Should media representation of women be a feminist priority?

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This week the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3 for short) was held in Los Angeles. This is an event the makers of computer games hold ever year to show off their wares; and every year sparks the same debate about the representation of women. This year marked the announcement of the next generation of Playstations and Xboxes, with Sony and Microsoft announcing a slew of games for their shiny new machines. Notably lacking, particularly from Microsoft, were games where the main character was not a man.  

Now I know what some of you will be thinking – does this really matter? Even those interested in gender equality (which I imagine is most of you) may be thinking that we have more pressing concerns. Women are still paid substantially less than men, are still discriminated against in many professions, and still have to live in a culture where rape and sexual assault are trivialised and misunderstood. The weighty issues are many, and our resources are not infinite. Surely we should be concentrating on the big, serious things first, and we can get to the issue of media representation later.

I get this argument, I really do. Set against big concrete problems like job discrimination, media representation can seem a bit…trivial. But I think the key here is that these things can’t and shouldn’t be ‘set against’ each other. They are part and parcel of the same overall problem of negative and stereotypical views of women.

We don’t have time to go through all the many, many problems with the representation of women in the media, but, for fun, let’s list a few:

Number one – women are often not presented as characters but simply as ‘rewards’ for the main (male) character (kill the bad guy, get the girl), or as window dressing (e.g. barely dressed women draped over a male character to demonstrate his debauched lifestyle).

Number two – Most female characters (more so than male characters) fit into a small number of stereotypical roles or personalities; e.g. the Mean Girl, the shrewish girlfriend/fiancé (see any of the Hangover films), or (a more recent addition) the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

Number three – (this is strongly related to the first two, and may be the most important) in many film and TV storylines, the female characters lack any agency whatsoever, with the plots largely driven by the decisions of the male characters. The most obvious evidence of this comes from the Bechdel test. This is a simple test you can do with any film or TV show. Just count how many times any two female characters have a conversation with each other that is not about a man. If it’s at least once then the film passes the Bechdel test. You would be amazed how rarely this happens.

So why does this matter? It matters because people will likely ‘meet’ more people through the media than they ever will in real life. From the earliest age, their perceptions about what things girls and boys should like, what they should aspire to, how they should be as people, are informed by what they see in books and on TV.

In a previous post I talked about some research showing that professors hiring for a science job perceived a female candidate as less competent than an otherwise completely identical male candidate. Let’s think about the people sitting down to evaluate these candidates. As children they will have experienced an environment where 50% fewer of the highest profile children’s books feature a female main character, where girls are represented as passive and beautiful whereas boys are strong and agentic, and where mothers keep house and fathers go out to work (in fact the studies I linked to there relate to books of the 90’s and 2000’s, so if we’re talking about professors then things were probably a lot worse). Now, as adults, they watch TV shows and films which rarely show women even talking to each other, let alone having fully independent emotional lives. How can they not have internalised some stereotypical notions about gender? And how can these not then filter into their intuitive feelings about what a male or a female job applicant might be like, what their abilities might be, and so on?

The evidence supports this contention. A number of experimental studies have shown clear effects of media exposure on attitudes and behaviour. The majority of this research has focused on how women themselves are affected by sexist media representations. For example, in some striking work, Paul Davies and his colleagues showed that women exposed to a traditionally sexist TV ad shied away from leadership roles, and were less likely to express an interest in more ‘masculine’ maths careers, than were women shown a neutral ad. Many more studies find similar results (see for example here, here, here, and here). From my very quick search of the literature, it seems like more work is needed on the other side – how media might affect men and women’s perceptions of women in general, or in particular situations like reviewing job applications. However, there are some interesting initial findings – for example, see here and here.

The more this evidence stacks up, the clearer it is (at least to me) that media representation matters. Whether women are discriminated against at work may matter more than whether we can see strong female characters on TV, but, to a stronger extent that we realise, one may flow from the other. 

About Robert de Vries

I'm an Early Career Research Fellow in the Sociology department at the University of Oxford. I'm mainly interested in how people are affected by concerns about their social status; how it colours the way they think, feel, and behave. I try and contribute here regularly, but my addiction to writing excessively long posts keeps getting in the way.
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2 Responses to Should media representation of women be a feminist priority?

  1. Reblogged this on Say Cheese! and commented:
    “So why does this matter? It matters because people will likely ‘meet’ more people through the media than they ever will in real life. From the earliest age, their perceptions about what things girls and boys should like, what they should aspire to, how they should be as people, are informed by what they see in books and on TV.” This sums everything up! It is true for all under represented groups. If people really started to deconstruct what we see so often in the media, they will realize that it influences how we think to a staggering degree.

  2. Pingback: Girls: Use Your Voice; Change the World | Bold & Free

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