Gender is a social construct and the media plays a big role in influencing perceptions of gender roles and shaping the behaviors that stem from these gender roles. Due to the increased sensitization of the role of the media in defining gender roles and portrayal, there has been a gradual change in media representation of gender and gender issues. This essay will assess how media representation of gender has changed, particularly in the US and the UK. Media representation of gender fits into the wider theoretical debate on gender issues, and helps to explain whether gender is a social or biological construct. Media representation of gender has changed for the better on three key aspects. The underrepresentation of women in media is improving, the normalization of violence against women in the media is being eradicated and the stereotypical depiction of men and women’s relationships is being done away with. This essay will assess how these three elements of media representation of gender are changing with focus on the US and the UK.
Underrepresentation of women in mainstream media has been a running theme since the conception of video and digital media. The underrepresentation of women in media affects societal portrayal of culture. Women being underrepresented in the media has often led to women issues being overlooked. The media is a powerful tool that influences means through which societal issues are addressed. As of 1989, there were three times as many white men as there were women in primetime television (Wood, 1994). Women of color and other minority women were represented to an even lesser amount. Furthermore, the number of men in newscasts doubled that of women (Rasky, 1989). This was the situation in the US in the late 1980s. Sink and Mastro (2016) conducted a survey that shows women are much more represented in the media than in the 1980s. While men are still more represented, the situation has improved with more women featuring on primetime television and being part of newscasts. In British television, the situation is the same, with women being more represented in recent years as compared to the past (OFCOM, 2018).
Another aspect of media representation that has been changing is the normalization of violence against women by the media. Through constant portrayal of women on the one hand as being passive, and men on the other as being aggressive, the media normalizes violence against women. Constant screening of sexually violent content and shows on television leads to increased tolerance and approval of such violence against women. Both men and women viewing such content accept it as normal in their relationships. Another aspect of the normalization of violence against women stems from the way the media reports incidences of gender-based violence. In previous times, the mainstream media was aloof to incidences of gender-based violence. The fact that such incidences were ignored often contributed to a spike in rates of violence. In the US, this happened before the 1970s when many incidences of gender based violence were not reported by the media. However, since the late 70s and 80s, there was a shift towards mainstream media reporting about gender-based violence cases with greater frequency (Lee, 2007). Since then, sensitization on the benefits of reporting on gender-based violence cases has helped media houses to report more on it. In the UK, the media is also guilty of presenting violence by men as ‘normal’ while violence by women is presented as ‘irrational’ (Naylor, 2001). However, the trend has also changed in recent years with media corporations being made aware of the negative effects of biased reporting. The normalization of violence against women by the media is therefore one aspect that has been changing over the years.
The third aspect of media presentation of the gender which has changed is the stereotypical presentation of the relationship between men and women. Such stereotypical presentations include the perception shared by the media that women are more dependent on men. Men themselves are depicted as being independent. Wood (1994) takes the example of the award winning Disney show called ‘The Little Mermaid’. It is one of a number of shows that depicted women as being dependent on men. Another show she highlights is The Smurfs. While the male smurfs had real names, the female lacked one, and was simply known as smurfette. To the audience, this conveys the message that the female character is not important and that she is inferior to the male smurfs. Another way in which the media made stereotypical representations of the relationship between men and women is by casting women as caregivers and men as breadwinners. Most television shows and programmes often ignored the professional lives of women and instead only focused on their roles at home. While some of the characters had titles such as Professor, Doctor or Lawyer, little was shown of their career lives. The effect of these stereotypical presentations of the role of women in society is that it fostered the notion that women should only be relevant around the home and not in a professional setting. However, sensitization has helped to change this trend with the media being made aware of their role in achieving gender equality (IMS, 2020). Media representation of men as being able and responsible also has negative effects on men. Teenage boys and bachelors for example are pressured into fitting in with societal perceptions (Taniguchi, 2021).
Media representation of gender and gender issues is constantly changing. While there is still some work to be done to ensure gender equality is achieved, there is progress being made. The gender representations in the media fits the social interactionism theory of gender. It defines why gender is a social construct. Studying the way the media operates is crucial in improving social life because the media is a key tool in the operation of society. As Back (2015) puts it, such study is valuable because it makes sociologists attend to the routine and temporal aspects of social life.
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