Images of Women in the Media Essay

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Images of women in the media have presented a serious problem and challenge to feminist activists and scholars concerned about women’s status in societies. In the US in particular, but also in other parts of the world, the type, quality, and number of images of women in various fictional and nonfictional  genres (in film, television,  advertising, and magazines especially) have been well documented since the 1970s.

Research History

Consistently, such research documents women’s subordinate status to men, demonstrated by their key absences (such as in the news) and attention to physical appearance or domesticity (such as in commercial advertising).

However, other feminist approaches to media have raised challenges about the theoretical and political shortcomings of a focus on ‘images.’ Consequently, more sophisticated understandings of the relationship between mass media, reality, and racial, global, political, and economic structures have taken hold in feminist communication scholarship. Nonetheless, analysis of women’s media images in countries around the world has been important in efforts to make changes for women.

In the US, the scholarly and systematic documentation of women’s media images was among the first concerted efforts on behalf of women by women media scholars. The approach got its impetus from the dominant approach of the field concerned about the effect of messages on audiences, as well as from liberal feminism. Researchers accumulated empirical evidence that women were absent, denigrated, and devalued throughout much of the mass media, supported by the theoretical work in Tuchman et al. (1978). Tuchman’s concept of “symbolic annihilation” in the book’s introduction is still used today, although in at least one case appropriated to dissect racial and gender power axes. Molina- Guzmбn (2010) uses “symbolic colonization” to analyse white mainstream media’s use of the Latina body.

Early research, which typically focused on white women, consistently demonstrated that in programming aimed at women, domestic responsibilities were shown as the natural fulfilment of women. On the one hand, media content directed at men often displayed women as sexual enhancements of male power. The ‘sexualization of women’s images’ began in the mainstream mass media in the 1960s, in what many feminists considered a co-optation of the women’s movement. Contemporary manifestations of the problem are suggested by the alarming rise of eating disorders in girls and young women, signaling that men’s surveillance of women in media content may result in women’s self-surveillance to achieve a particular shape and look. A recent study of Israeli women revealed, however, that at least some women consider themselves discerning enough not to be affected by images in media content, although they think other women are not (Barak-Brandes 2011).

New Orientations In Research

Early images research has been criticized for undertheorizing both gender and media in their economic and cultural contexts. The approach has been wedded to a liberal social theory that accepts the current commercial media system while arguing for only limited reforms (i.e., making representations of women ‘more realistic’). Socialist feminists pointed out that the economic system and the power of ownership and production must be accounted for to produce a sufficient critique of the media. Other feminists have pushed for changes that would give women access to the means of production and representation.

Further, the images approach undertheorized the relationship between media and reality. The mirror-image relationship between reality and media texts assumed by the approach is based on the premise that reality exists outside of human meaning. Postmodern feminists challenged the position with a constructivist rendering of both social reality and gender.

Undertheorizing gender and media also had the consequence of ignoring key relationships among women along ethnic and racial lines. While white women often were portrayed as madonnas or whores, Native American women were shown as beautiful Indian princesses or unattractive squaws (Bird 1999), African-American women as mammies or matriarchs (Collins 1990), Chicana/ Latina women as Spanish noblewomen or beautiful cantina girls (Fellner 2002), and Asian/Asian- American women as sexually servile geishas or powerful dragon ladies (Kim 1986).

International Comparisons

While research on images of women has been primarily a US liberal feminist project, women around the world have found political and theoretical value in examining and challenging women’s images in media systems. The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, identified a strategic objective in its platform for action to promote non-stereotyped portrayals of women in the media. A number of media-monitoring projects developed to document problems and changes in representation.

While there are notable similarities in women’s images in many countries, there also are important differences, as demonstrated in a study of sexual advertising content (Nelson and Paek 2005). These differences dispel the assumption there is a universal image and meaning of ‘woman’ across countries as well as within them. Barbara Sato’s interpretation of the new woman that emerged in Japan between the two world wars, confronting previous notions of women as gentle and meek with a new urban femininity, shows how images of women can be used to explain and manage periods of social change (Sato 2003).

 By attending to larger political, economic, and ideological meaning systems, more sophisticated notions of both ‘images’ and ‘women’ have extended and enriched the important work begun by liberal feminist scholars. An edited volume by Carille and Campbell (2012) captures a range of approaches now embraced under the images research rubric. Contributions tackle women’s representations in various parts of the globe (Pakistan, India, China, Bulgaria), of racial and sexual minority identifiers (Black women and lesbian women), and of different genres (film, advertising, news, and new media).


  1. Barak-Brandes, S. (2011). ‘I’m not influenced by ads, but not everyone’s like me’: The third-person effect in Israeli women’s attitude toward TV commercials and their images. Communication Review 14(4), 300–320.
  2. Bird, E. S. (1999). Gendered representation of American Indians in popular media. Journal of Communication, 49(3), 61–83.
  3. Carille, T. & Campbell, J. (eds.) (2012). Challenging images of women in the media: Reinventing women’s lives. Lanham, MD: Lexington.
  4. Collins, P. H. (1990). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Boston, MA: Unwin Hyman.
  5. Fellner, A. M. (2002). Articulating selves: Contemporary Chicana self-representation. Vienna: Braumuller.
  6. Kim, E. (1986). Asian Americans and American popular culture. In H.-C. Kim (ed.), Dictionary of Asian American history. New York: Greenwood, pp. 91–114.
  7. Molina-Guzmбn, M. (2010). Dangerous curves: Latina bodies in the media. New York: New York University Press.
  8. Nelson, M. R. & Paek, H.-J. (2005). Cross-cultural differences in sexual advertising content in a transnational women’s magazine. Sex Roles, 53(5/6), 371–383.
  9. Sato, B. H. (2003). The new Japanese woman. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  10. Tuchman, G., Daniels, A. K., & Benet, J. (eds.) (1978). Hearth and home: Images of women in the mass media. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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