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Women, Sport,
and Film - 2003


On Serendip

Media and Gender Stereotyping

Marla McConnell

As media becomes an ever more powerful force in shaping the world's perception of itself, an individual's struggle to maintain a unique identity and self-understanding apart from media influence becomes increasingly difficult. Damaging to the idea of the self are the racial, gendered, and class-based stereotypes (always artificial and frequently physically, fiscally, and emotionally unattainable), which are broadly perpetuated and, because of their persistence, are apparently not broadly questioned. The prevalence and power of gender (especially female) stereotypes in the media are addressed in this paper.

Heightened public awareness of both the existence of and potential damage caused by these stereotypes is essential if they are to be eliminated. Frequently, though, they are difficult to combat and even to identify because of the ways in which they are presented. Overwhelming amounts of time and energy are devoted to uplifting a small, specially selected portion of the population as models of physical perfection. These individuals are, predominantly, television and movie celebrities, fashion models, and sports figures. The glamorous ways in which these occupations are portrayed by the media are seemingly impossible to separate from the physical appearance of the people who hold them. The glamour that surrounds the media presentation of the lives and careers of these individuals extends, not surprisingly, to the clothes that they wear and the way that they look. In fact, so much attention is given to celebrity appearances that entire television programs are devoted to little else but visual exploitation of celebrity clothing and their tangible products of their latest fad workouts.

The media presentation of the celebrity body has a single unifying thread, regardless of the specific job title of a given celebrity. Celebrity bodies are desired, both subjectively and objectively. The media, without question, shapes this public response. It can be argued (and has been, on many occasions) that, because the media portrays celebrities' bodies as attractive, desirable, and "good," they become national symbols of these characteristics. Conversely, bodies that do not meet this lofty goal frequently are, consciously or unconsciously, regarded as "bad" or ugly. Consider the most recent (and extremely popular) advertising tack used by Subway, the national fast food sandwich chain. "Jared," the protagonist of the recent slew of television commercials, allegedly lost hundreds of pounds while on a diet consisting primarily of the chain's fare. Jared's "before" pictures show him considerably larger than his current size, but they also show him alone, with no friends or family. In stark contrast, however, his "after" action shots consistently show him not only thinner, but also constantly in the presence of a beautiful woman, presumably his significant other. The advertising message is clear: fat=bad, ugly, unhappy and alone, thin=happy and with attractive partner. Through these commercials, Jared has assumed celebrity status, solely on the basis that his body has changed to approximate more closely the current standard of attractiveness.

Sadly, though, there is a severe disconnect between the male and female body types lauded in the media and those of the public at large. A shockingly small minority of the population has the genetic dispensation to match with what the media purports to be attractive. For women, "desirable" physical characteristics (as they are portrayed in the media) include being thin, long-legged, slim-hipped, and large-breasted. The media-portrayed "desirable" physical characteristics for men include being muscular and possessing a full head of hair. Some characteristics are portrayed as desirable in both sexes, such as being tall, fit, athletic, young, and light-skinned.
In the gap between what is implicitly beautiful in the eyes of the media and the physical reality of the popular majority flourishes a market of "self-improvement" products and services, ranging from hair dye and makeup to tanning salons, dieting, and plastic surgery. It seems as though nearly everyone, at some point in his or her life attempts to alter him- or herself in a physical way, in order to conform more closely to the marketed "norm" of attractiveness and desirability. Television, magazines, and newspapers are filled with advertisements promoting self-loathing, while offering "miracle," body-altering "cures." The body that does not conform to a sexy, sleek stereotype becomes a thing to be hated, improved upon, and generally tortured into submission.

A portion of the damage caused by such a mentality is quantifiable, though observation of the huge profits accumulated yearly by various diet programs and plastic surgeons. The harm of this presentation of the human body can also be seen in our current societal epidemic of disordered eating, including anorexia, bulimia, over-exercising, excessive dieting, and over-anxiety over food. While the population subset living with and recovering from disordered eating is still predominately composed of women, the number of men with disordered and dangerous eating habits is on the rise.
In addition to physical damage, intangible psychological harm results from body image problems to which the media contributes daily. When men and women are faced with the implication that their bodies, if they fail to conform to an impossibly stringent set of standards, are unattractive, unhealthy, and unlovable, they begin to lose confidence in themselves. The perception that a single, narrow range of body types is acceptable and healthy for men and women is not only in error, but contributes to widespread social discontent. Instead of celebrating the diversity and beauty of the human form, the media stifles our desire to feel comfortable with ourselves in an attempt to fool us into supporting a billion dollar self improvement market, from which the media garners tremendous financial benefits.

In addition to (and perhaps more devastating than) the physical and emotional damage caused by the current media-driven obsession with achieving an arbitrary physical "perfection," our society faces losing serious social perspective. As it is currently used in the media, the body is stripped of its uniqueness and forced into frustratingly narrow constraints: good/bad and attractive/unattractive. Little or no public attention is given to the countless other factors around which a person's identity is structured: kindness, generosity, honesty, friendliness, work ethics, personal motivation, intelligence, and spirituality. By focusing too intensely on the physical, our society risks losing sight of the fuller sense of what people are, and what makes us truly beautiful.

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