Media Imagery of Women as Reinforcing Propaganda Stereotypes: An Analysis of Literature

Media propaganda is vitally important, whether advertising, marketing, movies or television shows, to the reinforcement of stereotyped images of women and persons of color, most of it subconscious and embedded within the very imagery of language that each of us use and the conditioning propaganda that all of us have been subjected to and programmed with for centuries, especially the twentieth and the twenty-first.  This conditioning propaganda surfaced in a recent Facebook conversation with a friend who emphatically and seriously believes that feminism, through a government interventionist conspiracy, destabilized and destabilizes societies worldwide.  He apparently has “evidence” of this and would not even consider that patriarchal control and domination of corporations, and hence government, is responsible for destabilizing society by not treating everyone equally in the eyes of the law, letter or spirit, or even within the wider society in general.  Just this one example convinces me that this is an important and insidious issue that must be overcome, but like racism that is tied into the feminist issue of true equality for all, it will take decades, if not centuries, of intentional and intensive counter propaganda, aided by assessments of imagery and semiotics until it becomes a truly subconscious and unintentional propaganda influence that pervades wider society from person to person and group to group.

The readings in Chapter 2 of Women and Gender, Images of Women and Men, discuss beauty, whiteness as a social construction, stereotypes, sexism, and language imagery as means to perpetuate the status quo of sexism throughout the media.  Gender propaganda is not discussed specifically, but I believe it pervades and influences every other aspect of inequality that is discussed throughout the chapter.  It is the underlying subconscious shorthand re-enforcer that conveys immediate ideas without conscious thought, to sell products, to reelect politicians, to perpetuate the white social construct, male-dominated societal power structures.  To the advertising and corporate executive or even most of the masses, this propaganda conditioning is part of their very being.  They don’t even think about the words of the script or the imagery used because they believe in the rightness and normality of the status quo and so are unable to see the underlying damage that is perpetuated. Here is why I can understand somewhat that someone would believe that feminism is responsible for the so-called destruction of the very fabric of society. To the public, this is reinforced conditioning of stereotypes that do not allow anyone to evolve or to be treated with equality. The gender propaganda reinforces unacceptable behavior as a norm while moving product is of primary importance, not the propaganda behind the methods used to sell it.

The importance of this is simple but challenging.  Recent media images where women appear to be powerful and in control of their sexuality (agentic sexual representations) raise questions about whether women see these images as empowering or as self objectifications and reflections upon their own self esteem and body image issues.  Until recently, studies have focused upon the model’s body weight with little attention given to the slogans surrounding the imagery of women.  In this case the texts become pregnant with body dissatisfaction and food restriction among vulnerable viewers.  (Halliwell, E., Malson, H., & Tischner citing others studies, p. 38).

If the population in general already incorporates the implicit sexist propaganda in these texts, and they do, women and girls internalize this propaganda unconsciously and compare themselves to unrealistic and objectified images of women.  That internalization is so pervasive that repeated viewing of objectifying TV shows (and other forms of media) results in the incorporation of these idealizations of objectified beauty as their own “freely chosen or even natural” ideas, because the idea of beauty is a personal choice rather than an externally imposed instruction, and hence subconscious conditioning propaganda. (Halliwell, E., Malson, H., & Tischner citing others studies, p. 39).  Halliwell, E., Malson, H., & Tischner studied young women college students in the United Kingdom who were shown several printed advertising images of objectified, “empowered,” and control group images of women. The women were also given questionnaires to evaluate their self-objectification, weight dissatisfaction, and their evaluation of the advertisements themselves.

The results were not a surprise and they confirm my belief that exposure to such imagery is gender conditioning propaganda that is aggravating self-objectification and increasing self esteem issues to most if not all women and is, thus, not healthy.  While my ideas have always been feminist in nature for all marginalized peoples, this article (and the ones that follow) and the feminist psychology principles that are discussed in class daily have helped to radicalize my feminism and codify my thought processes regarding the damaging effects of media propaganda upon all women.  What must happen for me now (and frankly, for everyone) is further research, further study, and the implementation of empowering propaganda for marginalized peoples on a personal level to help each one reach their fullest potential as human beings, not as women, not as people of color, not as children, but very simply as human beings.

The gender propaganda that pervades societies is present here but obviously present oversees in Europe.  The authors of, “Shake It Baby, Shake It”: Media Preferences, Sexual Attitudes and Gender Stereotypes Among Adolescents, studied, TV, music styles, music TV and Internet media.   They discovered that the already existing attitudes of 13 to 16 year old teenagers (at least in the Netherlands) were already influenced by their exposure to sexist media propaganda and found that hip-hop and hard house music were associated with positive gender stereotypes, classical music was associated with negative gender stereotypes, and teenage boys viewing of Internet porn strongly influenced their attitudes and stereotypes. The authors admitted that two recent major reviews of the potential effects of sexualized media content concluded that there is little evidence proving media influence that I find strange due to the pervasiveness of media and gender propaganda that is so omnipresent that it may have become “unnoticeable,” even by social scientists.

The authors posit that while parents raise their teenage children based upon socially recognized patterns, they may fall short regarding romance and sex. Thus media propaganda may be responsible for programming teens with repeated examples of unrealistic and unhealthy depictions of objectified men and women as “normal”.  Further, the likelihood of social learning from media models is stronger when the media models attitudes and behaviors are relevant, when they are considered high status and attractive, and when they appear to benefit from displaying these attitudes and behaviors. (Ter Bogt, Engels, Bogers, & Kloosterman citing others: p. 845).

While I don’t believe it is deliberate, American media propaganda is so pervasive on teen television programming in the Netherlands that it has probably supplanted more local programming and social gender norms that may or may not have been healthier for teens and adults.  Three of the four youth programming channels are owned by MTV and rely upon programming that is foreign to the Netherlands and a significant portion of Dutch TV is American. (Ter Bogt, Engels, Bogers, & Kloosterman citing others: p. 846).  Coupled with this programming, the authors also found that teens have a skewed opinion of their genders, in that teen boys are thought to be sexually aggressive and teen girls are valued for their looks and objectified beauty.  Exposure to extreme pornographic content leads to sexual stereotyping.  . (Ter Bogt, Engels, Bogers, & Kloosterman citing others: p. 847).

The authors’ current study referenced many of the recent studies above but noted that the particular media preferred by teens, music television and videos, television, and internet, have not been included in any previous studies, especially the particular preferred media used in this study.  The results were mixed but it was found that “preferences for sexually explicit TV or internet content are the strongest indicator of permissive sex and stereotypical gender-role attitudes when other factors are controlled.” (Ter Bogt, Engels, Bogers, & Kloosterman: pp. 854-855). I do believe that additional studies are needed to confirm or deny the hypotheses and results in this study, in spite of the gender roll stereotypes that the media is rife with.  And while it is not as prevalent as mainstream porn in Europe or the United States (which mostly perpetuate the gender-role stereotypes of women), especially on the internet, there are genres of porn that are produced by women that are more woman-positive, body positive, and empowering, and not all necessarily lesbian-dominated. Additionally, it may be a misnomer that everyone watches porn whether it is alone or as part of sexual play with a partner, but the fact that many more watch porn than are willing to admit must be considered as well as that some or many of these viewers have a positive attitude and perspective of women as human beings that are not objectified as in the mainstream.

“Negotiating with Gender Stereotypes on Social Networking Sites: From “Bicycle Face” to Facebook” takes the control of media from the mainstream and places it in the hands of individual women and girls, but instead of allowing them more freedom of expression, the social network transforms that freedom of expression into a means of controlling or policing them in order to force upon them sexist gendered norms.  Controlling their activity and expression because they do not conform to media gender propaganda becomes a means to inhibit freedom, to “slut” shame, “to keep women and girls in their place.”  I do not understand why this happens and why it is important to control a human being’s freedom of expression.  I don’t.  And while I am learning more and more about gendered stereotypes and gendered sexism in media propaganda, I will rail against it as often as possible because if one person has no freedom, no one of us has any freedom.

The authors also cite prior studies that women and girls frequent heavily commercialized and advertised web sites, and they have become influenced by the glamorized shots of young women available on their pages, contrary to what was previously hoped and assumed by the egalitarian nature of the Internet. (Steeves, Burkell, & Regan citing others:  p. 3).  Women and girls, rather than freely exploring their gender online, are conforming to the gender stereotypes within advertising propaganda imagery available on each site by taking and displaying highly sexualized personal glamor shots. (Steeves, Burkell, & Regan citing others:  p. 4).

When the authors sampled 1500 Facebook profiles of young women 18-22 prior to the study, they found only one outlier (a politically active lesbian woman) to the stereotypical young woman’s profile that represented the profile subjects as “sexualized objects seeking male attention through the use of glamor shots and partially clad, sexualized pictures and fun, carefree textual and photographic references to relationships with friends and a romantic partner….” (Steeves, Burkell, & Regan:  p. 5). The authors’ current study attempted to assess the opinions of women in the age category of a “typical profile” to determine how young women interpret these stereotypical representations.

Because of obvious privacy issues, the authors did not use any real profiles but created a fictitious and very authentic fake profile of a young woman. What is disappointing but not surprising is that the study participants unanimously claimed that the fictitious profile was a very “regular” woman with a very common profile.  In line with my interests in propaganda it wasn’t surprising that this typical profile included a “mainstream interest in shopping, popular movies, books, and music” (Steeves, Burkell, & Regan:  p. 5, 6) and that media propaganda has so permeated the lives of everyone.  Here I paraphrase Jacques Ellul in Propaganda:  The Formation of Men’s Attitudes:  It is only the persons ignorant and living in a cave away from technology and propaganda that are not affected by propaganda.  The highly educated who think they understand propaganda and can resist it because of their education cannot.   I am an optimist or I would not be a feminist, and thus there is hope for resisting propaganda, the gendered and sexist variety as well as others, on some level by teaching children and young adults to think for themselves and not accept the dictates of the media as their own personal choices and directives.

The results of the study were, unfortunately, not very surprising.  Rather than turning gender stereotypes on their head for the first time in modern media propaganda history, social networking profiles, at least typical ones, reinforce sexist, gendered stereotypes and stereotypical conceptions of gender through favorite movies and book selections as well as self photos that emulate mass media propaganda imagery. Additionally, the authors found that defiant gender behavior may be complicated by combined online social networking environments and familiar offline social norms that reiterate gender discriminatory power structures.

The last study looks at gender-role stereotypes in after school children’s television on the Nickelodeon cable network.  The authors posit that through long-term television media exposure and the socialization process, children are programmed to develop a preference for toys designed, packaged, and marketed to reinforce their masculine or feminine identities. Because they also believe that since toys represent cultural ideologies, they wanted to determine how those toys were marketed to children in relation to gender roles.  Kahlenberg & Hein: p. 830).  Essentially, commercial television propaganda does more than sell toys.  It also does more than sell a particular mindset to live in society, but that was all the authors were looking at in the current study.

Further, the authors looked at the previous literature that posits that gender identity is learned in childhood, through socialization, interaction and play. Such play, across cultures, helps all children to search for and organize information about their gender identities.  The authors cite previous evidence that indicates that children are programmed with propaganda regarding proper play behavior because they, “may lack the experience, media literacy, and cognitive skills to deconstruct marketing strategies and make informed decisions within the marketplace.” (Kahlenberg & Hein citing others:  p. 831).

The choice of analyzing Nickelodeon Television, particularly in relation to its advertising is interesting, given that Nickelodeon has positioned itself as a network that promotes diversity, respect, and tolerance, while breaking traditional gender roles. (Kahlenberg & Hein:  p. 833).    Given that toy companies’ ad dollars must use their dollars wisely and efficiently, do they create advertising for Nickelodeon only or advertising with “traditional gender roles” that is used on all networks?  I would posit that the toy manufacturers are not even considering gender roles, but their bottom line.  If change is going to be made allowing children to make their own decisions, changes is the manner in which things are presented must also occur. I also believe that distancing children away from television and advertising would be excellent ways for them to discover their own identities without having it shoved down their throats but that might be frowned upon by the economic powers that be.

The results are typical but disappointing.  While Nickelodeon’s programming may be gender empowering and egalitarian, the advertising between the programming segments is not.  The authors found the programming less disproportionate; the ads were marketed specifically to one gender and not with the same equality dispensed on the network itself and most were marketed as female-gendered. What the authors and I are pleasantly surprised at is the cooperative play going on in both the female-gendered toy commercials and male-gendered toy commercials (as opposed to “traditional” male-gendered aggressive play), though there was some competitive, “boys against girls” play going on in some commercials. I reiterate that though this is extreme, I think television and media propaganda in general is relied upon too much without consideration of consequences.  Additionally, although, here I must admit my bias against television, I believe that television is unnecessary for child-rearing and adult-rearing for that matter.  Additionally, there were and are additional activities available prior to the advent of television, though those media still did not allow for much if any gender rebellion.

This, I believe, is because gender-role stereotyping goes deeper than the media- and other propaganda that all of us are subjected to daily.  I believe that gender-role stereotyping within our culture and other cultures rely upon the programming at the core of gendered language usage, in other words, language-propaganda.  Feminists have studied this for years and I believe it is time to look at the conditioning and programming inherent within the language that each of us uses.  I can see these language biases with hierarchical and collective use mentalities as well as language used to control, confine, and suppress.

 

Sources:

Crawford, M., & Unger, R. K. (2004). Women and Gender: A feminist psychology. Boston: McGraw Hill.

Halliwell, E., Malson, H., & Tischner, I. (2011). Are Contemporary Media Images Which Seem to Display Women as Sexually Empowered Actually Harmful to Women?. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 35(1), 38-45.

Kahlenberg, S. G., & Hein, M. M. (2010). Progression on Nickelodeon? Gender-role stereotypes in toy commercials. Sex Roles, 62(11-12), 830-847.

Steeves, V., Burkell, J., & Regan, P. (2013). Negotiating with Gender Stereotypes on Social Networking Sites: From “Bicycle Face” to Facebook.Available at SSRN.

Ter Bogt, T. F., Engels, R. C., Bogers, S., & Kloosterman, M. (2010). “Shake It Baby, Shake It”: Media preferences, sexual attitudes and gender stereotypes among adolescents. Sex Roles, 63(11-12), 844-859.

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