Teaching Media and Gender

Eileen M Saunders
1985 Canadian Journal of Communication  
The field of Communication Studies has traditionally dismissed the gender question as trivial, or incorporated it through a view of the 'sexless audience.' The integration of feminist questions remains for many a non-issue in media studies. Unfortunately, this is true for both the more traditional sectors of our scholastic community and for those committed to teaching communication within a critical perspective. It is interesting, for example, that a recent issue of Media, Culture and Society,
more » ... lture and Society, devoted to the subject "Critical Comunications Research in North America," does not include one piece on the gender issue and its place within a critical perspective. The special issue of the Journal of Communication entitled, "Ferment In The Field," was comprised of thirty-five original essays which the editors argued were 'representative1 of the 'critical issues' and 'research tasks' facing our discipline today. Again, the gender issues does not appear on the agenda. If the question of social and economic power is central to any critical perspective, and I would argue that it is, then the failure of such work to come to terms with sex-based power differentials and their role in cultural production and reproduction is sympotmatic of serious flaws in our theoretical traditions. My intention in this article is not, however, to demonstrate how the gender issue can and should be made a key element of mainstream communication curriculum although I consider this task a crucial step in the development of a critical tradition in communication theory. Rather, I intend to demonstrate how a critical perspective can inform the construction of a course in media studies centered around the gender i ssue . CRITICAL TEACHING A beginning point in this exercise is to clarify one's objective in teaching a critical perspective. What can one hope to contribute in providing a critical frame of reference to the students? Perhaps the best we can do is to enable them to make sense of their own experience. In the words of C. W. Mills: What they need, and what they feel they need, is a quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and of what may be happening within themselves ( 1959, 5). These words have particular significance when applied to the subject of media and gender. Most students, and indeed most consumers of popular culture, have a loosely-defined understanding of 'sexism' in the media. When asked to articulate that understanding, the common response runs the gamut from "busty blondes in skimpy outfits who are always rescued by handsome male heroes" to "fat women with their heads in their ovens"! Underlying assumptions about the sources of media sexism, the mechanisms by which it is re-created and transmitted, the cultural context in which gender is constructed or even the contradictory levels of meaning regarding femininity, are seldom questioned. Therefore one of the major tasks in a course of this type is to teach students h w to ask these questions. To do so requires providing a critical frame of reference which links questions of power with questions of communication. As a broad definition of a critical perspective, Robert White's is a useful beginning point. The point of departure is the recognition that social relations are radically though variably inegalitarian. This leads to a focus on the relations between the unequal distribution of control over systems of communications and the wider pattern of inequality in the distribution of wealth and power.. . Secondly, research must explore and unmask how communication systems maintain, reproduce and continually legitimate the prevailing structure of advantage and inequality as natural and inevitable. Thirdly, research must consider the sources of social dissent and political struggle and how communication systems contribute to the dialectical relations between challenge and incorporation of disadvantaged groups within the established order (Smythe, 1983, 211). A feminist critical perspective would further attempt to situate the analysis in the context of patriarchal economic and social relations. In other words, what is the interrelationship of capitalism and patriarchy in the area of cultural production and reproduction? The feminist "answer" to this question is in no sense monolithic, just as feminist theory in general does not lend itself to unitary analysis. Therefore the first 'unit' in this course addresses the divisions within what is popularly called feminism, and attempts to trace the articulation of these divisions within feminist analyses of mass media. THEORETICAL UNDERPINNINGS It is perhaps not surprising that much of the work that has dominated the "media and women" area has been theoretically and methodologically aligned with the dominant paradigm of North American social science. The consequence of that alignment needs to be examined. Two issues have been central to our research on the role mass media play in the gender issue. The first, what may be broadly called the content issue, has reflected a concern with the image or represent a t i o n m i i i i t h i n the cultural products of mass media, i .e., woman as object. The second, the control issue, has focussed on questions of access to and participation inthemedia, i-e., woman as subject. The various manners in which these issues have been contextualized in theory and operationalized in research raises significant questions about the efficacy of our analysis. The liberal feminist problematic has predominated the scholarly work in this area. The explanatory thrust of liberal feminist theory in general focuses on ideological factors in the culture of a society, factors which serve to exclude and subordinate women. Their key analytical concept, patriarchy, defines a power system in which male privilege is maintained through sexist ideas and attitudes. Liberal feminists do not deny the existence of material factors in discrimination. Rather they argue that patriarchal ideas give rise to other practices of exclusion. The problem, then, becomes one of removing the cultural attitudes that block women and attacking the socialization practices which perpetuate these attitudes. It is a problem classic to meritocratic analyses; one does not raise structural questions about the system, one attempts to ensure equal competition for the unequal rewards. This has important implications for how the media/gender debate has been framed. On the one hand it has led to an attempt to "catalogue" the range and extent of patriarchal images of women in media content. On the other hand, it has located the origin of these images in the male-controlled hierarchies of media organizations. The strategy has been firmly wedded to traditional content analysis. We are thus presented with study upon study which attempts to quantify the exclusion of women in popular culture, the frequency of women in limited roles, the association of women with glamour and/or motherhood, etc . These studies are not useless. They do serve a purpose in illustrating the various components of patriarchal imagery. The problem lies in the limited use of content analysis itself. As a methodology which tabulates the visible image and the manifest meaning within content, it does not allow the investigation of different levels of meaning. As Burgelin (1972) has argued, the focus on discrete meaning symbols (i.e., age, occupation, appearance, etc .) does not tell us anything regarding the overall fit among these various symbols in the overall text. Furthermore, it does not facilitate the examination of contradictory levels of meaning, e.g. how are we to 'read1 the presence of a female physician in an ad selling hair coloring? Finally, as Janus (1977) notes, it predetermines our research categories as "Male vs. Female." All males are counted together as a general category and contrasted with an a1 1-female category, with no reference made to the class, race or cultural divisions within each of these categories. Instead the subjects are distinguished on the basis of visible personal traits (marital status, age, physical appearance and so forth). Consequently the questions are ahistorical , apolitical, and in no way indicate how the images of women or men are related to the fundamental structures of society (Janus , 1977, 21 ). The endpoint of such analyses is usually a demand for an increase in the presence of women in those media categories from which they have been traditionally excluded, eg., ranging from more female news anchors to more heroines in T.V. cartoons. Thus an increase in female detective/police programs would be scored as progress on the liberal feminist tally sheet, even though the representation of the female characteristics may be firmly rooted in a traditional construction of femininity and sexuality. A similar point could be made regarding the new ' 1 iberated woman' stereotype which is being widely propogated in everything from situation comedies to soap commercials. The common theme, that of individual 1 iberation through self -improvement, only serves to divert attention from structural power and reconstitute patriarchy (see Baehr, 1980; Jaddou and Williams, 1981). Content analysis strategy has been, for the most part, linked to investigations of access. In other words, in order to demonstrate why patriarchal ideas are produced and reproduced in popular culture, one must look at its producers. We therefore have available to us a decade's worth of statistics compiling evidence on the exclusion, marginalization, and peripheralization of women as creative agents in media production. Again, such evidence is not useless, rather the manner in which it is used is at issue. When evidence on the under representation of women in media production is canbined with content analyses on the under representation and 'distortion' of women in media culture, the message is clear. The source, (and, hence, solution) of media sexism lies in the attitudes, predispositions and biases of those who produce the images. In noting this argument in a 1979 UNESCO study, Jaddou and Williams correctly point out:
doi:10.22230/cjc.1985v11n1a325 fatcat:4te5poe5ovaizjynmbv5ljnhlq