Portrayal of Women in Media

Are We Seeing Increased Sexualization of Women in Media?

Feminists argue that popular media contributes to coerciveness and sexual assault toward women as seen by the dominant presence of violence against women in all forms of media (Linz & Malamuth, 1993). Adolescents have been resorting to popular entertainment for information about sex, drugs, alcohol and violence (Kaiser Family Foundation, 1999). Their preference for the more popular and accessible music videos has provides them with such information. Analysis of Music Television (MTV) has shown that men appeared nearly twice as often as women and engaged in significantly more aggressive, dominant behavior and women were shown as engaging in more implicitly sexual and subservient behavior. They were depicted to be frequent objects of explicit, implicit and aggressive advances by men (Sommers-Flanagan, Sommers-Flanagan, & Davis, 1993). It is usual for women in these videos to be used as decorative objects, and only a few videos show men and women are treated equally (Vincent, Davis & Boruszkowski, 1987). One study of media and sexuality revealed that exposure to MTV among college females was the most powerful predictor of sexual permissiveness (Strouse & Buerkel-Rothfuss, 1987). Likewise, in video games, a more sexist orientation and graphic violence against women is getting prevalent. Overall, content in various media such as television, video games, music videos communicates that women are to be objectified, sexualized, dominated, assaulted and even killed (Bretthauer, Zimmerman & Banning, 2006).

Evolving Standards of Women’s Beauty

Standards of women’s beauty keep on changing, with more recent standards emphasizing body proportions that are not normally seen on everyday women. Cusumano & Thompson (1997) studied standards of women’s beauty in magazines over a 20-year period. In Playboy magazine, the models were considered to epitomize the ideal female body shape. Bust and hip measurements as well as weights of the centerfolds were taken in the span of 20 years (1959-1978) and mean weight of the centerfolds was observed to be signify antly lower than the average female for the same time period. Another observation is a decrease in the centerfolds’ bust and hip measurements as the heights of the models increased over the 20-year period. Consequently, an increase in the number of diet articles was seen in a number of women’s magazines also in the same time span (Cusumano & Thompson, 1997). Along with this, there was also a significant increase in the areas of weight loss, beauty, fitness and health. Fashion magazines contained more health and fitness articles than traditional magazines.

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In terms of body measurements, Thompson and Tantleff (1992) found that women’s ideal breast size to be larger than their own current size. On top of that, women’s and men’s concept of the societal ideal breast size was found to be even larger than the women’s ideal size. This implies that media may have promoted images fostering discrepancies between current and ideal perceptions of societal ideal sizes (Thompson & Tantleff, 1992).

Print Media

Sex sells. That is something being propagated by media. Hence in all kinds of media formats, images of alluring ladies showing much of their skin are being presented together with products being sold in the belief that the product will be more saleable. Magazines, in particular, have significantly increased the amount of sexual content not only in exhibiting sexualized women’s images but also offering explicit sexual advice (Kim & Ward, 2004). The message being conveyed by contemporary magazines with more a liberated nature is that sexually assertive women are prized creatures and if women want to be considered as such, they should follow the advice in the magazine articles.

This is a time when the sexuality of young girls is being presented in an exploitative manner. Sexual agency and desire is highly promoted to them. In magazines like Cosmopolitan, though, women’s sexual agency and aggressiveness are promoted within the confines of a relationship (Durham, 1996). What is ironic is that there is a strong emphasis for women to be sexually active to please men, but not overtly sexual, as they still need to make men feel in control. They are expected to be sexually attractive to men in a way that promotes sexual desirability, but should keep their own desire concealed as they need to be pursued and not to be the predator (Durham, 1996, 1998; Garner et al., 1998). These magazines, then, can be seen as part of a ‘cultural apparatus that purports to assist women to be heterosexually attractive, to be coy, alluring, “sexy,” and flirtatious, in order to “find true love” and to “catch a man,” and then to maintain his interest’ (Overall, 1999, p. 298).

Mass media’s dominant representation of women is that they exist for men’s satisfaction of their sexual fantasies (Wood, 1994). Cleo and Cosmopolitan magazines encourage women to be as ‘sexual’ as they can be, making them available to satisfy men’s sexual fantasies and desires. Although being able to provide sexual satisfaction for men may be a source of pleasure and power for women, it also reflects that women are reliant on men for their own self-image and power (Machin & Thornborrow, 2003). Thus, repeatedly reading articles on how to give pleasure to men may promote women’s insecure sexuality (Farvid & Braun, 2006).

Sex is promoted as a way to keep a man interested in a woman enough to stay in a relationship. Farvid & Braun (2006) observe in Cleo and Cosmopolitan magazines that the ability of some women to provide great sex to men is essential in fulfilling not only men’s sexual needs but women’s relational needs as well. Cleo magazine advocates women to leave an impression where it counts… in bed. These magazines project an image of men as potential cheaters and great sex can keep them from straying. That is why women are advocated to learn the art of sexual pleasing to keep their men faithful.

Krassas, Blaukamp & Wesselink (2001) conclude that women’s magazines communicate a paradoxical perspective of female sexuality in that women are encouraged to shed their traditional roles and become more independent while they are pressured to find and sexually satisfy a man. Women’s bodies are considered commodities and their independence allows them to use such commodities to their advantage and to maximize their market value (Goldman, Heath & Smith, 1991). Krassas, Blaukamp & Wesselink (2001) also note that Cosmopolitan magazine may be the first to recognize women as sexual, at the same time, they are primarily sexual objects whose desire is fulfilled by allowing themselves to be treated as commodities that are sexually available to men and designed to attract men.

How Women are Depicted in Advertising

Erving Goffman (1979) has studied positioning of women in advertisements and concluded that it mirrored their role in society. Goffman identified the model’s gaze to be important and suggested that women are usually sights to be gazed upon. How the woman is positioned in pictures have accorded meanings. Stereotypical poses such as the model gazing away from the camera and seem o drift off may be categorized as “licensed withdrawal”. Goffman describes a pattern in which women more often than men are pictured as “removed psychologically from the social situation at large, leaving them unoriented in it, and presumably, therefore, dependent on the protectiveness and goodwill of others” (Goffman, 1979, p. 57). Gestures suggesting licensed withdrawal are covering the face, sucking or biting fingers, averting one’s head or eyes, shielding oneself behind an object or person, and leaning for support against another person. Contrarily, when the model gazes into the camera, it is an “engaging gaze” engaging the viewer with a seductive look (Frith, Cheng & Shaw, 2004).

Goffman’s category of “feminine touch” most often depicts women lightly caressing an object while men are depicted as grasping or using an object. Women are portrayed as more likely touching themselves such as resting their fingertips on their chin or neck (Goffman, 1979). Conveying a “conventionalized expression of sexual availability” (Goffman, 1979, p. 41), women are often pictured reclining on a floor or a bed, or canting a head or knee at an odd angle that can be read as an “acceptance of subordination, an expression of ingratiation, submissiveness, and appeasement” (1979, p. 46).

Other observations of Goffman regarding pictures of women and men together include men positioned as bigger or higher in the frame than women. This communicates differences in social status and dependency of women on men. Also, men are often portrayed as performing a function whereas women are merely decorative (Goffman, 1979).

Women’s bodies have been used to sell several advertised products. Walsh-Childers (1996) observed that photos of women in advertising usually focused the reader’s eye on women’s body parts such as the breasts. Soley and Kurzbad (1986) also observed that more and more sexual content became manifest since the mid-1980’s as female nudity and erotic content became commonplace in contemporary U.S. advertising. Ms. Magazine published advertisements that increasingly portrayed women as sex objects in its first 15 years of publication. After it no longer ran such ads, Ms. Magazine upheld a position that explicitly embraced feminist orientation and spurned advertisements which were insulting to women. Ms. magazine “established itself as an institutional prototype for the appropriate conduct of advertising to women” (Ferguson et al., 1990, p. 41). Still, with this supposed precedent of championing for women in advertising, there persist ads depicting women as sex objects (Krassas, Blaukamp & Wesselink, 2001).

Cultural Differences in the Portrayal of Women in Media

Women ‘s depiction in media varies depending on their cultural background. Predominantly, women from western cultures are depicted to be more sexually open and less inhibited in showing their bodies and being associated with more sexually-suggestive themes. Frith, Cheng & Shaw (2004) contend that in western cultures, women have acquired rights to display their bodies in public without fear of retribution or condemnation. These women have also claimed their right to take pleasure in their bodies. However, in the Middle East and in many parts of Asia, women are expected to dress modestly and demurely (Cheng, 1997).

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Portraying women as classic beauty types with “demure” dress across cultures is shared by Eastern and Western cultures. When it comes to portraying women as sensual or sexy beauty types, though, a noticeable difference emerges. More often, such beauty type is used with western models suggesting that advertisers across cultures present western models as more sexually liberated than Asians (Frith, Cheng & Shaw, 2004). The message conveyed is that western models are seen more as sex objects than Asian models.

On the other hand, Asian models more likely portray the cute/girl-next-door beauty type (Maynard & Taylor, 1999). One outcome of depicting women in such childish manner is diminishing their standing in society as full-fledged adults, thereby pitting them less than their male counterparts. Representations of women as strong, professional and independent individuals may be threatening to men, and since patriarchal ideology is mostly upholded in certain countries, advertisers avoid such portrayal of women (Frith, Cheng & Shaw, 2004).

In terms of women’s roles, in Sweden, they are frequently portrayed as professionals while in the US, they are used more as “decorative” elements. Biswas et al. (1992) reported that sex appeal was used more often in French advertising than in the US. Asian women are usually represented as actively working while US women are seen as relaxing at home. For example, Sengupta (1995) observed that in print advertisement, Japanese women were more likely to be shown as “cooking, cleaning and doing other household chores” (p. 329). However, in Japanese advertising, when women were portrayed in their professional roles, it is more often as entertainers or actresses (Cooper-Chen, 1995). Maynard & Taylor (1999) also observed young Japanese models posed as “cute” or “girlish” (smiling and giggling), whereas Western models were posed with more serious expressions depicting a more defiant and independent image. This reflects various portrayals of women as they are seen in their culture. Swedish society may see women as capable professionals. American culture may view women as embellishments to lives made better by men. They may be the recipients of their men’s compensation for hard work as they are shown enjoying life and occupy themselves in remaining beautiful. In Japan, women are seen as lower class citizens compared to men, and this shows in their advertisements. They are portrayed as domesticated and dependent on their men as compared to American women who are portrayed to e more independent.

A model’s “gaze” in ads communicates various messages to readers. Samovar, Porter & Jain (2001) claim that intercultural communication researchers found that in Asian cultures, direct eye contact is considered aggressive and unfeminine. However, in cultures such as Singapore and Taiwan, women models tend to look directly at the camera. This may be credited to prevailing standards of appearing attractive or it may suggest photographic conventions led by women’s liberation movement in Western industrialized countries to depict women as confident and expressing themselves with direct eye contact (Frith, Cheng & Shaw, 2004).

Hovland et al. (2005) conducted a study that found many Korean women experiencing dilemmas between the Westernized ideal images of women conveyed in women’s magazines and their own expected traditional roles in their culture. Western values promoted such as competition, freedom, professionalism and individualism challenge traditional Korean values of harmony, obedience and collectivism. This shows how American magazines can be powerful in unsettling readers’ when they read articles that have ideologies that may not agree with their own. It is interesting to note that American contemporary women’s magazines such as Cosmopolitan magazines have such a wide reach that traverses various cultures and locations, so the ideologies they present may be interpreted in various ways. Contemporary American women’s magazines use a limited range of races of its models. These magazines target a market that is predominantly Caucasian and may not expect to target other races. This may be viewed as ethnocentric (Hovland et al., 2005). Ironically, Asian women’s magazines adopt Western images in their advertising. In both American and Asian magazines, the use of Black models is not too frequent and this may be indicative of the adoption of the Western emphasis on the predominance of a White or European beauty standard (Hovland et al., 2005).

Increased Sexualization in Popular Modern Music Genres

Heavy metal music, described as the overtly violent and sexually explicit segments of rock and roll music (Lynxwiler, 1988) earned the wrath of Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) and targeted a media campaign against it (Gore, 1987). The organization portrayed heavy metal music as dangerous to young minds because it emphasized the use of drugs, encouraged adolescent sex, endorsed sexist/ pornographic values, instrumental in delivering occult messages and caused violent, lawless behavior (Markson, 1990). Such claims created much controversy that it received national attention when Congressional hearings were held to determine if indeed heavy metal albums and other forms of popular music must be evaluated for their influence in proliferation of “porn-rock” in the United States (Gray, 1989). The hearings did not produce great changes however, more and more organizations concerned with “child victims” such as conservative parental, religious and feminist groups pushed for the regulation of heavy metal music (Bayles, 1994). Still others began their own uprising against rap music (Binder, 1993).

Jones (1997) claims, that as a matter of definition, rap and hip-hop music are often used interchangeably. However, Powell (1991) defined hip-hop as the beat of the music and rap as the narrative representation, the talking over the beat. Hence, the use of explicit violence and sexual lyrics may be blamed down to rap. Powell (1991) described “commercial rap” as hip hop or dance rap. Hardcore rap, or gangster rap is the one that raises much controversy.

Researchers have suggested that hip hop and rap music, rooted in Black culture can be tools through which Black youth may negotiate their identities to develop an authentic Black identity (Clay, 2003). They see the music as reflective of their lives and to assert that music relates to empowerment, cultural connection and positive identity development (Sullivan, 2003; Berry, 1994). Critics of hip hop and rap, however, have argued that Black youth may be very susceptible to the influences of hip hop role models who promise money, power and status to men who show disrespect for women (Squires, Kohn-Wood, Chavous & Carter, 2006). Mahiri and Conner’s (2003) ethnographic study of African American middle school students manifested resistance in the negative images emanating from rap and hiphop. This study suggested the use of rap and hiphop images related to social and gender roles as a point of reference from which participants could verbally evaluate, compare and contrast their own beliefs and attitudes. Adolescents in the study of Squires, Kohn-Wood, Chavous & Carter (2006) believed that certain women can be “nasty” and may “choose” to be abused, and that abusive men may be products of their environment. Still, they showed dissatisfaction with the representations of Black men and women in hip hop. Their criticisms revolved around women’s individual behavior and style and how outsiders might stereotype Black men as thugs for emulating hiphop fashion. Such perceptions of gender roles based on hiphop seemed to extend to the participants’ evaluations of women’s and men’s responsibility and choices with regards to real world sexual aggression and violence (Squires, Kohn-Wood, Chavous & Carter, 2006)

The problematic aspects of rap music is usually focused on its most acrimonious strain which is gangsta rap. Narratives in such strain are extremely troubling in their glamorization of violence,, materialism, misogyny and sexual transgression (Mahiri & Conner, 2003). However, Dyson (1996) argued that the vulgarity expressed in gangsta rap are strongly linked to dominate cultural constructions of “the other’ and market-driven strategies for rampant economic and human exploitation. Therefore, Dyson noted, the debate about gangsta rap should be situated in a much broader critique of how these narratives essentially mirror ancient stereotypes of Black identity and sexual proclivity through the society’s circulation of “brutal images of black men as sexual outlaws and black females as “ho’s” (1996, p. 178)



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