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In this essay I will discuss the images of women in mass media and mass culture and how realistic or discursive they are. I will approach this through observing and analysing media advertising and stereotyping of females as a whole. I will examine the role of the woman in modern society and consider her position in public culture. I will begin with an explanation of Cantor’s theory that representations of women in the media are unreasonable and too different from reality in present society (Cantor, M. 1978). This hypothesis suggests that these images reflect only a few “real” women and disregards those of different colour, age, status or sexual orientation. The fact is that female icons in the media reshape the perceptions of women and exacerbate the flaws of ordinary ones. Goffman (1979) argues that while images of men are closer to reality, female are represented as “models pretending to be real persons”. This comes from the fact that women in mass media have lost their personality and have become an object of sight, a thing to be gazed at (Berger, J. 1972). I conclude that women in popular culture do not represent the complete reality but we can witness some improvement throughout recent years, which I will mention later in the essay.
First, I will start with the way that women are displayed in the media and what their role they adopt in terms of populism. Females, either celebrities or models, are often put on exhibit in different types of media in order to promote products, shows, movies, events. There are different stereotypes- from the femme fatale to the supermom but there is a connection between all of them. They are always white, slim, and perfectly-shaped which implies a certain ideal of the modern woman. Problems come when ordinary women are forced to conform to this ideal. And when I say “forced”, I mean trying to live up to the imposed visions of female beauty. There are set standards of beauty and women try to meet these standards in order to be liked and admired. Women’s main concern is their body shape. They try to achieve this mesomorphic figure. This means an ideal shape of the body which for women is an “hourglass” figure (Handout – “Is Media Sexist”). I argue that these beauty standards are established for a purpose. Everybody gains from women’s insecurities except them. When women are not self-confident, they turn to cosmetic and diet products to achieve the desired standard. This results immediately in the profit and the development of the companies and the industries. For evidence I turn to data from (BBC News World Edition, Feb 5. 2003) where the diet industry alone is worth 40 to 100 billion (U.S.) a year. What is worse, being surrounded by all these perfect images, women start to feel depressed, lose their self-confidence and develop eating disorders. The American research group Anorexia, Nevrosa & Related Eating Disorders, Inc. says that one out of every four female students regulates her weight through fasting, skipping meals or vomiting. “Beauty demands sacrifices” – this is the excuse for women suffering and struggling to achieve the ideal. However, this ideal lies in the realm of the unrealistic beauty. It is impossible to achieve perfection and what is more, flaws make us unique and charming. Nevertheless, not everybody feels that way, especially when every single advertisement, show or magazine has imposed the thinness as the main factor for attractiveness. Canadian researcher Gregory Frouts reports that over three-quarters of the actresses in television shows are underweight and those who happen to be heavier are criticised and get negative comments. Magazine industry has made some efforts to oppose the trend of displaying only slim models by putting a heavy-set model on its cover but the advertisers remain sceptic towards their ability to sell beauty products. Another group being affected by the beauty standards are teenagers. 50% to 70% of all preadolescent girls, for instance, are reported to have been on at least one diet and are dissatisfied with their bodies. This stems from the fact that more young girls are involved in media and popular culture. By observing their idols that dress provocatively and act controversially, teenage girls look up to them and imitate them, believing this is the right behaviour. In her book the Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf (2002, page 3) says: “The notorious Calvin Klein ad campaigns eroticised sixteen-year-olds when I was a teenager, then eroticised fourteen-year-old models in the early nineties, then twelve-year-olds in the late nineties.” With reducing the age of the girls on exposure in the media, it becomes harder for youngsters to ignore the sexualized ideal and not to obey the market’s and the industry’s conventions.
The truth is that this sexualized ideal and pornography have started to influence popular culture and this leads to the objectification of women (Briggs, A. and Cobley, P. 1998). Knowing that sex sells in today’s society and men are attracted to women on the base of sexuality and seductiveness, the only thing which comes to mind when seeing another commercial with a beautiful and provocative girl, is sex. The need for men’s attention and the wish to be desired are the main reasons for a woman to change herself.
In spite of the change, women will hardly achieve this ideal because of the high and unattainable requirements it sets. The term which applies to this situation is hyperreal. It is a post-modern theory which suggests that we cannot tell the difference between image and reality (Baudrillard, J.) It seems that media has reshaped usual representations and it is hard to perceive an image of a celebrity going out in the public without makeup to walk her dog, for example. The incapability of making a distinction between media image and reality and setting an expected model for women’s appearance make it harder for women to meet the demands of the popular media. That is to stand for something that does not exist. This is the time when the simulacra replaces reality. The Simulacra (a copy) starts as a reflection of reality, then it masks and misrepresents it till there is no longer a basic reality and the simulacra becomes a substitution for the real world (Baudrillard, J. 1988). Good examples are processes which help us transform our image such as digital photography and editing, virtual reality, controlling weight. These methods of changing oneself could have a great impact on the simulacra and it will start to disguise and fight reality. For instance, nowadays is easier to fool the audience. With the developing technology and the growth of cosmetic surgery industry it has become a common practice for faces of the media to cover certain imperfections and to hide flaws. I will argue that female movie stars are highly misrepresented regarding their appearance. The paradox comes when even in movies for ancient times, female characters are still perfect, with perfect skin and white teeth never mind the situation, the place (stranded on a desert island – for example, the TV series Lost) or the period of time. Also, body doubles are used to veil some weaknesses of the actresses. (such as Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman). Studies show that 85% of these body doubles have breast implants. (Kilbourne, J., Can’t Buy My Love, 2001). However, there is scientific evidence which suggests a lot of women with breast implants suffer different side effects: pain, deformations of the skin, insensitive breasts or potentional tumour. (Centre for Policy Research for Women and Families, Washington, D.C.) Studies indicate that even plastic surgeries among teens have increased by 50% from 1996-1998 mostly for girls. This results from media superstars parading with their plastic surgeries and advertising them everywhere which eventually leads to a model for imitation. This non realistic model, however, cannot be accepted by everyone. Very few women could achieve this ideal. Even so advertised among girls – Barbie cannot be a measure for perfection. Research comparing a computer model of a woman with Barbie-doll proportions shows that if put into practice, this exemplary woman would have a too weak back and a too narrow body to include all human organs. Eventually, such a woman would die from malnutrition. (Time, Nov 11. 1996). This is another example of the unrealistic image and role which women accept. There is another alternative that women have started to apply their desire for beauty and change- the reality TVs Extreme Makeover, The Swan or I Want a Famous Face. These people, mostly women, participating in the project are subjected to a strict diet and exercise regimes, psychological counselling and many surgical procedures. The aim is to transform the person physically and then the inner peace and tranquillity will be achieved resulting in one’s satisfaction with life. These programmes claim that all social and personal problems could be solved through cosmetic surgery. The only thing that the shows miss, however, is showing the potential risk of such interventions. Neither of them reveals the possibility of complications of plastic surgery. In this way particularly women are made to believe that ideal bodies are attainable and transforming one’s figure is a normal thing now. (Turner, L. 2004).
In other words, all kinds of media – television, film, radio, magazines and music video industries have a great influence on defining and identifying the conceptions of ideal physiques and figure. Music televisions such as MTV often display girls and women in the traditional role of a sex object, inviting and evoking sexual fantasies, whereas serious female musicians are rarely featured. Also, men are shown as sex objects less frequently. (MTV Programming; and Media Use in America, 2000, Mediascope). So, women are again in the submissive role but this is the way audience will perceive them. Most often, there is a connection between images and audiences. Fiske (1987) suggests that audiences recognise two different strategies when interpreting women’s images. One is the realistic interpretation which implies the presence of real persons and the belief that the representations are genuine. The other is the discursive interpretation which reveals a non realistic image and depends on the social and cultural values of the audiences themselves. This suggests that images of women in the media correspond to the needs and the values of contemporary society. Eventually, interaction occurs between media representations and their addressees. It is in their hands to decide whether to believe or not, whether to be like these images or not but the most important thing is that the women should have the right to choose and not to follow an unrealistic ideal just because of the trend. I conclude that the conception that women always have to perfect their bodies has made a huge progress. Nevertheless, there have been some indications for a change in recent years.
Naomi Wolf (2002) argues that from the first publishing of the book, which criticise the demand and the judgement upon women concerning the beauty, there has been some room for improvement now. According to her, there is no more just one representation of the woman in popular culture. Women of colour have now more publicity in all fields of media (e.g. Rhianna, Beyonce), as the second one is one of the most successful and profitable singers and is more of a plus-size woman at the same time. Speaking of plus-size women, I suggest looking at celebrities like Queen Latifah launching a plus-size clothing line. Before, it was unthinkable to display old women and whenever this happens, they were transformed in such a way that they will have no wrinkles and will look no older than thirty. Now, media is overwhelmed by statements like “Demi Moore is not afraid of getting old”. Different age, colour, even sexual orientation (Ellen DeGeneres- openly gay TV host) have started to get accepted by general public and gain more popularity in terms of the real representation of women.
I would like to conclude that there are still stereotypes and a common misrepresentation of women in the media but it is all starting to create a greater variety of beauty standards which result in a more realistic, though still demanding, conception of beauty and femininity.
1. Baudrillard, J. (ed.) (1988) Selected Writings, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
2. BBC News World Edition, Feb 5. 2003, The Diet business: Banking on failure.
3. Beauty and Body Image in the Media
4. Berger, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
5. Briggs, A. and Cobley, P. (1998) The Media: An Introduction, Essex: Pearson Education Limited
6. Cantor, M. (1978) “Where are the women in public broadcasting?” in G.Tuchman (ed.) Hearth and Home: Images of Women in the Media, New York: Oxford University Press.
7. Centre for Policy Research for Women and Families, Washington, D.C.
10. Friske, J. (1987) Television Culture, London: Methuen.
11. Goffman, E. (1979) Gender Advertisements, New York: Harper & Row.
12. Handout – “Is Media Sexist”
13. Kilbourne, J. (2001) Can’t Buy My Love, New York: Touchstone.
14. Moore, S. (1998) “Here’s looking at you, kid!” in L.Gamman and M.Marshment (eds) The Female Gaze, London: Women’s Press.
15. MTV Programming; and Media Use in America, 2000, Mediascope
16. The Canadian Women’s Health Network (Body Image and the Media). http://www.cwhn.ca/node/40776
17. Time, Nov 11. 1996, Barbie boots up. http://www.time.com
18. Turner, L. (2004), Cosmetic Surgery: the new face of reality TV
19. Wolf N. (ed.) ( 2002) The Beauty Myth, London: Chatto & Windus
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