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Media and Gender

By Faheem Muhammed M.P 

Mass media is one of the most potent institutions which determines how an individual perceives gender and gender discourse. Through its constant and sturdy replication of gendered subjects, the media emphasises conventional gender roles, sidestep others and interpellate it to the audience. The individuals who are regarded as the alienated consumers of the culture industry (as proposed by Theodor Adorno and Horkheimer where media is an industry producing cultural products) have left with no option other than to perceive and propagate the ideas disseminated through various media products and services.

Julia T. Wood identifies three themes of how the media represent gender. First, women are often underrepresented, which falsely implies men as the cultural standard and women as insignificant and invisible. Second, both men and women are depicted in stereotypical roles that reflect and perpetuate socially endorsed ideas of gender. Third, the portrayal of relationships between men and women lay emphasis on conventional gender roles and normalise violence against women. Media’s often disparaging portrayal of women further contributes to the under-representation of females in positions of social standing and power relations. Media’s involvement in the construction of gender ideas and roles are not only limited to the constraints of men and women. While highlighting men and women and idealising their relationship and sexuality, it also demotes and misrepresents the other genders who are already marginalised in society.

A stereotype is a commonly accepted prejudice or bias about an individual or a social group. Gender stereotypes may cause biased and prejudicial treatment because of a person’s gender traits. All forms of mass media communicate images of gender identities and roles, most of them perpetuate unrealistic, stereotypical, and notions limiting perceptions. The mainstream media contents convey the idea that women are expected to be accommodating and emotional, while men are anticipated as confident and aggressive. As in the personality traits, the stereotyping are visible in the domestic and public behaviours and attitudes. Media products play a crucial role to make believe that women are ultimately dependent on men.

Laura Mulvey’s male gaze theory can be used as an analytical tool to understand gender bias and inequality in the media. According to the male gaze theory, women in the media are seen from the eyes of a heterosexual male, and these women are symbolised as passive objects of masculine sexuality. Spectators are forced to view women characters from the point of view of a heterosexual male. From the feminist perspective, male gaze can be perceived in three ways: how men view women, how women view themselves and finally, how women view other women. Apart from undermining women, male gaze authorises masculinity and thus patriarchy. Standard instances of the male gaze involve scenes emphasising the female body which makes the viewers stare at them, hyper-concentration of female body organs and construction of feminine identity as mere objects for masculine desire and pleasure.

As of today, media monopolise the right to generate and disseminate socio-cultural standards through its intriguing contents. Media are often engaged in its construction of images and notions on the human body through distorted contents. It compels the audience to perceive certain features of the human body and certain ‘bodies’ as desirable and the ‘others’ undesirable. Fundamental notions disseminated by the media on the human body include normalisation and glorification of the white body, blondes, thin and slim physique and hyper sexualisation of female bodies. ‘Miss Representation’, a 2011 American documentary film argues that the media is marketing the notion that women’s value lies in their youth, body, and sexuality and not in their intellectual capacity. Recent studies have found that the media is causing body shaming among women, particularly girls. The distorted notions propagated by media are affecting the beauty standards worldwide, which leads to inferior complex and hatred in individuals towards their own bodies and body features which are diverse from the typically projected constructs. The perverted representation of gender in media are patronising and perpetuating various inequalities already prevailing in society and are often taking them to the next level.

Mainstream media contents are normalising violence against women and other marginalised genders. The repetition of violent images through media reinforces gender biases and perpetuates violence against women. Patronising men as the sole proprietors of power and justifying the power abuse of men are trivial links to the larger picture. Dieter (1989) found a strong relationship between women watching sexually violent contents and their acceptance of sexual violence as normal in relationships. He reasoned that the more they observe positive portrayals of sexual violence, the more likely women are to perceive this as natural in relationships with men and the less likely they are to object sexual violence or to defend themselves from it. Distorted violence against women are often labelled erotic, and it results in the perception of violence as erotic by the audience.

Another aspect of gender and media lies within the political economy of gender. Jonathan J. B Mijs finds that the popular notions often legitimate rising inequality in the income gap; people tend to believe it as meritocratic. The more unequal a society is, the more likely its citizens are to explain success in terms of meritocracy, and the less important they assess obvious non-meritocratic factors as well as social positions and power relations. The media are stimulating this popular belief of income gap; it regards men as the authority to control the economy and women as a mere labour force. The intervention of the media continuously justifies the unequal income gap between men and women and the construction of male identity as the sole proprietors of the global economy. These depictions are worse when it comes to the cases of other marginalised genders.

The gender troubles aligned in the mass media demands an immediate deconstruction of the media. The gender disparities disseminated through the media are contributing to perpetuate already existing inequities and further establishing novel dimensions for the existing troubles. A critical approach should be adopted while dealing with the mass media, particularly when meanings are derived out of it.

Faheem Muhammed M.P is a student of M.A Mass Communication at Dept. of Electronic Media and Mass Communication, Pondicherry University