Why studying gendered media engagings matters
Thanks to the work of scholars such as Dallas Smythe, we are aware of the central role of advertisement in most media industries (Smythe, 1995). Television, radio, newspapers, internet, magazines, comic books, and even to an extent digital games and films, are reliant on the revenue generated by consumers using media products to spread advertisements. The industry does not receive this revenue if they cannot guarantee to the advertisers that there will be someone consuming the media product with that particular advertisement.
In order to make this guarantee, the media industry needs to generate an audience for that media product. Audiences are conceived as a mass of people that need to be addressed and organized (McQuail, 1997). The industry then sells that “audience commodity” to the advertisers. In order to generate the audience, the industry needs to have control over how a complex mass of potential individuals can be divided up and packaged so as to be attractive to advertisers.
In order to create these audiences, media producers create media products they feel will confidently attract a specific type of people they can sell to advertisers most interested in that type of consumer (Turow, 1997). The more precisely you can target a person with a product that the person sees as relevant or best-fit, then the more likely that person will consume/engage with that product. One of the most common ways of segmenting people into potential audiences and consumers is along the gender line.
Using the concept of what women and men are expected to prefer, based on sociocultural definitions of masculinity and femininity, media producers create media products with these features. The traditional construct is that men will identify more readily with masculine features, and vice versa for women. Femininity is constructed around emotionality, nurturance and community, while masculinity is constructed around rationality, ruthlessness and individuality (van Zoonen, 1991). Based on these polarized characterizations, feminine features include romantic interests, comedy, fashion, musical numbers, and handsome men, while masculine features include competition, science and technology, violence, politics, and sexy women (Austin, 1999; Bhatia & Desmond, 1993; Calvert, Kondla, Ertel & Meisel, 2001; Cherry, 1999; Jacobson, 2005; Kuhn, 2002; Nyberg, 1995). The individual who agrees with the construction of gender as directed to their biological sex — that is, the gendered individual — is expected to desire the media products meant for his or her gender and to accept such gendered media without question. In this way the symbolic differences are transmitted through the mass media and into the everyday lives of the people of that sociocultural environment.
However, shifting to a dialogic approach, individuals, en masse, have the ability to restructure the structure. Any new interpretive/performative act by individuals, whether material or ideological, could result in the institutionalization of a new common knowledge. Such institutionalization is even more likely if enough individuals amass around this new act, thereby forming an alternative society or subculture to challenge the predominant structure (Berger & Luckmann, 1966; Hebdige, 1979). A new form of fashion, new sense of humor, new sensibility for sex, all could be the result of the acceptance of a new, alternative mode of interpretive/performing. While the actual numbers of individuals necessary to generate such a restructuring is an empirical question, theoretically once this critical mass is reached, hegemony enters. Because hegemony is a “moving equilibrium” (Hebdige, 1979), should the dominant structure wish to remain as such, it must shift to accommodate the shift in individuals. From a dialogic perspective, this give-and-take between agents producing and structures institutionalizing may take generations or even centuries. Or it could only take years in a media-centric, post-industrial society such as the modern United States.
Consider, as a theoretical thought experiment, the increase in media fragmentation (Napoli, 2003). The structure, here the capitalist media industry, began to introduce new texts, channels and technology that increased the range of potential media engagings. However, because the amount of total time available to spend with the media cannot likewise increase for the majority of people, that means the media user has to make more active choices in what media would be used when and where (Livingstone, 1999; 2003; 2004). To the industry’s viewpoint, this means their potential audience was fragmenting. By giving people more things to choose from, the industry had simultaneously reduced the number of people who were likely to be consuming one specific product at any given time.
The structure modified the agency, but then the agency modified the structure as the industry adjusted to this fragmentation by targeting their products to specific types of people, as well as changing the features of media products to encourage active engaging. The more the industry offered, the more the media user became active, and the more the industry saw them as fragmented and thus became determined to address them as such, thereby reinforcing them as being active and fragmented. Similar examples of this dialogic model can be found in analyzing: the relationship between shonen manga (Japanese comics for men) and the marketplace (Shiokawa, 1999); the relationship between media producers and the Internet (Roscoe, 1999; Siapera, 2004), which includes changing how media producers engage with media consumers (Napoli, 2008; Reinhard, 2008).
Just as the dialogic model could predict the reifying of traditional gendered boundaries, it could also predict changes in these definitions (Jacobson, 2005). Operating within symbolic boundaries on what is gender, moving between accepting and resisting these boundaries, the individual engages with media that may be more or less gendered, and more or less meant for their gender. Individuals who more routinely engage with media meant for their gender may unknowingly reify this gendering process — their repeat media engagings and participation in the targeted audience reinforce both the media producers’ felt pressure to create such targeted media, and how the sociocultural environment defines what each gender supposedly prefers, based upon the actions of actual gendered individuals. Thus through the actions of individuals, media producers, societies and cultures can be affected, thereby completing the circle.
Understanding that a critical mass of agents can, through their reaction to the structure, restructure it reaffirms those activists who seek to change the symbolic differences structured into the sociocultural environment. Among feminist scholars, it is often been a question of the representation of gender in the media, and whether or not that representation reflects the reality of the sociocultural environment, and to what extent the representation creates that reality (van Zoonen, 1991). This consternation and debate is the backbone of their activism, to impress upon media producers the need to change the representation. However, such a direct assault is more persuasive if there is a groundswell consensus among media users who resist the gendered media products — for what is more persuasive to a capitalist system than actions that affect profit? Operating from a dialogic model, activists could encourage agentic negotiation or resistance to gendered media through media literacy programs and their assumptions about gender, thereby mobilizing the masses to join the brigade (Jacobson, 2005).
Gender commonalities versus differences. Livingstone (1990) argued the mainstream media, in reporting minor significant differences without clarifying this distinction, artificially polarize the public’s notion of gender. The fall-back position in our society or culture may be a biological or sociocultural explanation that is reductionist, essentialist and deterministic, over-simplifying a complex process and promoting courses of actions that prove to be ill-advised, unfeasible, and detrimental to individuals.
Investigating commonalities could have two practical implications: one psychological, and one economic. Janet Hyde, in discussing her gender similarity hypothesis, highlighted the various ways touting gender differences as a positivistic fact impairs both men and women in many facets of life, from interpersonal relationships to psychic well-being to occupational progression (1994, 2005). By looking as much, if not more so, for commonalities, we uncover the means for deconstructing symbolic differences that prove psychologically and materially damaging to people.
From an economic viewpoint, finding new strategies to build audiences is increasingly important given the current atmosphere of fragmentation (Napoli, 2003). Fragmentation creates specialized media products for specific types of people, largely based on demographics (age, gender, ethnicity) or preferences (sports, movies, music) that are highly correlated with demographics (Turow, 1997). The practice focuses on differences and reinforces them by creating the impression circulating in a media environment that certain products are more appropriate for either gender to engage with. If a media producer is interested in expanding the consumer base, that producer should be focusing on the commonalities of engagings that elide over the differences.
Even before the rise of fragmentation, there were media products that contained more features that would be thought more preferred by women (ex. the soap opera, the “weepie” film) and others that were thought to be more preferred by men (ex. the western, the war film ). And yet, there were still many texts that contained both masculine and feminine features to develop a cross-gender, and thus much more sizeable, audience (ex. I Love Lucy, M*A*S*H, The Cosby Show). Even in the modern United States, with its plethora of media products, shows like American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, House, and Desperate Housewives are examples that have both male and female fan bases, which translate into large ratings and audience shares.
There are also people who cross the gendered boundaries in their daily lives by engaging with media not targeted to them. Studies have examined women who engage with the largely masculine-directed media of superhero comics and digital games. While these women thoroughly enjoy these media, some say they engage as a resistance to gender stereotypes, while others feel like they are trespassing (Nyberg, 1995). Likewise, men who watch soap operas or other feminine media typically feel awkward discussing their enjoyment of the text, with very few feeling they can openly express their interest in such products (Jewkes, 2002).
At this time, it appears more acceptable for women to cross the gendered boundaries than men. While not a completely sanctioned act, such transgression by women is due to feminist calls for women to be the equal of men in how they are treated (Jacobson, 2005). However, there has not been a similar call for men to be the equal of women — to be the stay-at-home dad, to cry openly, to prefer fashion over sports, and so forth (Harris, 2007; Jhally, 1999). As such, there continues to be higher cultural sanctions against men for gender transgressions, which would also apply to men enjoying media meant for women.
While some cross-gender products are more gender neutral due to the balancing of feminine- and masculine-directed features, more recently traditionally masculine texts are being created with some feminine features to bring in the female audience (Buttsworth, 2002; Ferguson, Ashkenazi & Schultz, 1997). This move can be seen in the relaunch of BBC’s Doctor Who, where the Doctor’s female companion became more of a love interest than in previous incarnations. Elevating the actress to essentially a co-star role, the show provided a female audience with a stronger female character to identify with while also providing romantic tension. The result has been a science fiction show, traditionally masculine-directed, that now has a rather large and active female audience. This move has been seen across a variety of science fiction and fantasy texts (ex. Star Trek, Terminator, Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc), and has also been seen in other male-dominated genres, such as sports, horror and superhero comics (Nyberg, 1995; Shiokawa, 1999).
Populating traditionally feminine texts with masculine features is less common. Keeping media meant for women free of masculine features provides a space in which feminine qualities can be propagated as the most beneficial method for success. For example, the movies on the cable network Lifetime showcase female heroines overcoming obstacles using feminine characteristics, instead of resorting to aggression like the female heroines of male-directed horror movies. Unfortunately, this decision may reinforce the idea that feminine texts are for women only, which could hurt the potential for a male audience. Without a shift in the sociocultural structure to alleviate the pressure against men consuming media meant for women, male consumers may continue to suffer in silence.
Focusing on commonalities would provide insight for media producers to create and promote gender-inclusive media products, having both male and female audiences, by focusing on what people liked or disliked about the product regardless of gender. This way of categorizing audiences potentially allows for people to be segmented and studied based on processes of gratification, evaluation and utilization, instead of their sociodemographic memberships or psychological traits (Domzal & Kernan, 1983; Napoli, 2008; Ruggiero, 2000; Schrøder, Drotner, Kline & Murray, 2003). By promoting how a media product would be liked by anyone, media producers can expand their consumer base for any specific media product by showing why men would like certain things in traditionally feminine media product and vice versa. Learning more about the processes underlying engaging with a media product – the selecting, interpreting, and utilizing of the media product — and the patterns of these processes across a variety of media engagings will prove more informative and predictive towards this goal.
I was doing a search for a CBR article I am writing on the upcoming My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic movie, Equestria Girls, when I found it will be showing here in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre for three special events. So, fellow Chicago natives, who wants to join me and crowd out the kids in the theatre!
More importantly, and kinda not to good, is the description the theatre has for the movie’s plot. Here’s the main part:
When a crown is stolen from the Crystal Empire, Twilight Sparkle pursues the thief into an alternate world where she transforms into a teenage girl who must survive her biggest challenge yet… high school.
So the pony who had to unite her fellow ponies to take down Nightmare Moon and Discord is finding her biggest challenge yet — in high school?
Here is Hasbro, in their attempt to bring in an older (but not the older audience already watching the show) teenage girl audience by trying to identify with what they assume is the biggest challenge those teenage girls face: dealing with the social mores of high school. As if the biggest challenge a girl has to face in life is to fit in and be liked. This is blatantly playing up stereotypes of teenage girls that the media and pop culture has been feeding us for decades, and indeed going against the spirit of My Little Pony, which has been rather good at breaking stereotypes, which has led it to have appeal across the genders and generations.
The idea that surviving high school is the biggest challenge a girl can face — just, ugh. Yes, it was there in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but at least in that series they used the monsters as metaphors for surviving high school, and did not outright call high school itself as Buffy’s greatest challenge. Hopefully this movie will have the same types of metaphors — but given that there is a “mean girl” rival for Twilight Sparkle in the trailer, along with a competition to be princess of the prom or whatever, I rather doubt they will manage such subtlety.
UPDATE: Also, there is an exclusive look at the movie from Entertainment Weekly.
(From a 2004 paper on a cross-cultural examination of the superheroine)
In their article on children and role models, Anderson and Cavallaro (2002) say that superheroes are “larger-than-life symbols of American values and ‘maleness’.” (p. 162). From a socialization point of view, is there reason to be concerned about the ‘superhero’-centeredness of a segment of the American pop culture to which many children are exposed? And if this is the case in America, where many believe women are on a more equal alignment with men, what is the situation in other societies, such as Japan, where inequality is perceived to be more common? Both the United States and Japan have a segment of their pop culture devoted to fantastic stories about individuals with superhuman powers. These stories tell of heroes with strengths that children may identify with in the hope becoming as successful as these characters (Anderson & Cavallaro, 2002). It then becomes imperative to understand how these heroes are portrayed. Are the women in media, which is directed towards tomorrow’s women, being portrayed as strong and independent rather than as victims and damsels-in-distress?
When Buffy Season 9 Issue 6 came out, I applauded it. I even wrote a whole essay on why I think the story and Buffy’s decision worked. I defended Buffy’s decision to get an abortion as it reflected the struggle modern women have to balance family and career, and I defended Whedon’s decision to have this decision become the centerpiece for an entire issue of this comic book series based on the need for having such serious portrayals of this topic in our popular and public discourse.
Then Issue 7 was released in March. I did not read it until this past week, so I’m behind the game on this one. Technically, I did not read it until after Issue 8 had been released. So, yeah, definitely behind the game.
Because of how much I supported what happened in Issue 6, what happened in Issue 7, and was explained in Issue 8, came as quite a big shock. We’re talking major twist, the kind that feels like someone just twisted a book in two.
So, Spoiler Alert.
After Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended it’s television run, Joss Whedon inked a deal with Dark Horse Comics to continue the storyline in comic form. What started with “Season 8″ in 2007 has since become “Season 9″. The current season finds Buffy in a world without magic, balancing living as a young, working gal in San Francisco with being a slayer of the vampyres.
This balancing act, emblematic of the series and character as a whole, climaxed in a controversial event in the February issue. Making Whedon seem clairvoyant, it even refers to, and thereby is involved in, the current political and public discourse in the United States surrounding women’s health issues.
In my latest column as Dr. Geek for Clearance Bin Review, I review this controversial event. Warning: it is a spoiler if you have not been keeping up with the trades for the comic series. And, also warning, it is very disappointing what they did after all of this talk.
I’ll admit it. I liked Joss Whedon’s 1992 Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie. I did not see the movie when it first premiered: I saw it a couple years later. When, I do not recall completely. What I do recall is that I had already been watching The X-Files and had fallen completely in love with the series. For me, what these two very different genre pieces shared was their portrayal of a strong woman in a man’s world. A man’s world in terms of their respective universes: the G-men and the Helsings. And a man’s world in terms that they were strong female leads that were not scantily clad eye candy for teenage boys or boy-men in genre pieces that have seen this hypersexualization be the norm for far too long. Being a teenage girl who loved the scifi and fantasy genres, but did not want to be that kinda gal, I was immensely drawn to these women.
When Buffy reemerged in the far superior television series bearing the same name, with a much more fleshed out conceptualization of a female Slayer, and a much better actress playing her, I was in college, but still I was drawn to her. I have been a loyal Buffy fan, and Whedonite, since. Meeting him and making him laugh is one of the highlights of my time in Los Angeles.
Now, this is not a piece to extol the many reasons why Buffy is a feminist icon: an entire subset of academic studies focuses on the topic. What I want to discuss in this piece is what happened in this month’s issue of the comic book series that took up Buffy’s story after the television series concluded. Thus, what I want to discuss is a spoiler for anyone who has not been keeping up with the monthly issues – or has not heard the controversy about this most recent issue. The reason I want to tread into such spoiler country in this column is because of how eerily prescient the issue is for the current political discourse of the United States. And what hot button social-cultural-political topic is this issue a part of?
Abortion. Women’s health. Contraceptives. The right to choose. You know, just this little topic we’ve seen exploding all over the campaign trail and the news for all of February.
In the February 8th issue of the comic series deemed the 9th season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy deals with the truth that came to light at the end of the previous issue. It would seem that after a heavy night of partying in issue #1 of this 9th season, Buffy became immensely drunk – as can happen to a woman who is, after all, still in her mid-20s – and apparently slept with someone of the opposite sex, a man she cannot recall. At the end of the January issue, after having to deal with a new threat to herself and vampires alike, she learns that this one-night stand has left her pregnant.
The February issue is then a journey for Buffy to discuss this matter with her nearest and dearest, to gather their opinions on what she should do. Concurrently, the issue also tells us more about the only known Slayer to have actually been pregnant and decided to keep the child: Nikki, the Slayer of the 1970s, the last Spike killed, and the mother of Robin, with whom Buffy has a lengthy conversation in the issue.
Buffy seeking advice from Nikki the Vampire Slayer’s son, Robin.
Through these two parallel storylines, the reader is presented with multiple arguments for and against a Slayer – not just a woman, but a woman with such a great responsibility and threat on her life – having a child. This story-arc is yet the latest in the ongoing tension the Buffy series has explored that has questioned whether or not the Slayer can have a “normal” life.
The question over the “normal” life, quite common in other genre pieces (think any superhero story, or even the struggles of Scully and Mulder), reflects a tension in our society and culture. A tension that is largely one only women have to deal with: the choice between having a family and having a career. While there are undoubtedly men in our country who wrestle with this problem, their struggle is seen more as individual issues. For the women of our country, after the feminist movement, this individual issue became heightened into a social, cultural and political one. It is the question of how does the woman, still seen as the primary caregiver in a family, balance the needs and demands of her family with the needs and demands of a career that is more than just a job?
Many other issues are related to this question. Chief among them has been the issue of contraceptives and abortions: the ability for women to have more control over just when they become that caregiver and have to balance those opposed roles of mother and career. Thus, when Buffy finds herself pregnant, and questioning whether she is ready – or even capable, given her particular “vocation” – to have a child, after already failing on the use of contraceptives, she is left with only one other option to consider: whether or not to get an abortion.
This consideration is what leads her, at the end of this issue, to seek out Spike, who may or may not be the father, and ask for his help in obtaining an abortion.
Buffy seeking help from Spike, her one time (and future?) lover.
Both Whedon and series writer Andrew Chambliss have discussed their decision to have this storyline. For Chambliss, the decision was rooted in Buffy’s emotional journey as a young woman and a Slayer. For Whedon, speaking to Entertainment Weekly, the decision was also rooted in a desire to provide an approach to abortion that is not commonly seen in pop culture.
As would be expected, the issue lit up fan discussion boards, blogs, and comments sections across cyberspace. Even mainstream media sources, such as USA Today in the US and The Guardian and The Daily Mail in the UK, have covered the issue. Progressive commenters have commended Whedon for taking the stance and endorsing this storyline. Conservative commenters have questioned Whedon’s storytelling and handling of the topic.
Among the fans, their reactions run the gamut of opinions seen whenever a news item about abortion is posted. There are those who support the portrayal of Buffy deciding to have an abortion and laud Whedon for his choice as a storyteller.
Reactions from overseas via The Guardian.
Then there are those who do not support abortion and decry the decision Buffy is making in the issue.
Reactions from the blog The Mary Sue.
Finally, there are those who do not necessarily come out for or against abortion, but question the decision as it relates to their understanding of the canon the decision comes out of.
Reactions from mainstream press USA Today.
All this being said, and still being said across cyberspace, having Buffy decide to get an abortion is most likely not going to sway pro-life supporters to suddenly start accepting abortion as an acceptable course of action. Nor will it do much to create dialogue between the extreme sides in this debate.
However, Whedon was not attempting to solve the debate by having Buffy make this decision. He said the storyline is a response to representations of young women in pop culture accidentally getting pregnant and then not seriously wrestling with the question of whether or not to get an abortion. In this issue, the word “abortion” was not even mentioned until the end. Instead of being a very covert “after-school special”, the issue was a long exploration of Buffy’s options, of her search to determine what is the best course of action for her, as juxtaposed with the same soul-searching Nikki undertook some four decades earlier. Nikki ultimately choose to have her child, had even vowed to give up her destiny, but in the end her “career”, for lack of a better term, was her calling, and she died because of it. Her death left Robin emotionally scarred, but, yes, he was alive because of her choice. The issue is a reflection of what Buffy has always been, as a character and as a television series: a focus on what it means to be a woman in modern times, balancing the demands placed on her with what she wants to do and what she feels capable of doing.
Whedon is right (imagine, me, a Whedonite, saying that!): we do not talk much about abortion in our pop culture. While there are instances of portrayals that are frank, reasoned, and well thought out, they are few and far between. Maude in 1972 had a more realistic appraisal of abortion as a woman’s choice, and that was before Roe vs. Wade made abortions legal in the United States. Since it has been made legal, the issue has become too political, and too personal, for too many people for the pop culture machine of Hollywood to want to touch it.
And that is unfortunate. We cannot have a modern society if we do not have a modern, mature conversation about the issues we face, including the ones we disagree most on. And for many people who have not experienced abortion first- or even second-hand, they learn about this issue through the ways it is represented in the media. Pop culture is a part of the public discourse: Whedon, through Buffy, is participating in this social and cultural discourse by creating discussion through this storyline.
Yes, he has a particular point-of-view that aligns with liberal sentiment on the issue. But there are just as many, if not more, media personalities who espouse the opposite sentiment openly in their media products. They have just as much right to be a part of this discussion as do the fans blogging and commenting on the media they create. What they also have is an obligation to help shape this discussion through fair, truthful, and just representations. What we have is an obligation to do the same in our conversations with one another.