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Charlotte Needham

Sociology Essay
First conceived by Gerbner in 1972, symbolic annihilation is the lack of or
underrepresentation of a social group in the media. Tuchman, in 1978, divided
this process into categories of omission, trivialisation and condemnation of a
group in order to vilify or erase these individuals in society. Many feminist
sociologists such as Turnstall, Newbold and Kilbourne believe that in
contemporary Britain- in spite of the huge progress made by the feminist
movement and gradual movement towards female emancipation and equality of
the sexes- women are still symbolically annihilated in the media. However, many
other sociologists including postmodernists like Gauntlett criticise these
arguments, insisting that Mulvey's 'male gaze' is outdated. The media, they
argue, is no longer so singular an entity as to be in such a position of power as to
be able to reinforce traditional hegemonic gender roles into the collective social
In recent years, the scope of the media as we know it has expanded to include
but not limited to: the internet, papers, podcasts, 24 hour news, movies, DVDs,
thousands of television channels, streaming sites and social media. However,
many feminist sociologists argue that the diversity of women represented within
these still upholds society's underpinning patriarchy. Women, they argue, are
portrayed in typical gender roles; as mothers, cleaners, domestic servants and
housewives that provide comfort and support for the bread-winning males. Often,
they will simultaneously perform tasks in order to service a man's sexual needs
and be relegated to mere 'sex objects' in the eyes of the mostly male audience.
This corresponds to the views of Marxist Feminists, with the stereotypes rooted
into a by-product of capitalist media conglomerates to make a large profit. Even
products from renowned and well-known media companies such as the BBC- a
supposedly impartial company, are shown not to be immune. One example is the
BBC's 2006 television series of Robin Hood, with the two women characters of
the cast relegated to fulfil the archetypal nurturer and carer of the men.
Additionally, in the third and final series both women were cut and replaced by
only one: who was criticised by many as the typical, two-dimensional damsel in
distress with her only redemption being her adherence to the mass cultural idea
of beauty. Greer supports this damnation of a static female character, arguing
that it is not the supposedly 'inherent' sexual nature of the image of a
subordinate women that is the problem, but that it is the dominant image offered
by the media. To reinforce this, statistics show that only 41% of all on-screen
characters were women between 2010 and 2011 and that in Britain, almost 70%
of teen magazine content centred upon beauty and fashion, in comparison with
12% concerning education or future careers. Kilbourne's analysis showed the
prevailing image of women was equating slimness to happiness, and asserting
traditional Western standards as the most desirable. Meanwhile, Orbach's critical
overview of the media suggests that such inert imagery thus creates a higher
potential for eating disorders and health issues as women strive to attain the
unattainable. Coupled with the knowledge that in the USA alone the dieting
industry was worth well over $100 billion in 2014, Marxist Feminists appear
justified in their beliefs.
On the other hand, as Chittal in 2015 has acknowledged: the rapid growth of
social media sites have democratized feminism and made it accessible to women
previously excluded. The removal of barriers both geographical and financial
have made activism easier, and the collective voice of female dissatisfaction

Charlotte Needham
Sociology Essay
louder and harder to ignore by the male-dominated media. Internet campaigns
such as The Representation Project's 'Ask Her More' or Sport England's 'This Girl
Can' and the numerous posts on Tumblr- some in excess of hundreds of
thousands of likes- demanding strong, realistic female characters have
succeeded in changing the perception of women within areas such as sport or
Hollywood. Consequently, many postmodernist sociologists argue against the
'outdated' theories put forth by The Glasgow Media Group and assorted feminists
that claim the media is merely a state of social apparatus used to reinforce the
cultural hegemony of men as dominant and justify gender inequality.
The Glasgow Media Group, however, have pointed out that, in spite of data
showing that only 25% of women on social media sites read and comment about
parenting and only 8% about shopping, the overwhelming view of a
contemporary, modern or 'ideal' women is still one who fulfils the maternal figure
and acts as the expressive role of housewife and carer. Furthermore, women
comprised only a quarter of all creators, directors, writers, producers, executive
producers, editors and directors of photography on broadcast television
programmes during the 2010-2011 prime-time season. Both The Glasgow Media
Group and sociologist, Almy, question how the media is seen as anything but
justifying the representations and stereotypes formed within the context of the
dominant patriarchal ideology. Radical feminists argue that these traditional
hegemonic images of true femininity are transmitted deliberately by a
predominantly white, middle-class male media solely to keep women oppressed
into a narrow range of roles and opportunities. Supporting this is Mulvey's theory
of the 'male gaze', which describes both the way men look upon women as sex
objects as a result of their media portrayal and the continued treatment of how
the media as an establishment views women in a way that makes them inferior
to men. An incredibly publicised and high-profile example of this includes the
portrayal of female characters in the BBC's 2010 series of Sherlock, written by
Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. Due to the focalisation of the male protagonists
and the casting of men as the primary heroes of the narrative, the (only two)
women characters are cast in respective roles as damsel and bitch, in spite of
both holding roles in employment that require high intelligence, work ethic and
dedication in traditionally masculine areas of work, they are both allotted in a
strictly negative light for the audience.
Gauntlett, however, cautions that as there is such a diversity of media,
representations and audiences throughout the entire world, it cannot be
assumed that media representations will either be consistent or have the same
effect on audiences. As a 2015 Ofcom survey reveals that 93% of adults in the
UK personally own or use a mobile phone, postmodernists point out that it is
almost impossible for two individuals to have the exact same experience of the
media, and so the idea that a woman with hegemonic values and characteristics
exists is fundamentally untrue.
Nevertheless, Turnstall claims that media representations emphasise womens
domestic, sexual, consumer and marital activities to the exclusion of all else. The
media generally ignores the fact that an OECD study shows the majority (78.7%
in 2010) of British women went out to work. Men, on the other hand, are seldom
presented nude or are defined by their marital or family status. Working women
are often portrayed as unfulfilled, unattractive, possibly unstable and unable to
sustain relationships. It is often implied that working mothers, rather than
working fathers, are guilty of the emotional neglect of their children. New Tricks,
the British procedural staple, is a well-known culprit of this; the female lead is

Charlotte Needham
Sociology Essay
implied to have sacrificed marriage- and by proxy, the majority of her traditional
feminine traits- in order to further her career. Furthermore, Wolf suggests that
the images of women used by the media present women as sex objects to be
consumed by men. Supporting this view, is Newbold, who concluded from
research conducted into television sport presentation shows that what little
coverage of womens sport there is tends to sexualise, trivialise and devalue
womens sporting accomplishments. An interview with the womens U.S. football
team brought to light the fact that, though generating nearly $20 million more
revenue than the mens team the previous year, the pay is greatly disparateless than a quarter of what their male counterparts earn, and only if they win a
In spite of that, sociologists Gill and Gauntlett theorise that the depiction of
women in advertising has changed from presenting women as passive,
acquiescent objects of the male whim, into active, independent and sexually
powerful agents. Possibly the most known example is the eponymous woman of
Buffy The Vampire Slayer, who became the most famous female character whose
narrative and circumstance did not force her to enunciate her stereotypically
feminine traits to make room for her masculine attributes. Other well-known
media constructions containing diverse female characters include Doctor Who,
Welcome To Nightvale and Harry Potter. In addition, many media companies now
aim to represent male and females equally, with equal nudity and independence,
such as Game Of Thrones or Shameless.
Yet, Gauntlett also contends that many of the more recent magazines targeting a
male audience still sexually objectify women and stress images of men as
traditionally masculine; subconsciously enforcing their view of a woman as
weaker and in need of protecting. Carpenter and Edison analysed a range of
advertisements in 2005 and discovered that females are much more likely to be
portrayed in decorative roles than men, and are less likely to be featured in more
non-stereotypical or equal roles. Rutherford corroborates their assertion,
suggesting that this recent emergence of male magazines are symbolic of what
he calls retributive masculinity; an attempt to reassert traditional masculine
authority by celebrating traditionally male concerns in their content through
birds, booze and football. The continued existence of The Suns daily portraits
of topless women with little to indict them as a person and not a mere
commodity is further proof of the view.
However, Gauntlett also argues that magazines aimed primarily at an audience
of young women emphasise that women must do their own thing and be
themselves, whilst female pop stars, like Lady Gaga, sing about financial and
emotional independence. He claims that this set of media messages from a
range of sources suggest that women can be tough and independent whilst
remaining sexy. Prime paradigms of this view include: Pushing Daisies, which
has been critically acclaimed for subverting activities that were traditionally
gender stratified; Deadpool, both the comic and film adaptation, which portrays
a female sex-worker in an incredibly positive light; and Welcome To Nightvale, a
podcast whose writers make a firm attempt to include intersectional feminism
within their writing.
Nonetheless, in the media the tendency remains to sexualise women whereas
sexual women- self-sufficient, independent and in total acknowledgement of their
sexuality- are more than not demonised. Dark, sultry and tempting, these female
characters are known as the traditional femme fatales, and stem as far back as

Charlotte Needham
Sociology Essay
the emergence of Gothic literature in the eighteenth century. One instance of this
is Star Trek: Enterprise, in 2004, where a matriarchal society and its inhabitants
were depicted as negative, archetypal sluts who lured the men into sin with
their pheromones. This negative portrayal is heightened by the tension between
them and the main female character- who also has been criticised for being
written purely for the sexual gratification of the male characters. The Star Trek
franchise as a whole could easily be regarded as more progressive media than
contemporary media. In 1966, the women characters wore mini-dresses, which
at the time were a sign of liberation and female emancipation within the
workplace. On top of that, Star Trek The Next Generation which aired from 1987
until 1994, often showed men in the dress uniform in completely normal, working
context as a sign of the progress humanity had made with equality. Whereas
today, many vocal or active defenders of equal rights are branded as feminazis
by the media and prominent and influential celebrities such as Katy Perry or
Shailene Woodley reject to the word feminist and being called as such;
presumably because of the tendency to equate the label with misandrist and
unproductive attitudes.
In conclusion, it would be untrue to claim that women are no longer symbolically
annihilated in the media. Although it varies according to the type of media,
geographic location of production of that media and the age group that is
primarily being targeted, the majority of media- particularly in the Western world,
still tends to treat a woman as a trembling victim, comedic but out of the way
housewife, or a dark and dangerous temptress.