Monday, May 4, 2009

Under/Misrepresented: Media’s Portrayal of Women

The media has put so many constraints on how society is able to define the term woman as there is almost no diversity in the messages they are sending the public. On a superficial level, the looks of the women allowed to appear in the media, particularly those in the fashion industry, put a strain on the average woman by narrowly defining beauty as tall, as slender as possible and blonde. The attack on what an ideal woman should look like is what offends me least.

It is the limited roles women play within our media that are furthering old stereotypes and molding the idea of what a women should be to a few clear standards. Women are incomplete unless they get a man and then keep him satisfied. They are either completely passive or dominating and overly sexual. There is no middle ground and either way the focus of their lives involves pleasing a man. This is evident in television, print media and particularly in advertising.


            Women’s portrayal within television shows is wrong on various levels. To begin with, females are quite underrepresented since female characters only make up one third of the characters on prime time TV and only 18% of the characters on children’s shows (Marquit, 2). Of that limited number of female characters only a mere 28% of women on TV work (Graham ,1). This is partially due to the lack of women writing shows and the men writing them are writing through their experience. Studies have shown that with the hiring of just one woman in a powerful behind the scenes position the women employed to work onscreen increases (GW+M ,1).

            Besides being underrepresented, television furthers traditional stereotypes about women through the types of characters women are allowed to play and the way these characters are perceived by others. There is only a narrow selection of roles they can play, which only continues to limit the narratives we are told about women and gives more weight to those few narratives consumers are provided with, all of which do not clearly depict the average woman.

             One of the most common themes within the plots of television shows is that a women’s success is not measured by her personal accomplishments and their career but rather through their standing with men. The most successful career women are shown as having had to pass up love and are then incomplete because they haven’t found a man. If women are personally successful, they still aren’t fulfilled because they aren’t complete until they’ve found romance (Marquit, 2). Also very prevalent is the way women on shows often discuss romance, making it the focus of female characters whereas men discuss romance on rare occasions (Graham ,1).

            Female characters can be broken down into three categories, the “daydreamer,” the “derailed,” and the “daredevil.” Daydreamers are passive personalities whose aspirations only involve love. The derailed has aspirations that will take the backseat to romantic relationships. Daredevils have strong drives and lots of ambition and don’t see love as the ultimate prize as they are able to maintain focus on their personal goals (Nagel, 1).

            Another way in which women are stereotyped is according to their hair color. The blondes are either “the bitch” of the show or they play the role of the “girl next door.” Redheaded females are often depicted as tomboys but they are still generally attractive (by conventional standards) and thin (MNet, 1).

            Within sitcoms there is a tendency to have females portrayed as “superwomen.” They are able to have jobs a well as singlehandedly care for the home and family. Though this displays women’s ability to take on any role, it still forces women into the category of the home-maker and releases men from any obligation to the home (Marquit, 2). Even though women may be allowed into the workplace, they aren’t ever really allowed out of the home.

            Reality television is no better as the women selected for the shows demonstrate that females are stupid, gold diggers and in desperate need of validation from the opposite sex (Bergeron, 1).

            The appearances of the women on television, as with any women in the media, are not equivalent to that of the average woman and even young children notice this. Over fifty percent of both young boys and girls responded in a survey that female television characters are more attractive than the women they know in real life (Graham, 2). Even worse is that between elementary school and high school, a young girl’s happiness with their appearance drops from sixty percent to twenty nine percent (WAMPOW, 1).

Children also realize the differences in the way men and women are portrayed in television. Being a leader, wanting sex and playing sports are all characteristics of males according to children in a survey, and women are more prone to whining and crying. It was also noticed that women tend to rely on others to help them should a problem arise but males will often take care of things themselves (Graham, 2).

            Besides children being able to clearly see the different way in which women and men are portrayed on television, they are learning that these are the roles genders should play into. Studies have found that if you watch TV fifteen hours or more a week then you are more likely to believe what you see on television (Marquit, 2). If youth are already noticing these gender stereotypes then these messages certainly have an affect on adults who have been consuming media their entire lives. Women are already misrepresented within our media, which is bad enough, children should be sheltered from this media betrayal. Otherwise we are imposing the medias definition of women, which is an unrealistic and sexist one, onto children creating the foundation for the type of thinking that will only further the stereotypes instead of change them.



            Advertising improperly portrays women visually as well as with the select roles they are forced to play. Within television advertising aimed at children, girls are shown in the home seventy percent of the time whereas their boy counterparts are shown exploring life both in and out of the home.  Advertising also tends to show men utilizing the product unlike the women present in the commercial furthering the bias that men are in control and more able to use the product (Marquit, 4).

            A majority of the damage advertising does to women stems from their hyper-sexualization of females. There is much more weight placed on women’s appearance than there is on a mans.  Twenty six percent of the models in commercials had comments referring to the models looks. Only seven percent of males appearances were referred to (Graham, 1).

            Often in advertising, particularly in print publications, a women’s body is dismembered to sell a product. This means that only one body part is focused on, generally a section with sexual connotations related to it, separating it from the whole, and relating it to a product (Greening, 4). This doesn’t allow women to view their bodies as entire entities. Instead they are made up of separate pieces and one area of imperfection makes it impossible for the whole to be beautiful. When women are able to see each part of their body separately, it makes it easier to compare their parts to the women on display in our media. Such a comparison is not only unrealistic but doesn’t allow any woman whose look deviates from the popular images of skinny women, to see themselves as attractive. Media images play a bigger role than do the opinions of friends and family when it comes down to heterosexual women’s formation of their body image. Lesbians have been found to be less affected by this (Risska, 2).

            Among teens, girls who view commercials on television where the models are underweight, lose self-confidence. The greatest losses and body dissatisfaction were found in girls that spend the greatest amount of time and effort on their looks (MNet, 2). Here I think a huge problem is how easy it is for young girls to get stuck consuming these negative media messages making them unable to fully see themselves without comparing themselves to the images they see on television. There are so many messages pushing the same definition of how women should look and act that, for young girls especially, getting caught up in this whirlwind of what the ideal women should be and striving to become that isn’t that difficult.


Print media

            Magazines and news publications also under and misrepresent women. Less than one third of the cover stories on papers involve women and issues relevant to them. It is also clear that the expert opinions of females is rarely desired and is used minimally (Gersh, 1-2).

            Within news media women are not only underrepresented since male experts are consulted eighty seven percent of the time and females are chosen a mere thirteen percent of the time, but progressive messages about women are blocked. News publications feature “anti-feminist” writings more than those promoting a progressive program for women. The New York Times published six opinion pieces from counter-progressive organizations and the Wall Street Journal published five. Neither publication ran articles from large, progressive groups that year (GW+M, 2).

In teens magazines geared toward girls, thirty five percent of the articles revolve around dating issues and only twelve percent are career and school oriented. Articles concerning appearance make up thirty seven percent of the total. In media that our youth consumes, there is already a focus on appearance and relationships with males that is more prevalent than issues concerning their futures, such education and careers (Graham, 2).-GC                                                    


Bergeron, S.(3/8/2007). Reality TV’s dismal portrayal of women. Reclaim the Media.


Gersh, D. (May 15, 1993). Women still underrepresented.Editor & Publisher, vol 126(issue 20),2.


Graham, V. & Hernandez, L.(1997).New studies on media, girls and gender roles. Kaiser Family Foundation/Children Now.


Greening, K.(2006). The objectification and dismemberment of women in the media. Undergraduate Research Journal for the Human Sciences. Vol 5.


GW+M.Fewer characters/roles in entertainment media. Girls Women + Media Project.


Nagel, J. (2008)Gender in media Females don’t rule. Animation World Network.3.


Marquit, J.(2009). Images of femininity: media portrayals of women. Associated Content.


MNet.(2009).Media and girls. Media Awareness Network.


Risska, R.(1998). SF state researchers release study about women, the mass media, and the development of body image. SFSU Public Affairs Press Release. 14,3.


WAMPOW.( 2009-03-08). Quick facts. Women Against the Media’s Portrayal of Women.




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