Women in American Media: A Culture of Misperception
American culture is saturated with messages propagated by mass media. What was originally created for encouraging consumerism is now being promoted to a society that is being consumed by the messages themselves. Mass media is especially harmful to women because it constructs negative perceptions of women and reinforces them on a daily basis. Actions employed by the media are not always what they seem, but instead they act as catalysts for dangerous effects on women and society as a whole. This paper will address the tools used by media against women and will analyze the consequences of their use.
Mass media is a potent tool used to influence its audience in many ways, although most people would like to believe that they are not affected by advertising. This is because “advertising’s influence is quick, it’s cumulative, and for the most part, it’s subconscious” (Killing Us Softly). The standard that advertising creates affects women deeply and it is absolutely inescapable. According to Rosalind Gill, “we live in an era of 360 degree branding” (75). Advertisements are found on televisions, buses, on the sides of buildings, and in the magazines people read. Gill also stated that she “was concerned with the ‘currency’ of adverts- the way in which they permit the meaning of one thing to be expressed in terms of another,” because it suggested a direct correlation between someone’s worth as a person and that of owning a specific product or looking a certain way (49). Although “the media are hardly hypodermic needles injecting a passive and unsuspecting culture” with messages that people accept openly and willingly, they certainly help to shape the most important aspects of being human, like “our identities, our dreams, our hopes, our ambitions, and our fears” (Douglas 18). Mass media affects each member of society because its reach is vast, its bite is quick, and its message seeps into the very fibers that are woven together to create a culture of misperceptions about women.
Indeed, it is the effect that the mass media has on a person’s identity that is most profound because without an identity, a person’s value lessens in a culture made up of consumers serving as the target audience. The message that advertisements are quite literally sending out is that people are equivalent to the products they purchase. These products “are given an exchange value,” and the descriptions of these products “are translated into statements about who we are and who we aspire to become” (Gill 50). This turns a person’s identity into a product, instead of a composite of thoughts and feelings, in an attempt to turn human worth into that of what can be found in a store. The effect of this is that a person’s actual identity and the way that person is perceived by others becomes skewed. This endangers people because society regards these messages about what people are and what people should be as absolute truths, instead of culturally constructed standards of what it means to be successful (Murray). Identity is the heart of humanity. When identity is taken away from people or is transformed into a thing, their humanity is subsequently stripped from them.
While the media attempt to target every person, the level of exposure is dictated by gender, and the majority of harmful messages are focused more toward women. For instance, in media such as magazines where a person relies on an image to relate a feeling, girls are often made to look inferior. Jean Kilbourne notes that “the body language of girls is usually passive, vulnerable, and very different from the body languages of boys and men.” This perpetuates the idea of weakness in women “whereas men are given dignity and strength” (Killing Us Softly). Even more significant is that while media are larger for women, they attempt to make women’s value and worth smaller. Gill states that “there are clear differences in the kinds of touch that women and men in adverts employ.” She goes on to say that men’s touch is used for purpose, such as reaching out to grab products or building and creating. Women’s touch, however, is “light and caressing and often seemed to have no purpose at all” (79-80). This type of media is what Theresa de Lauretis refers to as “technologies of gender” which means that “the representation of gender is its construction” (12). In other words, the way women are perceived is not necessarily truthful. They are seen a certain way, because they are made to be seen that way (Mendible 7). This fallacy perpetuated by gender-divided media affects women more harshly because women are more harmfully depicted than are men.
Being a woman in America’s media-obsessed culture also means living up to the beauty standard that advertisers set in place. Being beautiful is, in American society, the most important role a woman should fulfill. Naomi Wolf believes “beauty is a currency system like the gold standard” (3). The products that were previous determinates of self-worth become second to that of beauty. This is incredibly problematic because “’beauty’ is not universal, or changeless, though the West pretends that all ideals of female beauty stem from one Platonic Ideal Woman” (Wolf 4). Furthermore, media couples the idea of beauty with that of morality. The reason for this can be found within television shows and movies. Sharon Hayes and Stacey Tantleff-Dunn found that good characters are generally attractive and kind, whereas the concept of evil is linked with “cruelty and general unattractiveness” (415). Subsequently, these beauty ideals are “internalized, rationalized, and socially legitimized.” Meaning women are simultaneously being told that they are only valued for their beauty, “yet beauty codes make clear that most women do not measure up aesthetically” (Johnston and Taylor 954). Toni Raiten-D’Antonio claims “by adding these moral assumptions to the evaluation of a person’s appearance, we amplify the shame they are supposed to feel” (111). Beauty in reality is subjective, but the mass media constructs and upholds a narrow standard for what it means to be beautiful. Therefore, mass media is no longer solely attacking the product choices that consumers make, but also the consumers themselves.
In lieu of beauty being so highly regarded, women are expected by society to adhere to the beauty standard. When women do not naturally fit the standard or do not constantly strive to fit the standard, they are considered to have failed themselves, and most often, are told that they should be ashamed. Although, “no one is marched off for electrolysis at the end of a rifle…the disciplinary practices of femininity produces a ‘subjected and practiced,’ an inferiorized, body. This system aims at turning women into the docile and compliant companions of men” (Bartky 75). Yet there have been “vitriolic attacks in press and magazines on women who fail to live up to increasingly narrow normative requirements of feminine appearance” (Gill 2). This requirement, in turn, forces women to give up parts of themselves. Susan J. Douglas writes:
We can play sports, excel at school, go to college, aspire to – and get – jobs previously reserved for men, be working mothers and so forth. But in exchange, we must obsess about our faces, weight, breast size, clothing brands, about pleasing men and being envied by other women. (16)
The standard is already so small that the majority of women cannot meet the requirement set forth for them, and when they fail, they must absolve themselves with shame.
As these standards become increasingly narrow, it is important to note that there is yet another category of women who are affected negatively by the media. Jean Kilbourne states that “it’s an impossible ideal for just about everyone, but it’s absolutely impossible for women who aren’t white. Women of color are generally considered beautiful only if they approximate the white ideal” including “tamed hair,” lighter skin tone, and “white” facial features (Killing Us Softly). As this idea is perpetuated, there is a “constant disavowal of one’s own flesh.” (Murray). Furthermore, women of color are stereotyped and depicted in ways where they “are not individuals; rather they are projected as characters and a mass of body parts for males’ consumption” (Stephens and Phillips 42). An example of this is in cocoa drink advertisements where “representations of women of African origin frequently play on themes of ‘darkness’ and sexuality…in which both the woman and the drink are signified as ‘hot chocolate’” (Gill 79). There is also a trend among advertisers where women of color are “often featured in jungle settings wearing leopard skins as if they were exotic animals” (Killing Us Softly). Instead of allowing these women dignity and humanity, the media are presenting them as dessert drinks and an entirely different species from what they are. Mendible refers to this as a “convenient fiction” where bodies of color “function within a social and cultural taxonomy that registers but an echo of the clamor, complexity, and variety of women who embody” them (1). Therefore, the media are denying many women of color a chance for acknowledgement, while telling the women of color who are mentioned that they are equivalent to products instead of people.
Another way in which the media categorically strips women of their humanity is when these women are a living embodiment of what the media deem as ugly, disgusting, or wrong. Perhaps one of the most fitting examples today is when a woman is fat. Not only is fat an immediate determinate for ugliness by the media, but it is also cause for being stripped of one’s personhood completely. “In short, the fat body is discursively constructed as a failed body project” (Murray). Being fat is stigmatizing for all people, but it brings on a slew of new requirements for women. Not only is the fat body seen as “ugly” but it is also seen as something that needs to be controlled. Samantha Murray recounts a personal experience saying, “The very name of the ‘Control Top’ underpants suggested they were indeed a disciplining device, a reminder that the fat body must be strictly patrolled and policed” (156). Furthermore, the media constantly “emphasizes that women are defined by [their] bodies” (Douglas). Therefore, the message is not simply that fat itself needs to be tamed, but that fat women need to be disciplined and controlled. Accordingly, society learns “these knowledges, internalize[s] them, and deploy[s] them at an almost pre-conscious level: [society] has a learned negative response to fat bodies, and their aesthetic transgressions” (Murray). Because of this, the fat body is seen as deviant and alien and “in order to be accorded personhood, is expected to engage in a continual process of transformation” (Murray). Consequently, there is a fear equated with the fat body and any body that simply is not thin, encouraging shame and disgust toward these people for living in bodies the media deem as unacceptable.
The most important truth in relation to the media is that it is built on myth. “Advertisements work by constructing myths, in such a way as to endow the products with meanings which appear to be natural and eternal” (Gill 49). Advertising myth is also used when weighing people’s physical appearances. However, products eventually break and “beauty” will inevitably fade, because the standard is constantly changing. Wolf states that “modern women are growing, moving, and expressing their individuality, as the myth has it; “beauty” is, by definition, inert, timeless, and generic. That this hallucination is necessary and deliberate is evident in the way “beauty” so directly contradicts women’s real situation” (6). This is also evident because in the 1950s and 1960s the media myth was that women “weren’t changing when they were” and the myth now is that women’s equality “is an accomplished fact when it isn’t” (Douglas 4). If the “perfect lifestyle” is only depicted in these elaborate media-constructed fantasies, then it should be argued that the perfect lifestyle is unattainable because, like media, the foundation for it is also a myth.
Contradictory media-constructed myths are abundant, but one of the most common is that people’s health and well-being are the number one priority of advertisers. Media have created an environment that devalues women, masking their concern for sales with feigned concern for women’s happiness. This environment:
Is an environment that we all swim in, as fish swim in water. And just as it’s difficult to be healthy in a toxic physical environment, if we’re breathing poisoned air for example, so it’s difficult to be healthy in a ‘toxic cultural environment’ – an environment that surrounds us with unhealthy images and constantly sacrifices our health for the sake of profit. (Killing Us Softly)
Proof of this can be found in a study from the 1990s which “indicated that the magazines most often read by women contained ten times the number of advertisements and articles on weight and dieting than the magazines read by men and by the end of the century, between 90 and 85 percent of those who suffered from eating disorders were women” (Gourley 67). Because of these statistics, one could argue that the media actually depend on creating unhealthy thoughts and habits in women, in the hopes of generating profit. If no woman is perfect the way she is, then no woman is excluded from buying into the message. This in turn creates problems rather than fixing them. “The obsession with thinness, the tyranny of the ideal image of beauty…these are public health problems that affect us all and can only be solved by changing the environment” (Killing Us Softly). Therefore, until the harm that media is capable of causing becomes acknowledged, people’s health will continue to be at risk for profit’s sake.
Body modification has become a consumer solution to dealing with the environment that the media create. The frightening irony of this is that it actually contributes to the problem and allows more harmful industries to form and flourish. One of the most common forms of body modification is dieting, especially with weight-loss pills. American culture has made it clear that every woman is too big, and dieting has become the norm. The dangers of dieting include the fact that women must fight against their own physiology, diet products are often risky, “they can kill you, and at best, they do not work” (Killing Us Softly). An even more dangerous and dramatic effect is a recent increase in cosmetic surgery procedures. Of these, 91% are performed on women. In fact, during the period of time between 1997 and 2007 the amount of these procedures “rose 457% to almost 12 million per year” (Killing Us Softly). This creates a vicious cycle between the media and the consumer.
While the consumer is searching for a solution to nonexistent problems the media create, the consumer is also aiding in allowing trends to develop, making media seem as if their myths are reasonable. What is worse is that the media know exactly the role they are playing. Wolf refers to this as “conscious market manipulation” because “powerful industries – the $33 billion a year diet industry, the $20 billion a year cosmetics industry, the $300 million cosmetic surgery industry” have all developed due to perceived physical flaws and “unconscious anxieties” that are “in turn able, through their influence on mass culture, to use, stimulate, and reinforce the hallucination in a rising economic spiral” (6). The danger of body modification is that bodies are not recyclable, the ideal image of beauty is perpetually changing and fleeting, and trying to keep up with it is both harmful and impossible.
When the media gain power, women inevitably lose it. “Since women grow more powerful with time, women’s identity must be premised upon our ‘beauty’, so that we will remain vulnerable to outside approval, carrying the vital sensitive organ of self esteem exposed to the air” (Wolf 4). The ironic aspect of media is that “confident expressions of girl power sit alongside reports of epidemic levels of anorexia among young women” (Gill 1). This is a common occurrence with media, and it must be remembered that even if “stronger images of women have appeared in greater numbers, it does not mean a change in the predominant content of the product” (Raymond 36). The media offer up a false sense of power with the products they sell in exchange for draining people of the power they do have. Gill states that “social relations based on domination, antagonism, and injustice come to be seen as natural, inevitable and even desirable by those who benefit least from them” (54). So while women are encouraged to proclaim independence and power, they are actually being used as a platform for larger media reach and outcome.
Another tactic employed by the media used to further strip women of their power is that of objectification and dehumanization. The topic of sex becomes twisted and exploited with women in many ways, from using sex to sell products, to making a woman’s natural human urge for sex taboo and incriminating. Women are supposed to be both virginal and incredibly sexy, a balance that is impossible to pull off. There are also cases of “assumed ‘slutiness’,” when a woman is judged by her presumed sexual activity solely on the basis of her appearance, which can be more readily related to women who are considered unattractive or young girls whose bodies develop early on (Raiten-D’Antonio 111). The danger with assumed slutiness is that it is not based in fact, but it is anchored in hate. Carolyn Kitch writes about the “True Woman,” who is a woman of virtue, and the “Vamp,” who is sexual, powerful, and emasculating. She found that “the vamp was ‘posed as the True Woman’s opposite. She is dark, she is sexual, she is volatile, and above all, she lives alone, outside the sphere of home and family’” (61). Women are caught between the balancing act of innocence versus experience, and the assumptions about their sexual activity can actually lead to assumptions of being dangerous and unworthy of human interaction.
The media use objectification to normalize misperceptions of women within advertising. Instead of being portrayed as diverse human beings, “women’s bodies are dismembered in ads; hacked apart” so that people will only focus on certain parts at one time (Killing Us Softly). Women’s bodies are “presented simply as a composite of problems, each requiring a product-solution” which is the most profound yet readily accepted form of objectification in the media (Gill 80). The fear of one’s physical appearance must then be heavily balanced with that of one’s physiological desires. The media take objectification far beyond simply equating a woman’s body with a thing, and instead actually turn women into objects that must go through a rigorous routine of perpetual upkeep.
Women’s voices are continually silenced by the media, because they would rather women be seen and not heard. “Social order feel[s] the need to defend itself by evading the face of real women, our faces and voices and bodies, and reducing the meaning of women to those formulaic and endlessly reproduced “beautiful” images”(Wolf 7). This erases real women, their lived experiences, and their worth. When women are not given a space by the media, they are being told that they do not deserve recognition as people. However, the women who are pictured in the media are not afforded the dignity of a voice. Women, in turn, are afraid to speak up in a culture that prefers their looks over their words. This message is reinforced in advertisements where girls have their hands over their mouths. Many of these advertisements have accompanying text with phrases like “score high on nonverbal skills!” While similar advertisements with pictures of girls who are “incredibly thin” and have body language that makes it look like they are “trying to disappear” claim “the more you subtract, the more you add” (Killing Us Softly). Media is then enforcing the idea that the less a girl speaks, or the thinner the girl is, the more she will be worth. Therefore, media are not only silencing women, but are simultaneously telling women to silence and erase themselves.
The final wave of effect caused by all of these issues is violence and ultimately death. Although “adverts don’t directly cause violence,” they do “contribute to a state of terror” because “turning a human being into a thing, an object, is almost always the first step to justifying violence against that person” and “this step is already taken with women” (Killing Us Softly). Being portrayed negatively is not the only cause for violence, however. Being erased by the media and not being given a space at all certainly contributes. Toni Raiten-D’Antonio says that “those inclined to be hostile and controlling” can sense when someone feels erased or has a low self-regard, and those people are more likely to be targeted for abuse. “In many cases of sexual harassment or sexual assault, the perpetrator says the victim was ugly and either deserved what she got or actually welcomed the attention because she couldn’t otherwise attract anyone’s interest” (130). These types of events can be referred to as “female disposability” which can also be found in headlines that “capitalize on the sensational aspects of serial killings of sex workers.” Although these tabloids bring these women’s stories into the light, it is only to “paint them with a broad and dehumanizing brush” (Stillman 492). When women are refused personhood by the media and instead women’s worth is equated to their physical appearance, violence or worse is inevitable. The seemingly harmless media that exist to monopolize on women’s beauty then become these women’s worst nightmare.
The media are a business that rely on people, and like any business, their purpose is to create opportunities for generating profit. The problem lies within the way people, most especially women, are treated by the media as products rather than human beings worthy of dignity, personhood, and respect. The media use discrimination, objectification, and dehumanization to police women’s bodies. The result of this is a rise in low self-esteem, dangerous body modification procedures, violence, and sometimes death among women. As long as women’s bodies continue to be shunned instead of celebrated by the media, these negative effects will persist.
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