Mass media, in various forms, has contributed to stereotypes of multiple groups over the centuries. Their depictions have shaped ideas about people, leading to issues both surrounding and within those groups. This essay focuses on media stereotyping women, as its prevalence maintains a stronghold in entertainment, advertising and broadcast journalism today.
In looking at American media, the cultural stereotypes regarding women are problematic in generating ideas, norms and generalizations within our own culture. The dilemma does extend beyond American borders, where American women are depicted a certain way to other countries, but the greatest harm is for the women and girls of our own country. Essentially, media creates female stereotypes within its own culture.
The long-term harm in this is when women try to achieve their own pursuits in life, but pre-existing stereotypes affect the ideas of hiring managers, co-workers, audiences and peers about how she will perform, what she is able to do and what her role is society should be.
First, let’s take a look at female stereotypes in media for entertainment. Between 2006 and 2011, a social study between USC Annenberg and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media analyzed 11,927 speaking roles in film and television entertainment. The studies found female speaking roles to be far more scarce than male speaking roles, and fewer female characters were gainfully employed than male characters. The study concluded that women in entertainment are sexualized, stereotyped and depict an employment inferiority compared to their male counterparts. (Bahadur, 2012) One could deduce entertainment media is still casting women within pre-existing gender role frames. (Hall, 34) Women have a certain role to play and will continue to be placed within them.
There are some films and television shows successfully being produced without such stereotypes. Shows such as “Parks and Recreation,” a creation of Amy Poehler, “30 Rock” and “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schidt,” both creations of Tina fey, hit every mark for entertainment value, but do not have female characters exclusively to create sexual tension or fill a stereotypical role.
Advertising is another form of media in which female stereotypes run rampant. The purpose of advertising is to sell products, but along with it come human values of self-worth, success, image, sexuality and love. (Kilbourne, 1990) Female characters in advertising are depicted with such impossible perfection, that these values for living are perceived as unattainable without the product and, perhaps worse, unless women in real life look like the women in the ads. This unattainable, commercialized female standard is a sum of impossible and contradicting parts. They are outgoing but demure, sexy but naïve, powerful but submissive. Physically they are made of flawless skin, waspy waistlines, blinding white smiles, communicating female stereotypes with in subtle paralanguage like make-up and clothes. (Hall, 177)
A classic example of this is the 1980s Enjoli Perfume ad. The commercial featured perfect blonde boasting about being able to both bring home the bacon and cook it. It was a signal of the switch from classic housewife to power woman in advertising. The stereotype did nothing to liberate the image of women, only add more to her impossible list of responsibilities, only attainable by whatever is being sold.
Lastly, broadcast journalism is a media arena where female stereotypes have a long way to go. This disparity is most starkly represented in the types of news stories reported on by women, according to research conducted by the Women’s Media Center. Data show lifestyle, culture, and health stories are much more frequently covered by female journalists that topics such as technology and politics. More than gender-defined news, the research shows a lack of female journalists working in news in general, as compared to men, despite the American population being more than half women. (WMC, 2014) Some networks, however, are generating greater parity between the gender gap in journalism. According to Women’s Media Center’s research, PBS “NewsHour” and ABC “World News” have women as the main anchors. But it is men who dominate correspondence work for ABC, CBS, NBS and PBS. (WMC, 2014)
An additional point worth noting when it comes to women in broadcast journalism, is their appearance, even when there are powerful female roles in news reporting, they are physically beautiful. Think of Megyn Kelly, one of the most prominent women in broadcast journalism today. Her slender body and bleach blonde hair are very pleasant to look at while she is reporting on the hottest topics in politics. Although female anchors communicate, at face value, in elaborated speech when reporting on news, it is the restricted code of how women should act and their place in society, that speaks sub-textually to the content at hand. (Hall, 143)
Basically, no matter what medium is being viewed, read, or listened to, the stereotyping of women as inferior objects will be on display. It’s a misunderstanding within our own culture. Perhaps bringing it to the attention of the public will at least put a crack in the wall of perfectionism barricading women. Even so, after centuries of the idealized woman projected into American culture, it’s going to take a long time to break that stereotype and build a new mold.
Hall, Bradford. (2005). Among Cultures. Belmont, CA: Wadworth.
Women’s Media Center (WMC), (April 3, 2014) WMC’s Research Shines Light on Gender Bias in Major U.S. Broadcast, Print, Online, & Wire Outlets, Retrieved from: http://www.womensmediacenter.com/press/entry/wmc-research-on-gender-bias-in-major-us-media
Kilbourne, Jean, (1990), Beauty…And the Beast of Advertising, Retrieved from: http://www.medialit.org/reading-room/beautyand-beast-advertising
Bahadur, Nina, (November 13, 2012), Women In The Media: Female TV And Film Characters Still Sidelined And Sexualized, Study Finds, Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/13/women-in-the-media-female_n_2121979.html
Written as a course assignment for Journalism Culture in Media at the University of Memphis