THE MEDIA PORTRAYAL OF WOMEN
There is a basic difference in terms of how men and women are portrayed in the media, especially in the ads, a UT professor of Journalism and Electronic Media says.
Dr. Catherine Luther, an associate professor, has done research on how women are portrayed in the media, and has noticed that women tend to be more sexualized. "When you look at the ads portraying women, you only see body parts. Often times, you don't see their full figures. But when you see men in the ads, they have the full figures.
Even though the history of art is full of naked bodies, the ones present in today’s media are there for a totally different cause. In their book “Young People, Sex and Media” David Buckingham and Sara Bragg claim that somehow it seems that the exposed bodies are all around us, but only for male pleasure. That’s why certain visualizations (like birth) are considered unacceptable - because they are not designed for male pleasure. That means only attractive women are tolerable. The fact that the standards of attractiveness are prevailing only adds the oil on fire felt by everyone who have a problem with current trends of portraying women in the media.
A good example are music videos, especially in hip-hop music. It seems that the women are portrayed as slim, beautiful, with make-up on, sexy and in search for a man. In other words, they are degraded to the level of an object. Dr. Luther agrees. “In the 80’s it was more about the social issues,” she says “but now when you look at hip-hop it’s more about glamour. Gangsta rap in particular is where you see the emphasis on beautiful women scantily clad. And they’re really objects. Often times when you see rap artists, they or he’ll be surrounded by 20 women who are scantily clad. So, definitely I agree with that. And they’ve been criticized. They say that they give misogynistic messages too, in terms of degrading women, not giving any voice to the women as well.”
The collection of research gathered in “Sexual Teens, Sexual Media” pays attention to music videos. The research has shown that there are double standards in a sense that women are usually scantily clad and showing skin, and the men are fully dressed, without revealing any skin. The double standards became a trend and it is “more acceptable to reduce females to their sexuality”.
“Sexual Teens, Sexual Media” considers teens magazines, and women’s are not significantly different. It seems how they give a major role to the appearance on the road to happiness. One of the biggest examples is “Seventeen”, a magazine for teenage girls. The most common messages sent to girls in this magazine where the ones about appearance and attracting the opposite sex.
Ads are another good example when it comes to portrayal of women. It is not a secret that female bodies are all around us, selling a wide variety of products – from food, to cars. It’s not just the bodies, but, as Dr. Luther argued, body parts, exposed and unveiled. “Women also tend to be more subservient than the men. If you look at what they are doing, you see that their eyes are cast out, while the men are looking straight at the camera, so very different in terms of visual aspects, " she explained.
When it comes to television, Dr. Luther says the situation has changed. "Before you had the same sort of subservience in terms of women, but I think you are now seeing stronger women being portrayed in television. Although I think that the emphasis on beauty is still there so it's more acceptable for women - beautiful and strong at the same time."
And the weight issue is always present. Dr. Luther thinks how "the people who are overweight tend to get roles in comedies. And that is the new thing, to have a beautiful slender wife and a funny, kind of overweight husband."
Dr. Luther says the media portrayal of women has a certain influence on young girls. "If they look at that, they'll place more importance in how they look and getting the right guy, rather than trying to develop themselves and be assertive and creative themselves."
And the pressure of looking good can lead to some behavior untypical for a certain age. Dr. Luther says she has seen some surveys that show the girls young as 8 or 9 who are concerned about their bodies, how they look and the fashion. "Unfortunately, it is getting younger and younger, the girls who think that they have to look that way. I think definitely it's really the mass media that are influencing these young girls."
A University of Minnesota five year study done on 2500 female teenagers shows the percentage of high-school girls using diet pills has almost doubled – from 7.5% to 14.2%. The study also showed how 20 percent of surveyed girls used diet pills by the age of 19 or 20.
In their latest research, The American Psychological Association is exploring the world the media creates for females. They focus on sexualization of women and girls and have discovered how it is occurring in the media all around us.
WHAT CAN GO WRONG?
TV shows, ads, music videos and magazines carry a responsibility towards their audience. Younger audience in particular, since they are the ones who can be influenced easier than the others. It is so because young people still don’t have the world solidly under their feet. Their personalities, however developed, are still not strong enough to resist certain pressures.
Children aged 2-17 spend in average almost 25 hours per week watching TV, and 44.5 hours consuming media, including TV. That means the media has plenty of their time and attention to create a certain image in their minds. And researches show how the media are creating stereotypes.
The focus here is on girls and young women because of the difference of the way the media portray females and males. The focus on women doesn’t mean that the men are portrayed in a realistic and just way. Because that is not the case. They to have their stereotypes to fight against. But somehow it seems that stereotypes of women overrule those of men.
Even though the gender equality has progressed throughout the history, it still isn’t in it’s full effect. And the evidence is all around. Based on their researc, the APA claims how the world is shown as disproportionately male to the young audience. Many organizations are trying to make people aware of the problem of stereotyping girls and women (Media Awareness Network, Media and Women, Common Sense Media, Amnesty International, National Institute on Media and the Family and many more). Their research show women are portrayed as inferior, helpless and dependant. The media also tend to use a certain body model, making it an average, when it actually isn’t. We are used to looking at slim and beautiful women in the TV shows, music videos, magazines and ads.
The excessive use of the body model can cause a dissorted body image among girls and women, and finally dissatisfaction with their own bodies (Buckingham and Bragg, Young people, Sex and the Media, 2004.). As Dr. Luther already said, the standards of good looks are represented in such an extent, that girls as young as 8 go on diets. The extreme cases can end up with eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia.
The other concern expressed by the experts are the information about sex that are delivered to teenagers trough the media. Many of them get their first and sometimes only knowledge about sex trough the media. Buckingham and Bragg notice how the media can also be a “valuable source of information about matters like contraception”. “Sexual Teens, Sexual Media” writes how research indicates that “adolescents may obtain sexual scripts and norms from media examples, with as many as one in five teenagers reporting that television is their most important source of sexual information.”
But the sexualization of females in the media can lead the young ones and the insecure ones to a conclusion that a man is all one needs for happiness, and however that is important for personal happiness, it is definitely not proportional to the amount of the attention media pays to the topic. Another concern is the way women get the men, or try to attract their attention. In the media, it’s always the pretty, sexy, scantily clad girl that gets the guy. And if she can’t get one, she has to go trough a makeover to get him. Even the fairytales stick to the same formula and support the same stereotypes.
The conclusion about the magazine “Seventeen” in “Sexual Teens, Sexual Media” offers is a reference to “Decoding Femininity” by D. H. Currie and says how the content is sometimes something “what feminists have identified in content analysis of women’s magazines as ideological constructions that work to define women’s understanding of their experiences in ways that guarantee the reproduction of patriarchal definitions of the social world”.
The fact is that women and girls are under al lot of pressure because they are surrounded by stereotypes of female beauty and behavior, and the stereotypes have a big influence on some of them. In accordance, certain problems occur. Some of the biggest are eating disorders, dissorted image of self, emphasized sexuality and misbehavior.
Every day we are witnessing how the media present the narrowly defined body type ideal, and for females it is all about being thin. Even though promoting thinness can have positive effects like encouragement of healthier lifestyle, there are the negative ones as well. Extreme cases end up wanting the desired body, but trying to achieve it in all the wrong ways.
Feminist scholars and eating disorder theorists have long claimed how the media is creating pressure on females to pursue thinness and reach their (media’s) standards of beauty. In an article on media’s influence on eating disorders in the Journal of Social Studies, authors say how the magazines “have been criticized to be advocates and promoters of the desirability of an unrealistic and dangerously thin ideal”.
The article refers to a research done by Nichter and Nichter in 1991 that shows how “adolescent girls endorsed their ideal as the models found in fashion magazines aimed at teenage girls. This ideal teenage girl was described as being 5.7., 100 pound and size 5 with long blond hair and blue eyes. Reaching such an extreme ideal is quite unrealistic for most women and also dangerous, given that the body mass index of someone with such proportions is less than 16, clearly in the anorexic and amenorrheic range.”
Being surrounded with only the slim, conventionally beautiful bodies isn’t easy for anyone, but it seems that the pressure is more on women. A survey mentioned in “Sexual Teens, Sexual Media”, done on 28 popular TV sitcoms, led to a conclusion that ”the main female characters tended to be below average weight and received significantly more positive reinforcement from male characters about their body shape and weight than did female characters above average weight.” And a survey done in magazines showed how there are 200% more ads for diet food in women’s, than there are in men’s magazines.
A research done by “Psychology Today” in the late 90’s on 3452 women showed how 23% have been influenced in a younger age by a movie or TV personality, regarding their body image. Another 22% said they were influenced by fashion magazine models. And among the men only 10% of them had the same thing to say.
And the researches are in constant pursuit of the evidence that would relate the eating disorders with the imposed body ideals, with the question not being if there are evidence, but to what extent are the two related.The APA report on sexualization of girls pays some attention to body dissatisfacion. “Given that so few women meet the dominant cultural standard for an attractive, sexy appearance (Wolf, 1991), it is not surprising that a girl’s chronic comparison of her ownbody to this impossible cultural standard would result in feelings of inadequacy and shame.”
Even though the media are not the only ones who are or should be held responsible for making such a dramatic dieting move that would result as an eating disorder, they are for sure the ones who contribute to the all-present atmosphere and the need to be slim. And the women are the ones who are influenced the most. But rest assure that all the women are effected, because that is not the case. It is only the most vulnerable ones, with low self-esteem, who are hurt by it. For them, the gap between the presented body ideal and their actual weight, which they often see higher than it really is, is causing such a dissatisfaction that makes them pull some dramatic moves.
The University of Minnesota study showed how 62.7 percent of teenage females use "unhealthy weight control behaviors", and 21.9 percent of teenage females use "very unhealthy weight control behaviors” (very unhealthy weight control behaviors include the use of diet pills, laxatives, vomiting or skipping meals).
While eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia are caused by various factors, most of them personality related, the media also has an undisputable contribution to the illnesses. It is so because the media have created a fictional world of standards according to which one can only be successful and happy if one satisfies the conventional beauty standards, and that is being thin. The young girls and the women are the most endangered ones, since they are the targeted audience for the advertisers who profit from the current trends of body types.
SEXUALIZATIONIn addition to eating disorders, females are put under another pressure from the media related to the appearance, and that is the pressure of being sexy followed by the explicit messages put out in the media. The problem here is what the young girls will learn from it, and what will the women try to implement in their own lives. Critics have been loud on the way media are presenting women, but also on the latest trend - sexualization of girls.
And the sexiness is all around - in the music lyrics, music videos, TV shows, movies and even toys. The APA report on the sexualization of girls in a part focuses on "the impact of the sexual objectification of female bodies as the cultural milieu in which girls exist and develop". The report than explains the "self-objectification", a term defined as implementation and reproduction within the self-portrait the objectified perspective. "Self-objectification involves adopting a third-person perspective on the physical self and constantly assessing one's own body in an effort to conform to the culture's standards of attractiveness.
Self-objectification in a culture in which a woman is a "good object" when she meets the salient cultural standard of "sexy" leads girls to evaluate and control their own bodies more in terms of their sexual desirability to others than in terms of their own desires, health, wellness, achievements, or competence." The evidence collected in the research indicates that the sexualization of girls "has negative effects in a variety of domains, including cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality, and attitudes and beliefs". The conclusion is that there are "negative consequences on girls' ability to develop healthy sexuality".
APA referrers to a research which says that "adolescent girls with a more objectified view of their bodies had diminished sexual health, measured by decreased condom use and diminished sexual assertiveness." Other research "found that undergraduate women who frequently watch music videos or read women's magazines, who attribute greater realism to media content, or who identify strongly with popular TV characters were also more accepting of sexually objectifying notions of women and of other traditional gender ideologies."
One of the conclusions of the American Psychological Association is that there are strong arguments and evidence that the sexualization of girls in the media and society may have an effect on girls in their adulthood. The influence may appear as "women's body shame and self-objectification". The dissatisfaction with their bodies is likely to continue during their adult lives. "Girls and young women who more frequently consume or engage with mainstream media content also offer stronger endorsement of sexual stereotypes that paint women as sexual objects."
"The sexualization and objectification of women in the media appear to teach girls that as women, all they have to offer is their body and face and that they should expend all their effort on physical appearance." As a result, young women's conceptions of femininity is constrained by "putting appearance and physical attractiveness at the center of women's value." As the girls, women tend to pay more attention to their appearance, but in a different way. For women, the extra pressure to look young is put on them. Many of them do feel the need to look as young as the standards tells them they should. One of the indicators of such a trend are the cosmetic industry product popularity. The APA reports how the "sales of "anti-aging" beauty products increased by 10.7% in 2005, showing the greatest increase in any category of skin-care product. An analysis of plastic surgery rates provides further evidence that some aging women feel strong pressure to look younger.
Data from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons shows that common procedures designed to "freshen" the body and keep it looking young have been steadily increasing. Between 2000 and 2005, annual rates of Botox injections rose from roughly three quarters of a million to almost 4 million, amounting to a 388% increase. In the same 5-year period, there was also a 115% increase in tummy tucks, a 283% increase in buttocklifts, as well as a stunning 3,413% and 4,101% increase in upper arm and lower bodylifts." With these numbers and the scientific research evidence, there is no doubt in the claim that the media are putting an unbearable pressure on (some) girls and women, making them feel they have to live up to the unrealistic images of themselves who are looking at them from the magazines, television and billboards.
In a world where the children are thinking of half naked, skinny females as their role models, and trying to look and act like them, there is not much to be said that could change the situation and make a difference. In the future, the girls and women will be thought to pay the most attention to their appearance and put all their efforts in it in order to attract the guy that's good for them. But as long as the girls and women need the clothes, make up, diet pills, expensive cosmetics and the right cell phone to achieve the standards, the trend will not change. Living in the capitalistic, money driven world is what makes it all so complicated. But it is also simple, in terms of realizing the background. Women don't need extra products to have their natural hair color, don't need expensive creams and surgery to look twice as younger.
Up until Twiggy showed up in the 1960's, curvy body and natural beauty were appreciated. The women today are not even aware of the times before the "must loose weight" period that overcomes the healthy, proportional weight. In the other hand, the film and music industries are creating behavioral patterns that include sexualization and self-objectification of females, causing (some of) them to think of them selves as sexual objects. And the research shows it can have negative effects on mental health and self-esteem.
And, as dr. Luther says, if the young girls think they should follow the trends put on them by the media "they'll place more importance in how they look and getting the right guy, rather than trying to develop themselves and be assertive and creative themselves."