Media Representations

Gender & Society in the Classroom: Media Representations

Organized by: Victoria Velding, Wayne State University
Updated by: Seth A. Behrends, University of Illinois – Chicago

The media is a powerful socializing agent and vast amounts of knowledge can be gained from studying its influence.  This section will introduce the reader to research on media representations and gendered depictions of varying degrees.  How the media depicts aspects of social life can contribute to our understanding of society and our place in it.  The articles contained in this section have a primary goal of studying media and how it represents gender in our social world.  All utilize some form of content analysis to explore issues related to the construction and representation of females and/or males in the media.  Music videos, children’s books, and magazines are just a few of the media pieces analyzed.  Because media is such an expansive entity, research centering on its influence can cover a wide range of topics.  This section provides a snapshot of media and gender studies, implying that the scope of media research is quite grand.  Each article listed seeks to understand how the media represents and constructs a given topic and what the implications for these representations are.  Readers will gain a comprehensive view of media studies and the ways in which this socializing agent has contributed to the gender ideologies that shape our social world.

Crowley, Jocelyn Elise. 2021. “Sexual Harassment in Display Work: The Case of the Modeling Industry.” Gender & Society 35 (5): 719-745.
This feminist analysis focuses on sexual harassment within a specific category of jobs known as display work, where primarily women’s bodies are commodified and sold to consumers, and often through the conduits of powerful male industry leaders. Using qualitative content analysis methods to analyze 88 subjective, first-person narratives of harassment from 70 models working within the fashion business, I describe how the commodification of bodies interacts with the particular features of the modeling industry—the premium placed on youth, ambiguous industry demands, and the presence of kingmakers—to produce an environment in which opportunities for sexual harassment can proliferate. All these factors impose extreme worker vulnerability costs on predominantly women and ultimately contribute to maintaining gender-based, hierarchical power differentials between men wielding authority within the industry and these models over time.

Gray, Kishonna L., and Krysten Stein. 2021. “’We ‘said her name’ and got zucked’: Black Women Calling-out the Carceral Logics of Digital Platforms.” Gender & Society 35 (4): 538-345.
Scholars have grown concerned around the increasing carceral logics embedded in social media practices. In this essay, we explore the process of getting “zucked” as a trend within digital platforms that disproportionately punishes minoritized digital users. Specifically, Black women report that with the advent of increased safety measures and policies to secure users on digital platforms, they become subject to harms of the institutional practices. By extending the conversation on carcerality beyond the confines of prisons, jails, and other forms of criminal justice supervision, we argue that structures and institutions expand the lines of surveillance and that those traditionally subject to such harm continue to be affected. Although the concept of getting “zucked” might seem like an innocent response to individuals who violate terms of service, Black women suggest that this practice disparately targets them for speaking about racist and sexist incidents on- and offline. Such surveillance is misogynoir in public spaces, as Black women are punished for organizing on social media.

Hwang, Maria Cecilia, and Rhacel Salazar Parreñas. 2021. “The Gendered Racialization of Asian Women as Villainous Temptresses.” Gender & Society 35(4): 567-576.
What explains white male animus against Asian women? We address this question by examining the murders in Atlanta, GA, which reflect a larger global pattern of violence against what are perceived as hypersexualized Asian women. Dominant discourses on these murders promote either a narrative of racial xenophobia or a stance for or against sex work. Neither discourse adequately accounts for the simultaneous racial and gendered determination of Asian women’s experiences. In this commentary, we provide a racial–gender analysis and underscore how the gendered racialization of Asian women as hypersexual can result in their perception as disposable bodies for white male rage. As we explain, hypersexualization implies immorality, which in turn threatens the social order and thereby justifies Asian women’s disposability. This commentary establishes Asian women’s hypersexualization as a century-old view in American society perpetuated in cinema and the law.

Pike, Isabel. 2020. “A Discursive Spectrum: The Narrative of Kenya’s ‘Neglected’ Boy Child.” Gender & Society 34 (2): 284-306.
In this article, I examine a narrative that on the surface could be backlash to gender equality efforts: that after years of policy attention to girls, Kenya’s “boy child” has been neglected. Through a content analysis of Kenyan online newspaper texts spanning the past two decades, I chart the evolution of this discourse, finding that it was present as early as 2000, intensified around 2010, and began to produce concrete actions around 2013. I argue that the narrative is a reaction to expanded women’s rights, but not always in the sense of negative backlash. Some boy child claims-makers were indeed concerned with a decline in men’s power. However, others, mostly women, used the boy child narrative to redirect attention to issues that profoundly affect the well-being of women such as violence and the struggle to find a partner. These results point to the value of a discursive spectrum approach for analysis of potential backlash to gender equality as well as discussions around policy attention to boys and men.

Musto, Michela, Cheryl Cooky, and Michael A. Messner. 2017. “’From Fizzle to Sizzle!’ Televised Sports News and the Production of Gender-Bland Sexism.” Gender & Society 31 (5): 573-596.
The televised coverage of women’s sports to provide a window into how sexism operates during a postfeminist sociohistorical moment. As the gender order has shifted to incorporate girls’ and women’s movement into the masculine realm of sports, coverage of women’s sports has shifted away from overtly denigrating coverage in 1989 to ostensibly respectful but lackluster coverage in 2014. To theorize this shift, we introduce the concept of “gender-bland sexism,” a contemporary gender framework that superficially extends the principles of merit to women in sports. Televised news and highlight shows frame women in uninspired ways, making women’s athletic accomplishments appear lackluster compared to those of men’s. Because this “bland” language normalizes a hierarchy between men’s and women’s sports while simultaneously avoiding charges of overt sexism, this article contributes to gender theory by illuminating how women can be marginalized in male-dominated, male-controlled settings via individualized merit-based assessments of talent.

Berkers, Pauwke, Marc Verboord, and Frank Weij. 2016. “’These Critics (Still) Don’t Write Enough about Women Artists’: Gender Inequality in the Newspaper Coverage of Arts and Culture in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States, 1955-2005.” Gender & Society 30 (3): 515-539.
This article addresses the extent and ways in which gender inequality in the newspaper coverage of arts and culture has changed in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States, 1955-2005. Through a quantitative content analysis, we mapped all articles that appeared in two elite newspapers in each country in four sample years 1955, 1975, 1995, and 2005 (n = 15,379). First, despite increasing women’s employment in arts and culture and a quantitative feminization of journalism, elite newspaper coverage of women in arts and culture has hardly changed, making up about 20-25 percent consistently over the last 50 years. Second, our results show surprisingly few cross-national differences in the amount of the newspaper coverage devoted to women in arts and culture. Third, although women are underrepresented in the coverage of all artistic genres, there is some evidence of horizontal sex segregation—particularly in architecture (stereotypical masculine) and modern dance and fashion (stereotypical feminine)—as well as vertical sex segregation—in that attention to women has increased in “highbrow” genres that have declined in status. Finally, as the status of an actor type increases from laymen to artistic directors, the proportion of women decreases in newspaper attention to arts and culture.

Hasson, Katie Ann. 2016. “Not a ‘Real’ Period?: Social and Material Constructions of Menstruation.” Gender & Society 30 (6): 958-983.
Despite a great deal of feminist work that has highlighted its social construction, menstruation seems a self-evidently “natural” bodily process. Yet, how menstruation is defined or what “counts” as menstruation is rarely questioned. Examining menstruation alongside technologies that alter it highlights these definitional questions. In this article, I examine menstrual suppression through an analysis of medical journal articles and FDA advisory committee transcripts, paired with websites used to market menstrual suppression to consumers. Across these contexts (clinical research, FDA regulation, and advertising), new definitions of menstruation converged on a distinction between bleeding that occurs when women are taking hormonal birth control and when they are not. The case of menstrual suppression birth control pills provides an opportunity to study the work of redefining a biological process understood as quintessentially natural and deeply significant for gendered embodiment, as well as a challenge to consider both the social and material construction of gendered bodies.

Linneman, Thomas J. 2013. “Gender in Jeopardy!: Intonation Variation on a Television Game Show.” Gender & Society 27 (1): 82-105.
A relatively new linguistic phenomenon, uptalk refers to the intonation in one’s voice that produces a question. Sociolinguists have generally agreed that the use of uptalk is gendered, with some suggesting women engage in the practice more than men, at times to indicate a level of uncertainty. Linneman explores the phenomenon of uptalk and its connection to the social construction of gender in the popular answer/question game show, Jeopardy!. The author performed a quantitative content analysis of 100 episodes of Jeopardy!, coding for gender, race, occupational prestige, and uptalk intonation. Findings showed uptalk was used 37 percent of the time and varied by demographics and context. Gender was the most common signifier of the use of uptalk, with women engaging in the practice significantly more than men. To a lesser extent, age and race influenced uptalk. Younger women were more inclined to use uptalk than were older women and men, as were White women more than Black women. Success on the show was also an indicator of uptalk, and successful women were more likely to uptalk than successful men. Although uptalk was primarily used by women, there were some identifiable instances of men’s uptalk, and this use varied depending on the gender, and occasionally race, of the man’s opponent. Linneman concluded that although female contestants on Jeopardy! were more likely to uptalk than male contestants, uncertainty of responses was only part of the reason for this practice, suggesting that gender differences may play a substantial role in the phenomena of uptalk.

McCabe, Janice, Emily Fairchild, Liz Grauerholz, Bernice A. Pescosolido, and Daniel Tope. 2011. “Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books: Patterns of Disparity in Titles and Central Characters.” Gender & Society 25 (2): 197-226.
Much research has been conducted on the images and messages in children’s books.  This research is a comprehensive analysis of gender disparities in twentieth century children’s books.  Utilizing a content analysis of over 5,600 books published in the twentieth century, the authors analyze book titles and central characters for gender (mis)representations.  Findings suggest that males are represented more frequently than females in the titles and as central characters.  Time periods were also a point of analysis, with the 1930s to 1960s representing a time period of greater male influence in titles and central characters, much more so than any earlier or later years.  The 1930s to 1960s is the time period following the first-wave of the women’s movement, which may provide explanation for the greater gender disparity apparent in children’s books.  The authors conclude that gender disparities are apparent in children’s books, with an absence of females in titles or as central characters.  They suggest that this disparity in gender provides children with a sense that female characters are less important than male characters.  The current state of gender in society may also influence the disparities seen in children’s books and should be taken into account when making conclusions about gender representations.   

Martin, Karin A., and Emily Kazyak. 2009. “Hetero-Romantic Love and Heterosexiness in Children’s G-Rated Films.” Gender & Society 23 (3): 315-336.
Male-female relationships are constructed as the norm in society.  Martin and Kazyak analyze children’s films in an attempt to understand how the notion of male-female relationships as the norm is constructed.  Analysis focused on top-grossing films released or rereleased between 1990 and 2005 that contained a G-rating, indicating their adherence to guidelines making them acceptable for young audiences.  Aspects of the films that depicted anything about sexuality were of particular concern.  Results indicated that male-female romantic love is portrayed as exceptional and magical, and is the most developed theme in these films.  Male and female bodies are portrayed differently, with women’s bodies often commented on and male bodies, when commented on at all, as the site of jokes.  Female characters also engage in showcasing their sexiness and men are seen gazing at these women, two stereotypical behaviors of femininity and masculinity.  It is concluded that children’s media is rich with depictions of male-female romantic relationships.  These relationships are portrayed as out of the ordinary, special, and magical.  By showcasing male-female romantic love and relying on stereotypical representations of males and females, children’s films further the notion of heterosexuality normative. 

King, Neal. 2008. “Generic Womanhood: Gendered Depictions in Cop Action Cinema.” Gender & Society 22 (2): 238-260.
Police work is traditionally a male-dominated occupation.  Similarly, the action genre of films is predominately male-centric.  King combines these two male-dominant fields in an analysis of female cops in cop action films.  Every film released from 1967 to 2006 that focused on heroes whose primary job was to protect citizens was analyzed.  Results indicated that women are more likely than men to be portrayed as rookie cops.  Men pursue the full range of cases, whereas women are more likely to hunt serial killers.  Whereas men are actively involved in combat, women are rarely involved.  Romantic relationships provide an important difference between the representations of male and female cops, with females being more likely than males to have a love interest.  It is concluded that although Hollywood is telling the story of women who can excel in masculine occupations, there are distinct differences between the representations of male cops and female cops.  Furthermore, there are few women in central cop roles in these films, and many rarely act in solidarity and often act in nonviolent ways.  Although females are represented in cop action cinema, not all types of women are represented, as women of color are mostly excluded from primary roles.  

Kuperberg, Arielle, and Pamela Stone. 2008. “The Media Depiction of Women Who Opt Out.” Gender & Society 22 (4): 497-517.
The trend of career women choosing to stay at home and leave their professional lives has been called “opting out.”  Kuperberg and Stone performed a textual content analysis on articles from newspapers, newsweeklies, and magazines to better understand the representations of women who opt out.  Analysis centered on the articles themselves and the women depicted in these articles.  Results indicated several themes throughout the articles.  A tendency to focus on images of women as mothers rather than wives, and family rather than work, were common occurrences.  Articles also highlighted the educational and professional achievements of these women prior to their choosing to stay at home.  Women’s opinions about opting out were also analyzed, with findings of inconsistency apparent.  Inconsistency about women’s paid work at home abounded, with some women engaging in some form of paid work from home.  They conclude by noting that the articles focus exclusively on heterosexual women opting out, and virtually ignore the husband’s role in the family.  Women are portrayed as mothers rather than wives, as women who put their families before their own interests or needs.  Issues of social class are also alluded to in the articles, as many portray these women as a privileged and educated elite who can maintain a comfortable lifestyle with only one (their husband’s) income. 

Buysse, Jo Ann M., and Melissa Sheridan Embser-Herbert. 2004. “Constructions of Gender in Sport: An Analysis of Intercollegiate Media Guide Cover Photographs.” Gender & Society 18 (1): 66-81.
The front page of intercollegiate sports media guides was the focus of this research.  The intent of the research was to examine the constructions of gender difference and hierarchy in college sports.  Data was drawn from two different time periods: 1989-1990 and 1996-1997.  Media guides from six conferences comprising of Division I schools were analyzed.  The media guides included those from male and female basketball, golf, gymnastics, tennis, and baseball/softball teams.  Findings indicated a significant relationship between gender and portrayals on the court.  Men were portrayed on the court more often than women.  There was also a significant relationship between gender and pose, with men being in action in the photo more than women.  Men were portrayed as true athletes more than women and femininity was emphasized more than masculinity.  In 1997, women were also more likely to be depicted in a sexually suggestive manner than males.  It is concluded that media covers further marginalize female athletes while at the same time reinforcing male dominance and control of the sporting world. 

Dworkin, Shari L., and Faye Linda Wachs. 2004. “’Getting Your Body Back:’ Postindustrial Fit Motherhood in Shape Fit Pregnancy Magazine.” Gender & Society 18 (5): 610-624.
Previous research has indicated that women face a great deal of societal pressure to look a certain way.  Societal expectations for females include adhering to a thin body ideal.  This research examines media representations of motherhood and the cultural tensions created between varying definitions of ideal femininity.  The pregnant body is both a highly valued route to femininity and a far removed route in that it does not represent the ideal of a thin female.  A textual and content analysis of Shape Fit Pregnancy Magazine from 1997 to 2003 was conducted.  Three themes emerged in the data: start training for labor, getting your body back, and the required intersection of a second shift of household labor/child care with a third shift of fitness.  Pregnancy is constructed as shameful for a woman’s body because it goes against the ideal female form.  The magazine relies almost solely on prepping a woman’s body for birth and helping her bounce back to her pre-baby weight after birth.  By prepping her body during pregnancy, the magazine implies that a woman can regain her pre-pregnancy body.  

Massoni, Kelley. 2004. “Modeling Work: Occupational Messages in Seventeen Magazine.” Gender & Society 18 (1): 47-65.
Media studies on adolescents have often focused on messages found in popular magazines.  Little research, however, has examined the relationship between media targeted at young girls and their future occupational aspirations.  This article seeks to fill this gap in the literature.  Analysis of four issues of Seventeen Magazine, using both a qualitative and a quantitative analysis, identified four themes related to girls’ career aspirations.  The magazine portrayed entertainment careers as a viable option for girls.  Female readers are also given the impression that men are the norm when it comes to workers and are made to believe that they (men) hold the power in the work world.  The magazine also represents modeling as the pinnacle of women’s work.  It is concluded that Seventeen Magazine tells a story not just about work, but a story about power relations in a gender hierarchy as well.  Girls receive messages from the magazine that the work world is a man’s world, and a female’s place is temporary or secondary to men.  By viewing these images, girls come to see professional jobs as men’s jobs and learn that their job is to meet or assist these powerful men. 

Baker-Sperry, Lori, and Liz Grauerholz. 2003. “The Pervasiveness and Persistence of the Feminine Beauty Ideal in Children’s Fairy Tales.” Gender & Society 17 (5): 711-726.
Appearance has long been attributed as a hallmark of femininity.  Women are expected to look and act a certain way in order to uphold a feminine beauty ideal.  This research studies the significance of beauty in children’s fairy tales by examining its pervasiveness and tracing its survival.  A qualitative content analysis of 168 Brothers Grimm fairy tales was conducted to assess the significance and extent of beauty messages.  Physical appearance and beauty emerged as recurring themes throughout the fairy tales.  There was frequent mention of characters’ physical appearance, regardless of their gender.  Beauty was often rewarded in the tales and lack of beauty was punished.  Analysis also included looking at whether the fairy tales had been reproduced in later years.  Findings suggest that those that had been reproduced the most were those that promoted a feminine beauty ideal.  Girls are especially susceptible to messages concerning the importance of beauty, and these fairy tales serve as a way to socially reproduce the feminine beauty ideal.  It is concluded that children’s fairy tales may represent a means by which gender inequality is reproduced.  

Emerson, Rana A. 2002. “’Where My Girls At?:’ Negotiating Black Womanhood in Music Videos.” Gender & Society 16 (1): 115-135.
An analysis of music videos featuring black women performers comprises the basis of this research.  In an effort to examine black women’s representations in music videos, 56 videos featuring a black female in a central role were analyzed.  In order to be considered for analysis, videos had to contain a black female performer as the lead performer or as a guest in another performer’s video.  Several stereotypes emerged in data analysis.  An emphasis on black women’s bodies was apparent, and often black womanhood was constructed as one-dimensional.  The presence of a male was also common in the videos, with the male’s presence indicating a sort of sponsorship of the female.  Often the male was a record producer, songwriter, or fellow artist.  Themes of conspicuous consumption and romance were apparent in many of the videos.  Evidence of contestation, resistance, and the assertion of black women’s agency also became apparent.  It is concluded that a more complex depiction of black womanhood emerges in the representation of black performers than had previously been thought.  The videos imply that black women performers must negotiate sexuality and womanhood in their everyday lives.