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Web Event 3: Media as a Site for Feminism Unbound

EmmaBE's picture

We spend our lives saturated with the ideas in media. We experience different types of media in varying degrees depending mostly on our positions in social power structures, but we all experience it. It is where the value system of our society is taught; it is where the foundations of our mythology our formed. Patriarchy is disseminated through media, where it affects the participants in and the audience of the media.

Television, film, and advertisements are notorious for perpetuating patriarchal ideas. The video “How the Media Failed Women in 2013”, created by The Representation Project, has gone viral recently, inciting people to be angry about the authors of the media mentioned in the video and the ways they oppress women. However, I think this is only drawing attention to a small part of the problem – it does not look at why these artists and creators and critics are perpetuating oppression (usually oppression of white, attractive women, as these are usually the only female bodies found in the media) and it does not acknowledge that these opinions are not flukes, are not feelings voiced by a couple of random assholes, but an integral part of our culture, ideas that will repeat themselves over and over until we make an effort to change them. Patriarchal media does not only oppress the women you can find on the covers of every magazine and DVD case, it creates a system in which unrealistic expectations of behavior and appearance are set up for everyone it portrays – and leaves out the stories of those it deems unworthy of attention.  Media is so universal that it is oppression unbound: a system which only an unbound form of feminism can hope to fix.

The people who media does portray are portrayed within a set patriarchal system of values (not only “male characters behave this way, female characters behave this way”, but “male audiences enjoy this, female audiences enjoy this” and “relationships are set up this way – heteronormative, bound to patriarchal opinions on power”) which cause anxiety to the real people in this society.

It isn’t hard to see the ways in which patriarchal media enforces different expectations of behavior for different types of people, if one looks for them. For example, the website TV Tropes, which is a communal wiki for analyzing tropes in popular narrative, offers titles for character archetypes often found in media. A few male tropes offered (in a list of over a hundred) are “Action Genre Hero Guy”, “A Lady on Each Arm”, “Camp Gay”, “Dumbass Teenage Son”, and “Angry Black Man”. A few female tropes are “Bastard Girlfriend”, “The Chief’s Daughter”, “Fat Girl”, “Gag Boobs”, “Lipstick Lesbian”, “The Tease”, and “Asian Airhead.” These stereotypes are all tied to systems of unequal power relationships spread across divisions of gender, race, class, ability, age, and sexuality. When these limited caricatures stand in for the vast, intersectional categories of “woman” and “man” (and leave no place for people outside of the cis-centric gender binary), the media sets up a system of expectations for and assumptions about people who identify with all or part of the label being portrayed. The men’s rights website A Voice For Men voiced their concerns about conforming to these expectations and how they play into power in relationships in an article about ‘zeta males’:

“You grow up through your life being taught what to do; who you provide for and how you accomplish that. You protect and practice chivalry, and the social constructs and institutional ideas of what men should be are handed to you without reason or explanation.

Before you realize it you have been molded into the man you are told to be, and you fall into a category. You may be caught somewhere in between, but on the odds you still lean more towards one designation or the other. In the end, from a critical eye, and an institutional one, you will be branded whether you like it or not. You have been given a status, for better or worse, based on how you adapted to your upbringing, and a bit of luck.

The problem with the idea of alpha and beta males is that the traits are partially based on superiority/inferiority and they are actually rather constricting and come with the standard restrictions of manhood (the inability to show emotions, you must raise a family, and be the breadwinner, etc). You are given a code of conduct, and how well you do determines your worth as a man, and as a human being. Traditionally speaking, you either played the game or you forfeit by default. There weren’t many options, and even alpha males were stuck in their role.”

Media is unbound in that it reaches everyone; the oppressive and patriarchal values of media affect everyone, even those who are privileged by a patriarchal system. The stories that are told are limited and unchanging, and the people in these stories are a collection of stereotypes and assumptions perpetuating patriarchal ideas.

Lack of accurate and/or complete representation in media is at the heart of patriarchal systems of oppression in terms of media consumption. Those who are not portrayed in media are being told they have no place and no voice in society, that they and their stories are not worthy of attention, that they have nothing to aspire to. Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund, says “You can’t be what you can’t see.” If there is never a story about a disabled politician, for instance, how can a disabled person imagine themselves as a politician? Why would anyone consider that a disabled person could be a politician? This hearkens back to what Binh says in The Book of Salt about the assumptions that people make about his profession based on the fact that he is a Vietnamese man in France – “To them, my body offers an exacting, predetermined life story. It cripples their imagination as it does mine.”

Is there a way to unbind media from patriarchal/oppressive systems of power? We can draw attention to the flaws in these systems and educate media consumers on the power plays that are taking place in what they are consuming. The Representation Project is an excellent example of feminism unbound in addressing patriarchal media. It began with Miss Representation, a non-profit committed to exposing “limiting depictions of women in the media and our larger culture”, and now has expanded to “a movement that uses film and media content to expose injustices created by gender stereotypes and to shift people’s consciousness towards change”.

Acknowledging the flaws in our society will not only inspire new artists and creators to create in worlds separate of these values, but open up/unbind the system that produces this media and commodifies it. Amy Bleakley, the lead author of a study about female representation in movies, addressed the problem on the part of producers when she said “Apparently Hollywood thinks that films with male characters will do better at the box office. It is also the case that most of the aspects of movie-making – writing, production, direction, and so on – are dominated by men, and so it is not a surprise that the stories we see are those that tend to revolve around men.” It’s not just that “sex sells”, it’s that white upper-class able-bodied heterosexual males sell. If we unbind production from patriarchy by acknowledging the unequal power relationships that cause limited and limiting portrayals of people in the media, then our mythology may become one in which all people may fully participate and from which we all may take inspiration.  


How the Media Failed Women in 2013:

The Book of Salt, by Monique Truong


Anne Dalke's picture

Unbinding media

You spend a great deal of time here, Emma, showing us that media trades in stereotypes--and I certainly agree that it does. You spend much less time thinking out loud about the ways in which we might "unbind production from patriarchy by acknowledging unequal power relationships..."

...without changing them/working to alter the power dynamic? (still echoing for me is what you said when we were using the barometer, in class, to talk about power feminism: "It means operating within systems of power--and profiting from them--but not working to change them").

I would agree that media--almost definitionally--deals in stereotypes/the lowest common denominator. That's why the sort of work you discuss is so popular. But how to unbind this package? Educating consumers, you say, as The Representation Project does...

do you want to work on such an education project for your final web event?