Feminism today is generalised as the driving force for procuring and guarding equal rights and opportunities for women and spreading awareness that issues do exist. An important aspect of this is women representation. This is not a recent concern. In fact, representation has always been a key matter for feminism (Zoonen 1994). Right from the 1860s, feminists in the USA and UK fought for the dignified treament of women in magazines and newspapers. During those days many women were beginning to seek social, educational, political and economic rights. Almost a century later, the “second-wave” of women’s movement brought an increased interest from activists and feminist scholars regarding the media portrayal of women (Brooks 1997: 13). Carter and Steiner (2004: 2) explained that sexist messages of media formed socialised people into thinking that “dichotomised and hierarchal” sex-role stereotypes were normal and natural. Inevitably these gave rise to gender stereotypes of what an ideal woman or man should look like in terms of body weight, height and skin colour.
Stereotypes do not necessarily represent ‘real’ people; a stereotype basically illustrates “a set of ideas or a set of beliefs about people” – an ideology (Itzin 1986: 128). As a consequence, images of beautiful perfectly proportioned women present themselves as “images that injure” (Elliot 2003: 8). Such media images or depictions provide a basis for comparison to society, thereby creating unreasonable and arguably unattainable expectations to the women of society. On the contrary, representation of men in the media has constantly been viewed as positive, admirable, emulative and often seen as the ‘norm’ (Carter and Steiner 2004: 3). This has further resulted in belief that men represent attributes opposite to the stereotypical female and hence are inclined to be represented by default (Durkin 1985). Arguably this representation has also slowly been changing with more scholars interested in the male depiction by the media.
The femininity of women’s bodies has consequently become a vision that is subjected to the male gaze (Zoonen 1994). This has led to a society where since women are aware they are being watched, they tend to watch and survey themselves, thus becoming an object (Berger 1972). Wolf (1991: 10) further argues that the portrayal of an ideal feminine image is a dissemination of “the beauty myth” i.e. the backlash against feminism which uses female beauty as a political weapon against women’s other advancements. Prior to the Industrial Revolution women had no means of comparing themselves to a physical ideal, but this changed significantly at the beginning of the nineteenth century and women began to be controlled by images of ‘ideal women’. This modern social reflex resulted in women releasing themselves from the feminine character of domesticity, thus expanding the beauty myth. Consequently an alternative female world came into existence with its own set of rules, regulations, sexuality and culture – with each factor as repressive as they were earlier (Wolf 1991: 16). This beauty myth is still powerful today, evidenced under the umbrella of current ideal images of the perfect body.
- Berger, J., Blomberg, S., Fox, C., Dibb, M. and Hollis, R. (n.d.) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin
- Brooks, A. (1997) Postfeminism: Feminism Cultural Theory and Cultural Forms. London: Routledge
- Carter, C. and Steiner, L. (eds) (2003) Critical Readings: Media and Gender. Maidenhead: Open University Press
- Durkin, K. (1985) ‘Television and Sex-Role Acquisition: Content’. British Journal of Social Psychology 24 (2), 101-113
- Elliott, D. (2003) ‘Moral Responsibilities and the Power of Pictures’. in Images That Injure: Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media. ed. by Lester, P.M. and Ross, S.D. Westport: Praeger, 7-14
- Itzin, C. (1986) ‘Media Images of Women: The Social Construction of Ageism and Sexism’ in Feminist Social Psychology. ed. by Wilkinson, S. Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 119-134
- Wolf, N. (1991) The Beauty Myth. New York: W. Morrow
- Zoonen, L.V. (1994) Feminist Media Studies. London: Sage Publications