The Portrayal of Women in Popular Culture
The University of Georgia
The entities that become popular in a culture speak for the culture’s society. Most movies, magazines, newspapers and television shows are created by only a few hundred individuals, but these works are still able to speak for the millions of people that live in a society because they are being consumed by the society members every single day. When a few hundred individuals are able to speak for millions of individuals then this is the point when society becomes entrenched with stereotypes and false ideals, which force individuals to feel as though they need to behave in certain ways. I chose to focus my paper on how women are portrayed in popular culture and the media. Then, I asked myself how these portrayals of women influence how women choose to behave.
Based on the emergence of films such as Batman, Superman and Spiderman as well as television shows such as NBC’s Heroes and the CW’s Supernatural, it has become obvious that this culture has become obsessed with superheroes (Stabile, 2009). These superhero blockbusters feature a host of men who stomp, fly and swing across our screens on missions to save the world. And while the featured males are portrayed as powerful saviors, the subordinate females are portrayed as frail figures who need to be saved. The superhero is first and foremost a man because only men have the balls to lead. Some people may point out the rare female superhero, like Wonder Woman, as an attempt at diversity but even though there have been attempts at depicting “superheroines” the obvious sexualization of these female superheroes has aided in undercutting the power of these women. NBC’s Heroes was praised for its international, bilingual cast who make up the dozens of super characters charged with the task of preventing a nuclear apocalypse. The first season revealed the series’ investment in a traditional formulation of gender and power as the show’s tagline was “Save the Cheerleader, Save the World.” The cast constantly converges to save the life of a girl whose passive power of healing herself leaves her virtually defenseless. A further analysis of the show proves the further victimization of women as the female characters’ powers differ from their male counterparts in many ways. Claire’s inability to protect herself has already been discussed but there is also the example of sexy internet model Niki Sanders whose power is supernatural strength. Even though she holds a domineering power, the writers elected to undermine this fact by cursing her with multiple personality disorder. So, despite her power, Niki’s mental disorder constantly transforms her into a victim. Another female character, Maya Herrera, has the power to cause people to bleed out; but she is also turned into a victim because of her inability to control her power. So, even with all of the diversity that this show provides, our inability to imagine women as being anything but vulnerable continues to reign supreme. Based on the popular culture of our time it seems as though U.S. culture remains unable to envision femininity absent vulnerability (Stabile, 2009).
Women are not only being portrayed as vulnerable in popular culture but they are also being portrayed as unworthy of possessing any real power. Just as images of superheroes have dominated popular culture so have images of the President of the United States. We will not focus on the public’s inclinations toward a male president or reservations about a female president, but will instead focus on how the media portrays this powerful position (Hungerford, 2010). Generally, Americans still envision the President to be male and to uphold proper masculine characteristics. The films Independence Day and Air Force One are being examined because both films portray depictions of the President of the United States. These two films are also significant because they were box office smashes and have been presented on many major cable networks which verifies the American Public’s interest in these films and their content. Images are very powerful and so the visual entertainment industry is very important when it comes to shaping national attitudes. A majority of women politicians cite the media as perpetuating barriers to women’s election to office. In Air Force One President Marshall reaffirms his masculinity in one scene when he asks about the football scores and then proceeds to watch the game; he also asks his daughter, in the same scene, if she loved the ballet that she and his wife attended which virtually distances him from any “feminine” activities. In the film, Independence Day, President Whitmore asserts his masculinity in one scene by physically slamming his chief of staff against the wall as he fires him. Furthermore, in both films, the men are portrayed as being heroes who risk their lives to save others. In Air Force One the President does not escape into the escape pod to save himself as he was instructed to do but instead chooses to stay behind in order to save the lives of both his wife and his daughter. This scene is not only significant because it portrays the male president as a hero but also because it illustrates the fact that female characters are secondary figures who are only present in order to be saved by men. Speaking of female characters, Air Force One provides a female vice President whose role is unfortunately demeaned and ridiculed by both the bad guys (the hijackers) and the good guys (White House staff members) alike. In one scene, the National Security Advisor and the hijacker have a good laugh at her expense when they compare her to the queen of England. This comparison to the queen coveys the idea that the vice president has no real political power or authority. In trivializing the female vice president’s role the consensus remains clear regarding portrayals of women in popular culture: “A female president is viable only when she is backed by men.” These presidential portrayals only add to the ideals that men are the only figures capable of holding any real power.
The roles of Superheroes and President are not the only roles that are underrepresented by women in popular culture. High ranking business people are often times represented by men (Stephenson et. al., 1997) Women have achieved some success in the workplace but they are still not seen in the same light as men. One study found that men are more likely to be seen in business settings in advertisements while women are more likely to be seen in domestic settings. In order to further analyze how little the media depicts women in the business world Santa Clara University graduates Stephenson, Stover and Villamor analyzed the content of 709 business related ads in 144 magazines. They found that in the 1970’s advertisements featured more working women but these women were mostly portrayed as secretaries, telephone operators and housewives while the men were portrayed as bosses, managers and intelligent experts. The 1980’s was a slow decade in the women’s movement and female office workers depicted in advertisements are often times shown dutifully serving their male bosses. In the 1990’s, the media claimed to honor women but advertisements only reinforced gender stereotypes. This decade featured the portrayal of women as small business owners, real estate agents and public relations consultants. This decade proved that even in more recent times, women are still not being portrayed as holding positions of power. They also continue to be displayed as secretaries in any mixed – sex advertisements. The researchers’ study revealed that sex inequality in the workplace continues to exist in the media. Advertisements rarely feature working women and when women were featured they almost always were portrayed as subordinate figures. The consistent underrepresentation of working women in advertisements suggests that they cannot compete with men in the business world and until advertisements portray women as being equal to men in business, it will probably remain a man’s world (Stephenson et. al., 1997)
Gender is a social construct (Conradie, 2011). The analyzed works throughout the entirety of this paper provide examples of this description. And since gender is a social construct we can safely infer that behavioral patterns commonly associated with masculinity or femininity are not determined by biology. Being born male or female does not influence behavior, the socialization of individuals does. To perform “normal” gender behaviors requires the display of certain characteristics that are influenced by whatever is considered “good and bad” or “right and wrong” in a culture. The mass media is considered one of the most powerful and prevalent sources of ideology in contemporary societies. Therefore, whatever messages are sent by the media are going to be the messages that the people within a society choose to respond to. If the media and popular culture portray women as being weaker than men, less powerful than men and less capable of being successful in business than men then these are the kinds of messages that women are most likely to believe.
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Hungerford, K. (2010). The Male “White” House of Hollywood: A Feminist Critique of What it Means to Be Presidential. Ohio Communication Journal, 48: 55-75.
Stabile, C. (2009). “Sweetheart, this Ain’t Gender Studies:” Sexism and Superheroes.
Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 6(1): 86-92.
Stephenson, T., Stover, W., & Villamor, M. (1997). Sell Me Some Prestige! The Portrayal of
Women in Business – Related Ads. Journal of Popular Culture, 30(4): 255-271.
A poem by Keimani Woods
You can be anything that you want to be.
A doctor, rock star or maybe even a female emcee.
The President holds a position of high distinction.
Work hard and you'll face almost no opposition.
This is your time to learn, explore and be free.
With no worries, for the media has not yet affected thee.
You can be anything that you want to be.
But please keep in mind that you have to look pretty.
How else do you expect to find a husband some day.
Wipe that sweat off your brow, no man wants to see you that way.
Stop running around pretending to be superwoman.
Come stir what's in this pot and don't forget the cumin.
I know I told you before that you could dream big.
Now you're old enough to see that it was all a jig.
How many women do you see, making it big in business?
That's a man's world and for a woman it's much too vicious.
Have you become everything that you wanted to be?
You have everything that you need according to society.
You're a wife, a mother and a damn good cook.
When you needed anything your man did everything that it took.
To provide for you while you stayed in your place.
With the boredom of life etched all over your face.
Do you ever dream of being anything more?
With the media around, who needs to dream? What for?
Have you been everything that you wanted to be?
Or were you influenced by the women that you see on TV?
You've raised a family and while that's an admirable feat for sure.
Have you ever wondered if you could accomplish more?
When did you lose sight of that brave little girl.
Who wanted to change the world, even give running a business a whirl.
You fell into our society's trap.
And chose to live your life with a parade of babies on your lap.
If the media had told you that you could be something different.
Would you have believed in yourself, had a more confident spirit?
Here lies the woman who followed society's norms.
She's yet another example of what it means to conform.
A pretty woman who worked to keep her looks just right.
A homemaker who raised her family with all of her might.
She grew up knowing that she was to be protected by men.
But, would she live her life in this same way again?