We All Lose When Gender is Misrepresented
My focus is generally on depictions of boys and men in popular culture, but regular readers of this blog know that I am equally concerned about the ways girls and women are portrayed. How could I not be when I see representations like these in the children’s department of mainstream retailers?
Contrast these women—sexualized, hyper-feminine, posing, preening, and pink, pink, pink—with one of their male colleagues—brooding, dark, intense, physically powerful, and taking action. (I will save for another day the discussion of the male stereotypes inherent in this image.)
If representations like these were an anomaly, I wouldn’t have much to write about, but, sadly, they are more rule than exception. And representations matter. As sociologists Katie Milestone and Anneke Meyer wrote in their 2012 book Gender & Popular Culture, representation shapes meaning:
” Representation…is an active process of creating meanings: for example, the words we choose to describe a group of people or the images we use to depict an event, i.e. the ways in which we represent them, shape the meanings of these people and events.”
What meaning is conveyed by the (mis)representations of Wonder Woman and her fun and fearless friends, especially when compared with the very sombre and serious Man of Steel?
Misrepresentation is not just about how women look, although as these t-shirts demonstrate, that would be enough. It’s also about how people of the opposite sex relate to one another.
In a 2012 episode of popular teen series Arrow, a friend of lead character Oliver suggested that they find some “leggy models” and eat sushi off of them. In a song that reached the Billboard Top 10 in March, 2013 Lil Wayne rapped about a woman only eating dick because she’s on a very strict diet. In his video for Blurred Lines, released just a short time ago, Robin Thicke chose to surround himself with naked women who do little more than prance around fully-clothed men. What do these representations teach boys about how to view and relate to women?
The problem is also manifested in the roles assigned to women in film and television. With females rarely cast as protagonists, what do boys learn about the value of women’s and girls’ stories?
When women are placed in a film, TV show, or book as a love interest and nothing else, fulfilled only by a happy ending with a handsome hero, what message is sent about relationships? Some of you may be familiar with the term “heterosexual script.” The trope of a woman passively waiting for a man to notice her is a key aspect of the script, which, with its double-standards about sexual experience (good for boys, bad for girls) and commitment (bad for boys, good for girls) may “normalize” traditional attitudes about male and female sexual roles.[i]
The misrepresentation of females (and males) draws a line between the two genders, telling even young children that their gender predisposes them to certain interests and endows them with certain skills or capabilities that the other does not or should not possess. The boundary is seen very clearly in toy shops where kids are told that there are “girl toys” and “boy toys” suited to the particular skills and interests of each (and never the twain shall meet). And what a dividing line that is. The “Categories” on the website for Toys R Us Canada tell us that “girls’ toys” include dolls & playsets, kitchens, dollhouses, and jewelry, while “boys’ toys” include action figures, vehicles & radio control, TV & film characters, and comic book superheroes.
These representations can be countered by the girls and women in a boy’s life, who very likely present an image of females that is starkly different from that shown in media, but let’s not kid ourselves. Left unchecked, popular culture is a formidable foe, its influence insidious. As Jennifer Pozner wrote in Reality Bites Back, media are “largely responsible for how we know what we know. In other words, media shape what we think of as ‘the truth’ about ‘the way things are.’”[ii]
We all lose when gender is misrepresented, whether male or female, and we all win when those misrepresentations are challenged. That is why I did not hesitate when invited to join the Brave Girls Alliance, a group of “businesses, experts, not-for-profit organizations, authors, activists, artists, parents, educators, adults, and girls” who have come together to ask media producers, corporations, and retailers to support girls’ empowerment. Our groundbreaking work will pay dividends for boys and girls, both of whom will benefit from seeing the true diversity of women and girls reflected in popular culture. In raising awareness of the issue of female stereotyping and sexualization in popular culture, the Brave Girls Alliance will also draw attention to the issue of gender bias in general and, hopefully, get people thinking about negative representations of men and masculinity as well.
The Alliance has an active social media presence on Twitter, under the handle @BraveGirlsWant, and on Facebook. We are currently raising funds for a hugely exciting campaign that will see tweets from supporters posted in Times Square, New York to draw attention to current problems with media representations of girls and women. If you are able, we would greatly appreciate a donation to help make this initiative a reality. If not, we invite you to share our posts and tweets to spread the word.
[i] Kim, Janna et al. “From Sex to Sexuality: Exposing the Heterosexual Script on Primetime Network Television” Journal of Sex Research 44, no. 2 (2007): p. 146-7, 156.
[ii] Pozner, Jennifer L. Reality Bites Back: the Troubling Truth about Guilty Pleasure TV. Berkeley: Seal Press, 2010, p. 94.