The mass media is a prominent part of our everyday lives, impacting our opinions, values and beliefs as early as childhood. Whilst there are endless positive effects of the growing media organism, it expresses expectations for people depending on their gender, causing many to feel pressured to act a certain way. Media are certainly ‘technologies of gender’ (Van Zoonen 1994: 66) as they create a framework of what is acceptable as males and females, leading to self-discipline, due to the fear of deviating from these expectations. Boys are socialized into the idea that they should aim to be masculine and powerful, which is reflected through the media in countless ways; magazines with muscular male models, violent films usually having a male lead, term ‘gay’ previously used to describe feminine males in the media and men taking on the important and decisive roles in television. Girls, on the other hand, are often disciplined into being a powerless, sweet, ‘girly’ mother, wife or child, through sexist adverts and films. In addition, whilst the media attempts to move away from these stereotypes and acknowledge that they are wrong, it also reinforces them and is sexist in endless ways, depicting a clear contradiction within the media.
To begin with, the media disciplines males and females with the harsh expectations it enforces on children and adults, unknowingly to them, through film and television. A significant example of how children’s gender is disciplined through film is Disney. Disney films are extremely popular amongst children, with Frozen ranking 9th on the all-time highest grossing films (Wikipedia, no date) however they are unaware of what these films are actually teaching and how they may be acting as a result of watching them. Disney teaches girls that they are in need of rescuing by a handsome, masculine prince, with this notion portrayed in even the earliest films like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, to more recent films like Shrek. Booker argues, ‘I’d be especially worried about the Disney princess, passively waiting until “someday my prince will come”, as a role model’ (Booker, 2010:3). Furthermore, Sleeping Beauty, one of the most sexist Disney storylines, tells that Aurora is under a deadly spell that keeps her asleep until a prince comes to waken her. This demonstrates a princess with no talents or ambitions, which certainly disciplines girls into caring about their looks. The fact that her appearance is described whilst she is sleeping, ‘The trance had not taken away the lovely colour of her complexion. Her cheeks were flushed, her lips like coral’ (Perrault, 2004:6), shows the extent of which Disney focuses on a woman’s appearance before her talents.
Additionally, evidence displays that men appear more in Disney films and speak more throughout the film, despite girls being a very large audience for Disney. A content analysis of successful Disney films found ‘of all Disney characters coded. 57% (n=77) were male; 21% (n=28) were female’ (Hoerrner, 1996:219), sending the message that males are dominant over females. Males speak more in Disney films, even when females have the main roles. In Beauty and the Beast, where Belle is one of the main characters, men still speak 72% of the time in the film (Anderson and Daniels, 2016). This has negative implications for girls, who can then begin to believe that men have more important things to say and that despite a female lead, men are still more important. All of these teachings from Disney discipline girls, as it allows them to believe that their appearance is important whilst their skills are less significant and that they must play a ‘sweet’ role. This point is made significant by ‘If young girls do not see themselves reflected in media, will this diminish their sense of importance and self-esteem? Will boys conclude that women and girls are unimportant, as well?’ (Collins, 2011:292). Thus, women are disciplined into believing men are dominant, and this could certainly have negative impacts on their confidence and can make important jobs, like prime minister or president, a job seen as unachievable by women.
Boys, on the other hand, are socialized into believing they must conform to a tough, strong, powerful male role and this is depicted in many films. Ramsey and Sweet demonstrate using William Pollack’s book ‘Real Boys’ that boys are expected to be ‘tough physically, not relying on others for help, and not showing feelings of vulnerability, hurt, or need’ (Ramsay and Sweet, 2009:60). This depicts the discipline that is enforced on young boys, with the idea that they cannot show emotion and have to be strong and masculine. This is expressed in the media in so many ways – for example, an article by Complex is titled ’25 Movies Guys Are Allowed To Cry At’ (Barone, 2011), making it clear that men shouldn’t cry at any other films and the word ‘allowed’ implies that it is wrong for men to cry at any other films. This certainly disciplines boys into thinking they cannot have ‘feminine traits’.
A major contradiction exists today in the media, through magazines especially, that women should embrace their shape and size but are unlikely to be hired to model if they are larger than a UK size 6. Several magazines promote healthy body images, through articles on how to feel comfortable with your size, with the aim of increasing women’s confidence about their bodies and reduce eating disorders. For example, Vogue agreed to a pact that they would no longer work with models with eating disorders (Ostroff, 2012), thus ensuring that women do not see these models and gain eating disorders themselves. Nevertheless, magazines still fail to model women of a larger size and imply through this that to be beautiful you must be slim. This depicts how the media can be extremely contradictory in terms of gender, as it expresses that although size shouldn’t matter, slimmer women are more beautiful. ‘A study by Vaughan and Fouts (2003) … found that girls who significantly increased their fashion magazine reading had an increase in eating disorder symptoms’ (Cohen, 2006:65), depicting the negative impacts magazines have on women when they feature very slim women.
Men can also be negatively impacted by magazine images of ‘hulky’ males, leading to excessive exercise in order to gain muscle that women will find attractive. This can cause low self-esteem in men of all ages, including youth, and increases the pressure to achieve what is seen as the ‘perfect body’. This is supported by Reel who argues, ‘There is clear evidence that exposure to male models in men’s magazines results in depression, anxiety, drive for muscularity and body image dissatisfaction in males’ (Reel, 2013:88). Thus the media is certainly contradictory by telling men and women to feel comfortable with their size but also showing images that destroy people’s self-esteem.
Media is disciplinary but also contradictory is through adverts. Adverts have been a significant enforcer of women’s oppression for decades. Since the invention of television and advertisement, men have been described as the breadwinner who provides for the family, whilst women have been painted as housewives, with the only job of childcare and housework. Bunkle, Levine and Wainwright found, ‘of five advertisements for household cleaning materials (mops, bleach, soap powders) each features a female. No males were featured’ (Bunkle, Levine and Wainwright, 1976:126). Media, therefore, disciplines women by making them responsible for childcare and housework, whilst men are exempt from these responsibilities. The adverts imply to girls from a young age that they must uptake this role when married, disciplining them into a perfect ‘housewife’ role at a young age. Women are also essentially told by adverts that men are superior and more authoritative. Gill supports this using a study conducted by the National Organization of Women, which found ‘many examples of women depicted as ‘decorative objects’ and portrayed as ‘unintelligent’, and it highlighted the fact that men occupied almost all the authoritative roles in adverts’ (Gill, 2007:78). This certainly depicts to women that they are less intelligent, powerful and influential than men and disciplines them into a life of being subservient to men. Adverts also discipline men into looking and acting a certain way. In advertisements for luxury male brands, clothing brands and underwear brands, men are often advertised as confident and with muscular bodies. This impacts men who feel they have to be muscular in order to be masculine, a significant way that males are disciplined to act a certain way due to their gender. This is reinforced by Jones, who argues, ‘since the 1980’s there has been an increase in the use of overly muscular men in advertising’ (Jones, 2014:124) Thus, men also feel pressured by the media to look and act a certain way.
A final way in which media can be viewed as contradictory is that women are sexualized in the media, whilst also told by the media that they are not defined solely by the way they look. Many campaigns have attempted to help young girls all the way to mature women realize that they can break through the glass ceiling into the workplace. The media has been an extraordinary network for promoting equality between men and women, including destroying the idea that women should be viewed as mere sexual objects. For example, the media has condemned Harvey Weinstein for sexually harassing, assaulting and raping women (BBC, 2017). Many articles express the behaviour as unacceptable, one calling it ‘shocking’ (Smith, 2017). Nonetheless, media has enforced the idea that women should be sexualized, and many films give off the impression that men are allowed to be promiscuous but it is frowned upon for women to do the same. Female nudity is very prominent in films and television, giving the impression that women should be seen purely by their body and sexuality. The amount of female nudity in media is enormous and usually has a male audience. This displays the contradictions media has as it expresses that females should not be looked at in just a sexual way and should not be seen as passive sexual objects, as shown through the Harvey Weinstein case, but also shows an excessive amount of female nudity that allows people to see women exactly in that way. Ferguson states, ‘female nudity has always out-stripped male nudity in the movies’ (Ferguson, 2004:31), portraying that the media has always expressed women’s sexuality as important and has allowed people to view women in this way.
Furthermore, despite the cases against men for rape that are condemned by the media, women are still blamed for male promiscuity. Several films portray women as problematic when it is the man committing adultery and blame women for being victims of sexual assault. This is a clear example of how the media is contradictory by condemning men for sexual assault in the media but portraying women as the attractors in films. Nochimson reinforces this by arguing about a film, ‘the film is sexist, an excellent example of the “blame the woman” narrative, one that views female sexuality as so dangerous to men that whatever happens because a woman is attractive is her fault’ (Nochimson, 2010:159). Therefore, the media is certainly contradictory in its ability to denounce men for sexual misconduct but also portray women as at fault for its occurrence.
Ultimately, one would certainly argue that the media couldn’t be ignored, especially with the technologically based society we reside in. It narrows opportunities for girls and women and pressurizes women, through sexist adverts, to take on a housewife role in order to fulfil the ultimate role of a woman. Media is also disciplining women by displaying that women need saving by men in order to be happy; shown through several Disney films, and this discourages the idea of women finding happiness in themselves through achievement. Men, on the other hand, are disciplined in the media through the idea that they need to be tough, strong, handsome and muscular in order to be considered ‘manly’. This results in obsessions with exercising and a lack of emotions in men. This made apparent by the fact that men do not want to hold the same weak, girly characteristics as women. Ramsey and Sweet express this, ‘One of the most humiliating things you can say to a boy is “your acting like a girl”‘ (Ramsay and Sweet, 2009:60). The media is also contradictory in many ways; by claiming all body sizes should be embraced but limiting model opportunities to slim people and by making women feel they are not deserving of rape but also portraying women as sexual objects who invite sexual acts. Thus, it is undoubtedly important to recognise that media representations of gender are disciplining and contradictory.