previously out of reach, exposes the back stage secrets of those in authority. In Meyrowitz's theory, TV is an identity-multiplier as well as a leveler, extending identity horizontally and decreasing hierarchical differentiation among individuals.
Specifically, in relation to gender identity, Meyrowitz argued that television "blends" genders. TV, he said, has helped to break down the distinctions between men and women, using the characteristics outlined above. TV has allowed women to see aspects of the world that had been off-limits before, it has demystified the male realm, and it has allowed women and men to view each other at leisure at an intimate distance. It has demystified and leveled both male experiences of the feminine and female experiences of the masculine, and "has helped to make the experiences and expectations of real men and women more similar" (p.47)
3. Any theoretical perspective on the media is going to have a characteristic way of explaining how media enter in to formation of gender identity. The semiotic theory emphasizes the part played by media content, the signs distributed by the various media. The theory put forth by Meyrowitz by contrast downplays the role of content, finding it essentially irrelevant to formation of gender identity. Instead, the effect on identity is a function of the formal characteristics of the technology itself. Another strategy for understanding the relationship between media and gender identity is to reverse our point of view. What we have been doing so far is looking at gender from the perspective of communication theory. How will our results change if we look at media from the perspective of theories of gender? One feminist theorist has provided an answer to that question. Whereas Innis (and by extension, Meyrowitz) analyzed communication technology as the mechanism structuring culture, feminist media theory, according to Liesbet van Zoonen, analyzes "gender as a mechanism that structures material and symbolic worlds and our experiences of them,..." "Feminist Perspectives on the Media," in Mass Media and Society, 2nd ed., ed. Curran and Gurevitch, p.31.
Van Zoonen divides traditional feminist theorizing into three categories, explains the role of media within each category, and then explains the shortcomings of each, prior to putting forward a fourth possible feminist explanation for the media, a feminist cultural studies approach grounded in reception analysis (study of how audience members interrogate and interpret media texts).
1. Liberal Feminism: Perceived problem -- irrational prejudice and stereotypes about women. Perceived solution -- the general liberal principles of liberty and equality should apply to women as to men. Content stereotypes will be overcome if women obtain more equal positions in media. Research -- sex role stereotypes, prescriptions of sex-appropriate behavior, how media act as socialization agents. Unwarranted consequences of position -- encourages Superwoman stereotype and burnout. Disregards socioeconomic structures and power relations. As more women enter the field, things don't get much better. Content stereotypes are maintained. Furthermore, as women become dominant in an area, they do not dominate the industry. Instead, salaries and prestige of that area go down.
In the United States, most of the feminist discussion of media has fallen within the liberal feminist framework. Liberal femimsm holds to the belief that equity can be achieved merely by pointing out inequity. It is naive in that sense. It does believe that the message affects the audience in a negative way. Research in this tradition has emphasized description of stereotypical representation, but also investigations into employment of women in media, on the assumption that women will change the content once they get into positions of power in the media. We have learned about stereotypes (assigned reading). We have also learned that women are not represented in the media in proportion to their presence in the population, and that women still face discrimination on the job, from pay to promotion (glass ceiling) to ageism, particularly in the visual media. Nevertheless, the assumption that these problems will dissolve if women infiltrate organizations hasn't been borne out in practice. As women enter media organizations, they tend to adapt to the demands of the organization and to produce the content that best serves organizational goals. Liberal feminist assumptions aren't born out by the organizational research into media operation.
2. Radical feminism: Van Zoonen says radical feminists define the gender problem as patriarchy, a social system in which all men are assumed to dominate and to oppress all women. Patriarchy, to the radical feminist, accounts for women's position in society. The perceived solution is that women should create their own means of communication. The research emphasis for radical feminists is centered on pornography, and is polemical rather than inquiring. Example: Mdrea Dworkin. Problems: Radical feminists eschew hierarchy in organizations and assume that female media organizations will work in a cooperative manner without hierarchical authority. Experience of those who have tried it is that hierarchical authority must be imposed for organization to fulfill functions. This may be a result of the capitalist environment in which such organizations must exist and in an ideal world, perhaps they would work, but fact is they haven't. The strident nature of the movement media tends to limit their appeal to the radical feminists who akeady agree with them. They have difficulty gaining a larger audience, and so end up serving more of a ritual function than an informational function.
3. Socialist feminism: Perceived problem is influence of gender, class and economic conditions on women's situation. Owe can see such a perspective at least partially laid out in the second assigned reading, by Steeves, "Gender and Mass Communication in a Global Context." Economic expansion of transnationals leads to cultural imperialism by Western media. Such cultural imperialism is more oppressive for women around the world than for men. New technologies are not correcting the situation but in some instances are worsenmg it. Outlook is bleak, but women must resist through reforms generated by research and policy making, and through alternative feminist media.) Perceived solutions are to produce separate feminist media and to reform the mainstream media. Research tends to emphasize the ideological analysis of media texts using structuralist theories, especially semiotics. Problems: Attempt to recognize range of social divisions, including ethnicity, sexual preference, age, physical disability, etc., from perspective of gender, class and economic conditions leads to "incoherent theoretical project."
Whatever the variation in the three perspectives above, van Zoonen argues that all three assume that women are essentially different from men, and that this difference is universal and transcendent. There is no mechanism for correcting the essential difference. Further, all three assume an instrumental view of communication. The media are seen as the main instruments for imposing social control over women, and all three solutions argue that the media should be instrumental in imposing correct values on the current incorrect values. Van Zoonen says all three have adopted the linear transmission model of communication (S-M-R, with sender in position of dominance controlling the message being sent to the receiver). Van Zoonen takes issue both with the assertion of a universal and transcendent difference between men and women, and with the instrumentalist transmission model of communication.
First, van Zoonen says, gender is socially constructed, so concepts of gender are historically specific. She argues that the current gendering of public and private spheres in Western democracies can be traced to the historically specific construction of gender in the philosophers of the French Revolution, Rousseau and Montesquieu. Second, she adopts the audience-centered model of communication adopted by cultural studies. All texts are polysemic, and the point of reception is a point of struggle over meaning. Following Hall's encoding-decoding model, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that the dominant code meaning will be accepted by the recipient However, negotiated or even oppositional readings are possible. The feminist transmission model overlooks this because it assumes the passive audience. The resulting complaint about the unreality of media images sets up a fight over whose reality will be portrayed, ignoring the possibility of a multiplicity of meanings of media texts.
As an alternative, van Zoonen recommends a "cultural feminist media studies" project Gender would be defined as "an analytic category within which humans think about and organize their social activity rather than as a natural consequence of sex difference." This allows us to acknowledge that the meaning of gender varies in cultural and historical settings, and is subject to ongoing discursive struggle. The role of media in social constructions of gender is variable, but they are definitely one place where the struggle over meaning takes place. It is important to note Hall's observation that oppositional meanings are possible, but that acceptance of dominant meanings is likely, and that, in any event, the range of meanings is not infinite. Nevertheless, van Zoonen argues, "The concepts of gender as social construction and culture as negotiated meaning release feminist media studies from many of the tensions of transmission models of communication." Further, she says, the approach takes women seriously, seeing them as active creators of their own daily lives and experiences. She recommends that feminists develop strategies aimed at "semiotic" empowerment of female media recipients
Shortcomings of this approach (reception analysis): ignores area of social and cultural practice covered by pLAnQncLn of media texts.
Challenge of this approach to the field: if meaning is so dependent on context, how useful is judgment about ~, per se?
Criticism of entire area of gender studies of media: invisibility of issues of men and masculinity. Invisibility of homosexuality. (Movement now ongoing: "Queer Media Studies," dedicated to a sustained examination of how gays and lesbians are represented in mass culture." J.N. Erni, "Queer Figurations in the Media: Critical Reflections on the Michael Jackson Sex Scandal," Critical Studies in Mass Communication 15 (1998): 161.)
What we've reviewed so far:
A. A semiotic interpretation of the influence of media on gender identity.
B. A technological determinist interpretation of the influence of media on gender identity.
C. Liberal, radical and socialist feminist interpretations.
D. A feminist cultural studies (reception analysis) interpretation of the influence of media on gender identity. (A and D share many assumptions, but differ largely to the degree they attach to the power of the text to determine its reception.)