Gender in the media is something that has been prevalent since mass media was introduced to our society. Gender norms and expectations have always been around, however, they have not always been shoved in our faces every day. In our modern-day society, the media’s influence on gender norms and expectations has become a staple to our culture. Every man is supposed to be big and bad without emotions, and every woman is supposed to be sexy and have a thigh gap. Although this is not true, this is how the media makes us think about who we are as men or women. The media now has become so powerful that it is able to determine what we see as important, as well as how we imagine a man or woman should act and look like…whether we want to believe it or not.
What’s the big deal?
Well, the big deal begins with the amount of exposure the average American is subject to and the influence that this frequency has on our views as the audience.
In, “Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture,“Julia Wood offers up some excellent food for thought:
- 98.9% of homes in the United States have at least one television.
- The average American household has MORE televisions than residents with 3.3 televisions and less than three residents.
- Among these television sets, at least one of them is turned on for eight hours and twenty-one minutes everyday.
- The average American spends fifty-three hours a week engaged with some type of media.
Advertising has become quite possibly the most effective tool that is used by media practitioners to reinforce our society’s traditional gender images or expectations. Also outlined by Wood, were some reasons as to why advertisements are more influential on our views about gender than television shows or movies:
- Advertisements are repeated so frequently through media outlets that we are constantly being exposed to them.
- Most advertisements focus on the visual element rather than the verbal element, because we are less likely to be critical of visuals.
- We think that they don’t work, yet they appeal to our subliminal conscience.
Women in advertising
It is no surprise to anyone that women in advertising are sexually objectified. I mean look at this Carl’s Jr. commercial that shows women wearing bikinis playing volleyball, while demolishing their new “Tex-Mex” burger, that will probably give them all type two diabetes. This is just one example of many, that shows women in minimum clothing participating in provocative activities.
Yes, there are more “PG” commercials out there that women are the focus of. However, these commercials usually show women purchasing domestic or cosmetic products, or flirting with/talking about men. In contrast to how men are portrayed in commercials (which we will discuss next), women are usually shown in the home or in a home environment. This reinforces the out-dated, traditional gender role of women “belonging in the house.”
Men in advertising
Advertising does not just reinforce traditional roles or images of women, it does the same for men. As brought forth by Wood, portrayals of men in advertising are very consistent with traditional views of masculinity. Men are usually shown outdoors or participating in some type of activity. Men are also depicted as being independent, strong, in control, athletic, tough, successful, and usually accompanied by a beautiful woman. The reinforcement of the idea of men being in control or dominant over women in advertising even goes as far as the actual positions that a male and female are in.
When a male and a female are in an advertisement together, the “male-dominance” is depicted by having the man being physically above the woman.
Children in advertising
Children are not safe from the reinforcement of traditional images of what man or woman should be. As noted by Wolska, ads targeted towards children usually show girls as playing house, being a babysitter, or cleaning a play house with a toy broom. On the other hand, boys are usually shown participating in athletics or playing computer games. This is where advertisements begin their process of reinforcing the idea that men are supposed to be tough, rugged, and even violent depending upon the video game.
As previously stated, the media has become so influential in our society that it is able to control what we think about and what we deem as important. This can be explained through examining a communication theory called the agenda-setting theory.
The agenda-setting theory asserts that although the media may not tell the public what to think, it most certainly is capable of telling the public what to think about. I know, kind of scary right? Well you’re probably wondering how that is possible. Well let me break it down for you how Wood did in her book.
Those who are in control of what messages get sent out to the audience are known as “gatekeepers.” These gatekeepers include:
Gatekeepers are able to shape our views about gender because they determine what stories or events get covered, and how men,
women, and those of non-binary identities are portrayed to the audience. Which leads me into another component of the agenda-setting theory.
Priming deals with the magnitude that agenda-setting has on the way individuals evaluate and perceive the situation or issue at hand.
Framing is another imperative component one must understand about the agenda-setting theory. Framing deals with how a story is presented. Essentially, those in power, or the gatekeepers, can determine what to publish about a certain issue or topic. These gatekeepers could decide to only tell one side of the story, and the public audience would never hear that other side if no other gatekeeper brings it to light. Essentially, think of it like framing or cropping a image. One can still see the image, however, the image has been tailored to the editor’s desires. When this happens a lot of important information can be left out.
Lets say you are sitting at your home eating breakfast, reading Time Magazine on a beautiful Sunday morning. The featured cover article is about how many albums Justin Bieber has sold, and how he is on track to break even more records. However, as you continue to flip through the magazine, you come to an article about how the NSA has identified multiple known ISIS members living in your area.
You may ask yourself, “why is this all the way back here, and not on the cover?!” This is a prime example of agenda-setting. The gatekeepers of Time Magazine decided that they wanted Justin Bieber’s success to be on the public’s mind more than a potential terror threat.
Most people would probably not have read that far back, or maybe they wouldn’t have even bought that issue at all if they didn’t see Justin Bieber’s face on the cover. Although this is completely hypothetical, this is an example of how media practitioners can determine what people read and think about, and what gets pushed to the back of people’s minds or even ignored completely.
In this (rather extreme) case, the gatekeepers did not want people knowing about the ISIS members in a certain location, so they made Bieber’s success the main point of the issue with hopes that no one would pay attention to the rest of the issue; especially the back pages.
Takeaways for the Future
Yes, I know I have covered a lot in this post, thank you for bearing with me. However, lets run through what we have just covered and revisit why this is important knowledge to have as a consumer.
Frequency of Exposure
As stated in the beginning, our modern American society is laden with media. As an American you are always being exposed to some type of media or advertisement.
- It is important to be conscious when you are on the receiving end of these messages. Whether you believe it or not, these messages are impacting your outlook.
Advertising and Gender Reinforcement
Whether you are a man, woman, or child, you are constantly being subject to traditional gender role reinforcement.
- As a society as a whole, regardless of gender, it is important to understand that the images of these “perfect men and women” are not realistic and are often edited.
- It is also important that we do not resort to hazardous methods to try to reach these “perfect” depictions. Some examples of unhealthy lengths people go to to try to be that perfect skinny model eating that big juicy burger with her perfect hair, or that ridiculously jacked actor in the action movies who kicks all the bad guys’ asses and then rides off with a supermodel into the sunset include:
- Steroid usage or other unnatural hormones
- Eating disorders
- Invasive surgies
- Increasingly aggressive behaviors.
Who creates the news
After examining the agenda-setting theory, one should understand that the news one sees on the television is not the only news out there and may not be the entire story. Therefore, in order to avoid being a victim of this phenomenon one must be a conscious consumer. Here are some tips on how to be a more conscious, informed consumer of news:
- Do not only watch/read your favorite news or gossip channel/publication. Expand your horizons and do your own research.
- Be conscious of who is sending the messages you are receiving. Do your research and see who is an affiliate or if there are any conflicts of interest with that media outlet and the story.
- In order to avoid having your news “framed,” once you hear about a story, go online or elsewhere and try to find the other side of the story.