Women in American Media: A Culture of Misperception

By Taylor M. Chapman
2011, Vol. 3 No. 07 | pg. 1/2 |

American is saturated with messages propagated by mass media. What was originally created for encouraging consumerism is now being promoted to a society that is being consumed by the messages themselves. Mass media is especially harmful to women because it constructs negative perceptions of women and reinforces them on a daily basis. Actions employed by the media are not always what they seem, but instead they act as catalysts for dangerous effects on women and society as a whole. This paper will address the tools used by media against women and will analyze the consequences of their use.

Mass media is a potent tool used to influence its audience in many ways, although most people would like to believe that they are not affected by . This is because “advertising’s influence is quick, it’s cumulative, and for the most part, it’s subconscious” (Killing Us Softly). The standard that advertising creates affects women deeply and it is absolutely inescapable. According to Rosalind Gill, “we live in an era of 360 degree branding” (75). Advertisements are found on televisions, buses, on the sides of buildings, and in the magazines people read. Gill also stated that she “was concerned with the ‘currency’ of adverts- the way in which they permit the meaning of one thing to be expressed in terms of another,” because it suggested a direct correlation between someone’s worth as a person and that of owning a specific product or looking a certain way (49). Although “the media are hardly hypodermic needles injecting a passive and unsuspecting culture” with messages that people accept openly and willingly, they certainly help to shape the most important aspects of being human, like “our identities, our dreams, our hopes, our ambitions, and our fears” (Douglas 18). Mass media affects each member of society because its reach is vast, its bite is quick, and its message seeps into the very fibers that are woven together to create a culture of misperceptions about women.

Indeed, it is the effect that the mass media has on a person’s identity that is most profound because without an identity, a person’s value lessens in a culture made up of consumers serving as the target audience. The message that advertisements are quite literally sending out is that people are equivalent to the products they purchase. These products “are given an exchange value,” and the descriptions of these products “are translated into statements about who we are and who we aspire to become” (Gill 50). This turns a person’s identity into a product, instead of a composite of thoughts and feelings, in an attempt to turn human worth into that of what can be found in a store. The effect of this is that a person’s actual identity and the way that person is perceived by others becomes skewed. This endangers people because society regards these messages about what people are and what people should be as absolute truths, instead of culturally constructed standards of what it means to be successful (Murray). Identity is the heart of humanity. When identity is taken away from people or is transformed into a thing, their humanity is subsequently stripped from them.

While the media attempt to target every person, the level of exposure is dictated by gender, and the majority of harmful messages are focused more toward women. For instance, in media such as magazines where a person relies on an image to relate a feeling, girls are often made to look inferior. Jean Kilbourne notes that “the body of girls is usually passive, vulnerable, and very different from the body languages of boys and men.” This perpetuates the idea of weakness in women “whereas men are given dignity and strength” (Killing Us Softly). Even more significant is that while media are larger for women, they attempt to make women’s value and worth smaller. Gill states that “there are clear differences in the kinds of touch that women and men in adverts employ.” She goes on to say that men’s touch is used for purpose, such as reaching out to grab products or building and creating. Women’s touch, however, is “light and caressing and often seemed to have no purpose at all” (79-80). This type of media is what Theresa de Lauretis refers to as “technologies of gender” which means that “the representation of gender is its construction” (12). In other words, the way women are perceived is not necessarily truthful. They are seen a certain way, because they are made to be seen that way (Mendible 7). This fallacy perpetuated by gender-divided media affects women more harshly because women are more harmfully depicted than are men.

Being a woman in America’s media-obsessed culture also means living up to the beauty standard that advertisers set in place. Being beautiful is, in American society, the most important role a woman should fulfill. Naomi Wolf believes “beauty is a currency system like the gold standard” (3). The products that were previous determinates of self-worth become second to that of beauty. This is incredibly problematic because “’beauty’ is not universal, or changeless, though the West pretends that all ideals of female beauty stem from one Platonic Ideal Woman” (Wolf 4). Furthermore, media couples the idea of beauty with that of morality. The reason for this can be found within shows and movies. Sharon Hayes and Stacey Tantleff-Dunn found that good characters are generally attractive and kind, whereas the concept of evil is linked with “cruelty and general unattractiveness” (415). Subsequently, these beauty ideals are “internalized, rationalized, and socially legitimized.” Meaning women are simultaneously being told that they are only valued for their beauty, “yet beauty codes make clear that most women do not measure up aesthetically” (Johnston and Taylor 954). Toni Raiten-D’Antonio claims “by adding these moral assumptions to the evaluation of a person’s appearance, we amplify the shame they are supposed to feel” (111). Beauty in reality is subjective, but the mass media constructs and upholds a narrow standard for what it means to be beautiful. Therefore, mass media is no longer solely attacking the product choices that consumers make, but also the consumers themselves.

In lieu of beauty being so highly regarded, women are expected by society to adhere to the beauty standard. When women do not naturally fit the standard or do not constantly strive to fit the standard, they are considered to have failed themselves, and most often, are told that they should be ashamed. Although, “no one is marched off for electrolysis at the end of a rifle…the disciplinary practices of femininity produces a ‘subjected and practiced,’ an inferiorized, body. This system aims at turning women into the docile and compliant companions of men” (Bartky 75). Yet there have been “vitriolic attacks in press and magazines on women who fail to live up to increasingly narrow normative requirements of feminine appearance” (Gill 2). This requirement, in turn, forces women to give up parts of themselves. Susan J. Douglas writes:

We can play sports, excel at school, go to college, aspire to – and get – jobs previously reserved for men, be working mothers and so forth. But in exchange, we must obsess about our faces, weight, breast size, clothing brands, about pleasing men and being envied by other women. (16)

The standard is already so small that the majority of women cannot meet the requirement set forth for them, and when they fail, they must absolve themselves with shame.

As these standards become increasingly narrow, it is important to note that there is yet another category of women who are affected negatively by the media. Jean Kilbourne states that “it’s an impossible ideal for just about everyone, but it’s absolutely impossible for women who aren’t white. Women of color are generally considered beautiful only if they approximate the white ideal” including “tamed hair,” lighter skin tone, and “white” facial features (Killing Us Softly). As this idea is perpetuated, there is a “constant disavowal of one’s own flesh.” (Murray). Furthermore, women of color are stereotyped and depicted in ways where they “are not individuals; rather they are projected as characters and a mass of body parts for males’ consumption” (Stephens and Phillips 42). An example of this is in cocoa drink advertisements where “representations of women of African origin frequently play on themes of ‘darkness’ and sexuality…in which both the woman and the drink are signified as ‘hot chocolate’” (Gill 79). There is also a trend among advertisers where women of color are “often featured in jungle settings wearing leopard skins as if they were exotic animals” (Killing Us Softly). Instead of allowing these women dignity and humanity, the media are presenting them as dessert drinks and an entirely different species from what they are. Mendible refers to this as a “convenient fiction” where bodies of color “function within a social and cultural taxonomy that registers but an echo of the clamor, complexity, and variety of women who embody” them (1). Therefore, the media are denying many women of color a chance for acknowledgement, while telling the women of color who are mentioned that they are equivalent to products instead of people.

Another way in which the media categorically strips women of their humanity is when these women are a living embodiment of what the media deem as ugly, disgusting, or wrong. Perhaps one of the most fitting examples today is when a woman is fat. Not only is fat an immediate determinate for ugliness by the media, but it is also cause for being stripped of one’s personhood completely. “In short, the fat body is discursively constructed as a failed body project” (Murray). Being fat is stigmatizing for all people, but it brings on a slew of new requirements for women. Not only is the fat body seen as “ugly” but it is also seen as something that needs to be controlled. Samantha Murray recounts a personal experience saying, “The very name of the ‘Control Top’ underpants suggested they were indeed a disciplining device, a reminder that the fat body must be strictly patrolled and policed” (156). Furthermore, the media constantly “emphasizes that women are defined by [their] bodies” (Douglas). Therefore, the message is not simply that fat itself needs to be tamed, but that fat women need to be disciplined and controlled. Accordingly, society learns “these knowledges, internalize[s] them, and deploy[s] them at an almost pre-conscious level: [society] has a learned negative response to fat bodies, and their aesthetic transgressions” (Murray). Because of this, the fat body is seen as deviant and alien and “in order to be accorded personhood, is expected to engage in a continual process of transformation” (Murray). Consequently, there is a fear equated with the fat body and any body that simply is not thin, encouraging shame and disgust toward these people for living in bodies the media deem as unacceptable.

The most important truth in relation to the media is that it is built on myth. “Advertisements work by constructing myths, in such a way as to endow the products with meanings which appear to be natural and eternal” (Gill 49). Advertising myth is also used when weighing people’s physical appearances. However, products eventually break and “beauty” will inevitably fade, because the standard is constantly changing. Wolf states that “modern women are growing, moving, and expressing their individuality, as the myth has it; “beauty” is, by definition, inert, timeless, and generic. That this hallucination is necessary and deliberate is evident in the way “beauty” so directly contradicts women’s real situation” (6). This is also evident because in the 1950s and 1960s the media myth was that women “weren’t changing when they were” and the myth now is that women’s equality “is an accomplished fact when it isn’t” (Douglas 4). If the “perfect lifestyle” is only depicted in these elaborate media-constructed fantasies, then it should be argued that the perfect lifestyle is unattainable because, like media, the foundation for it is also a myth.

Contradictory media-constructed myths are abundant, but one of the most common is that people’s health and well-being are the number one priority of advertisers. Media have created an environment that devalues women, masking their concern for sales with feigned concern for women’s happiness. This environment:

Is an environment that we all swim in, as fish swim in water. And just as it’s difficult to be healthy in a toxic physical environment, if we’re breathing poisoned air for example, so it’s difficult to be healthy in a ‘toxic cultural environment’ – an environment that surrounds us with unhealthy images and constantly sacrifices our health for the sake of profit. (Killing Us Softly)

Proof of this can be found in a study from the 1990s which “indicated that the magazines most often read by women contained ten times the number of advertisements and articles on weight and dieting than the magazines read by men and by the end of the century, between 90 and 85 percent of those who suffered from eating disorders were women” (Gourley 67). Because of these statistics, one could argue that the media actually depend on creating unhealthy thoughts and habits in women, in the hopes of generating profit. If no woman is perfect the way she is, then no woman is excluded from buying into the message. This in turn creates problems rather than fixing them. “The obsession with thinness, the tyranny of the ideal image of beauty…these are problems that affect us all and can only be solved by changing the environment” (Killing Us Softly). Therefore, until the harm that media is capable of causing becomes acknowledged, people’s health will continue to be at risk for profit’s sake.

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