Feminism has drawn attention to and fought against stereotypical and sexist portrayals of women in mass media, but new research shows that media portrayals of gender have largely done an about face in the past decade or so. There is a new “gender war” and the main target of discrimination is no longer women, according to research - it is men.
Gender studies have claimed that mass media portrayals and images are key influences that both reflect and shape society’s views of women and women’s self-identity. As well as attacking obvious sexist media portrayals such as page three girls and “girlie” magazines, feminists have challenged objectification, marginalisation, trivialisation and other negative portrayals of women in movies, advertising, TV drama and other media content. Their argument that such portrayals are damaging have won support from legislators and from many media professionals including film makers, advertising producers and editors.
Research shows that, while sexism against women remains, representations of women have evolved with less stereotypical portrayals and more women shown in heroic, successful, independent and sexually liberated roles such as in Buffy and the Vampire Slayer, Sex and the City and even in aggressive roles such as Kill Bill.
A 1995-96 study reported in a 2002 book, Media, Gender and Identity by media researcher David Gauntlett, found 43 per cent of major characters in TV shows were women - up from 18 per cent in 1992-93. The study reported that, on a character-by-character basis, females and males were equal in all criteria studied. Analysis of newspapers and magazines also has found portrayals of women improving - albeit there is still a way to go in some areas according to feminist scholars.
Until recently, gender theorists and media researchers have argued or assumed that media representations of men are predominantly positive, or at least unproblematic. Men have allegedly been shown in mass media as powerful, dominant, heroic, successful, respected, independent and in other positive ways conducive to men and boys maintaining a healthy self-identity and self-esteem.
However, this view has come under challenge over the past few years. John Beynon, a Welsh cultural studies academic, examined how masculinity was portrayed in the British quality press including The Times, The Guardian and The Sunday Times over a three-year period from 1999-2001 and in books such as Susan Faludi’s 2000 best-seller Stiffed: The Betrayal of Modern Man. Beynon concluded in his 2002 book, Masculinities and Culture, that men and masculinity were overwhelmingly presented negatively and as “something dangerous to be contained, attacked, denigrated or ridiculed, little else”.
Canadian authors, Paul Nathanson and Katherine Young in a controversial 2001 book, Spreading Misandry: The Teaching of Contempt for Men in Popular Culture reported widespread examples of “laughing at men, looking down on men, blaming men, de-humanising men, and demonising men” in modern mass media. They concluded: “… the worldview of our society has become increasingly both gynocentric (focused on the needs and problems of women) and misandric (focused on the evils and inadequacies of men)”.
The role of mass media in creating and or reflecting identity has long been debated and the findings of some studies have been questioned. Nathanson and Young admitted in their foreword that their findings were based on a small sample. Also, most analysis of media content has focused on movies, TV drama and advertising: mass media genre which are fiction and, therefore, not representative of reality and ostensibly “taken with a grain of salt” by audiences.
However, an extensive content analysis of mass media portrayals of men and male identity undertaken for a PhD completed in 2005 through the University of Western Sydney focusing on news, features, current affairs, talk shows and lifestyle media found that men are widely demonised, marginalised, trivialised and objectified in non-fiction media content that allegedly presents facts, reality and “truth”.
The study involved collection of all editorial content referring to or portraying men from 650 newspaper editions (450 broadsheets and 200 tabloids), 130 magazines, 125 TV news bulletins, 147 TV current affairs programs, 125 talk show episodes, and 108 TV lifestyle program episodes from 20 of the highest circulation and rating newspapers, magazines and TV programs over a six-month period. Media articles were examined using in-depth quantitative and qualitative content analysis methodology.
The research found that, by volume, 69 per cent of mass media reporting and commentary on men was unfavourable compared with just 12 per cent favourable and 19 per cent neutral or balanced. Men were predominately reported or portrayed in mass media as villains, aggressors, perverts and philanderers, with more than 75 per cent of all mass media representations of men and male identities showing men in one of these four ways. More than 80 per cent of media mentions of men, in total, were negative, compared with 18.4 per cent of mentions which showed men in a positive role.
The overwhelmingly negative reporting and portrayals of men in mass media news, current affairs, talk shows and lifestyle media was mainly in relation to violence and aggression. Violent crime, including murder, assault, armed robberies and attacks such as bashings, accounted for almost 40 per cent of all media reporting of male violence and aggression, followed by sexual abuse (20.5 per cent), general crime (18.6 per cent) and domestic violence (7.3 per cent).
This article is based on research findings from a PhD research thesis completed in 2005 through the University of Western Sydney and published in Media & Male Identity: The Making and Remaking of Men released by Palgrave Macmillan, London in September 2006.