Feminism in Popular Culture
The popular culture has a deep impact on the society and social structure. As explained by Strinati (2004), in the modern setting, popular culture is the culture commercially manufactured by a few for the consumption by the masses. The mass media, which includes print, television, movies and music, usually, portray the society in the way that people manufacturing these products interpret the society. These people are also concerned with the commercial success of their product and so must present a culture which they believe will be accepted by the widest audience.
In the process, the popular culture often ends up stereotyping people because it is easier to portray women, minorities and foreigners as stereotypes. This stereotyping becomes even more pronounced in advertisements since the advertisements are a form of popular culture which must sell a product in an extremely limited time and space. These limitations mean that they do not have the luxury to develop their characters and must use stereotypes so that they can concentrate on getting the message across.
Although advertisers and others who manufacture these mass cultural images argue that the popular culture only reflects the society, the reverse is also true and the media images at a subconscious level influence the society’s behaviour. This affect of the popular culture on the way the society perceives itself has many people worried, among them the feminists who believe that such limiting images of women in popular culture is having a negative impact on the emancipation of women.
Although there is some legitimacy in these feminist fears, the idea that the mass culture should reflect social reality has severe limitations since the society “does not confer the same privileges upon women as it does upon men” (Strinati, 2004, p. 179). Hence the feminist objections to the representation of women in popular media, especially advertisements need to be examined to understand the limitations of the feminist viewpoint. Before we delve into the representation of women in the popular culture, let us first examine the feminist stand.
According to Strinati, there are three strands of feminism that variously argue for equal representation of women in media, female separatism or a radical transformation of the relations between the genders. Although each of these strands of feminism may seem to be exclusive of each other, they, in fact, have a profound impact on each other and are shaping the overall development of the feminist movement. However, each of these stands also has their limitations when seen in the light of social realities.
The radical feminist stand of female separatism is not only undesirable but also impractical since the society is constructed through the interaction of the genders and in any social interactions, there is bound to be some level of inequality. The social feminist stand of transformation of relations between genders is the more moderate view but such a transformation is bound to be slow since it takes time for individuals and societies to shed centuries of enculturation and adopt new standards.
The representation of women in media can prove to be a huge catalyst in bringing about this change since, as already argued, popular culture can have a deep impact on the society. However, the media representation of women is severely limited by commercial considerations and a true representation of the society would actually hurt the feminist cause. Despite the commercial and social limitations placed on mass advertisements, advertisers have proved to be quick to latch on to the changing social realities and provide a much better reflection of the social changes than any other mass media.
To be sure, advertisers, continue to objectify the female body and women continue to be associated with housework, but there has been a sea change in the representations of women over the last few decades. A 1982 research by Hesseltine of the depiction of women in television advertisements showed that 76% of the time the men were shown to be experts when the product appealed to both the sexes. Even when the product was targeted exclusively towards women, in eleven out of twenty-five commercials the men had the final authority.
Hesseltine felt the women in the advertisements were shown as “stupid mother and housewife” who “seemed to know little about their occupations” (p. 240). In a 2008 study, although the housewife’s role was still played by the women, they were no longer shown as “stupid” but were much more competent and could “talk professionally about a communications network, and even drive a male co-worker in a car with features she knowledgeably describes” (Yoder et al, 2008, p. 303). This shift in the representation of women in TV commercials over the twenty-five year period is but a reflection of the changes in the society.
So, in a way, it can be argued that the advertisers have actually heeded the feminist demand of reflecting the social realities. If women continue to be represented as housewives in commercials it is because in the society, overwhelmingly it is women who carry out the housework and the advertisements are but a reflection of the society. Despite these obvious changes in the way women are portrayed in commercials, stereotyping remains a problem and may merit some of the feminist objections to the portrayal of women in mass media.
As Cortese (2008) points out, advertisers stick to a narrow ideal of what constitutes feminine qualities. Feminists have not been able to convince advertisers to redefine these gender identities mostly because advertisers have extremely high financial stakes and cannot take chances which could result in a commercial backfiring. Hence, they must show women conforming to this narrow ideal of femininity which constitutes a beautiful, almost perfect female body. This is especially true when selling beauty products. Women in these commercials must be perfect and free of blemish.
They are also tall and thin and portray an ideal feminine image. Since these beauty product ads are targeted at women, they represent an ideal feminine figure which the women are expected to aspire for. These images are not real and even the models do not look off-camera the way they do in the commercials, resulting in a feeling of inferiority among women since they have to live up to an extremely high ideal. It must be noted that these perfect images of women in media also raise the male expectations from women resulting in further confirmation of these gender stereotypes.
While women may no longer be depicted as the “stupid housewives” and even though more and more women are shown as professionals, they continue to be objectified. While objectification of women is present in all kinds of advertisements, including those that are geared towards men, the worse form of objectification is in advertisements which are targeted to the female audience. As mentioned above, beauty product commercials are one such advertisement category geared towards women which resort to female objectification to sell products. Yet another product category is lingerie.
The irony of lingerie advertisements is that in the pre-feminism era, advertisements displaying semi-nude female body were considered offensive but in the post-feminism era, such semi-naked female body is considered to show “the sexual power of women over men” (Amy-Chinn, 2006, p. 158). Such an interpretation of feminism shows the severe limitations of the feminist theory of popular culture and needs to be challenged. As mentioned above, the biggest irony of the feminist objection to stereotyping of female roles is that such stereotyping and objectification is found mostly in commercials geared towards women and in women’s magazine.
The problems with beauty product commercials and lingerie commercials have already been discussed. Further, Lindner (2004) found that women were more likely to be seen in stereotypical roles in magazines geared towards a female audience than in general interest magazines. Lindner’s research found that while as much as much 78% of magazine advertisements stereotyped women in some way, the magazine geared towards a female audience (Vogue) was more likely to show women in inferior roles.
If we assume that commercials are created so as to appeal to its target audience, it shows that women see themselves in inferior roles and identify better with such stereotyping. In other words, a major reason for female stereotyping in advertisements is because women prefer it that way. So if we think of advertisements as reflecting the social reality, then, this social reality can be considered to be anti-feminist. This severely limits the feminist theory that advertisements should reflect social reality because advertisements do reflect social reality but this reality is detrimental to the feminist agenda.
If such female stereotyping is in fact a social reality, than it may be argued that there is nothing wrong with such representation of female body in popular culture. Unfortunately, the popular culture has a profound affect on the way we behave and perceive ourselves. The perfect female bodies shown in commercials have a detrimental affect on the self body image. Lavine et al (1999) found that individuals exposed to sexist advertisements were more likely to negatively evaluate their body image. Such negative self image can never be good for society.
So even independent of the feminist agenda, it is better to avoid such sexist advertisements which objectify the female form. But as seen above, feminism may be indirectly responsible for encouraging stereotyping. This calls into questions the feminists arguments and severely limits the feminist agenda. Yet another impact of such sexist advertisements is that since they exclude women from society, except as sex objects, it can result in negative perception of women by men, especially, the criminal elements and can cause “perceptions of fear and offence” among women, and restrict their movements (Rosewarne, 2005, p.
67). Obviously, this is not an ideal situation from any point of view, but even less so from the feminist point of view because the feminist movement explicitly requires women to compete with men on an equal footing. Unfortunately, the sexual depictions of women in outdoor advertisements only further “amplify masculine ‘control’ of city spaces and reinforce women’s exclusion” (p. 67). If women are forced to restrict their movements due to fear of sexual violence, it can never be good for society or women.
And if it is the representation of women in the popular culture which is responsible for such negative attitudes, then there is an urgent need to change such negative representations of women in popular culture. Unfortunately, the feminists are unable to provide a solution to this problem because of the inherent weaknesses of their arguments as discussed above. So for a proper solution to the problem of female objectification and stereotyping we need to look beyond the solutions offered by feminism and we need to do so urgently.
The radical feminists advocate excluding men from the female world and argue for female separatism (Strinati, 2004). This has resulted in a post-feminist movement in which “women are invited to purchase everything from bras to coffee as signs of their power and independence (from men)” (Gill, 2008, p. 36). The argument of these feminists is that since not all women can become scientists or politicians, even such small acts as buying a pair of shoes can signal female empowerment (Gill, 2008). This results in more and more advertisements being targeted exclusively towards women.
But as we have seen above, commercials targeted at women are more likely to be stereotypical than those targeted at the general audience. Thus, even the radical feminist ideal is unable to provide a solution to the stereotyping of women in popular culture. The liberal feminist view of the representation of women in popular culture is that the popular culture should reflect the social realities. However, as we have seen in the comparison of commercials over the last twenty-five years, that there has been a significant shift in the way women are portrayed in advertisements.
While in the eighties, women roles in advertisements were confined to that of wife and mother, in the twenty first century this has changed and more and more women are seen in professional roles and are much more knowledgeable today than they were at any time in the past. Despite this radical shift in the representation of women in advertisements, they continue to be stereotyped. This stereotyping has now shifted from the social roles of women to the objectification of the female body.
While the earlier stereotyping of gender roles was harmful from the feminist perspective, the current objectification of the female body is actually being encouraged by feminists since it is supposed to reflect the female sexual power over men. But the objectification comes with its own set of issues, the biggest being that it undermines women’s image of their bodies. The inherent limitations of feminism have been unable to address this issue and the contemporary depiction of women in popular culture continues to objectify the female body.
Since popular culture is already reflecting the social realities, it has apparently satisfied the feminist ideal. But the current depiction of women in popular culture, especially advertisements, is far from ideal and feminism is unable to provide answers to these problems. References Amy-Chinn, D. 2006. This is Just for Me(n): How the regulation of post-feminist lingerie advertising perpetuates woman as object. Journal of Consumer Culture. [online]. 6(2). 155-175. Cortese, A. J. P. 2008. Provocateur: Images of women and minorities in advertising. 3rd ed. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.
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