Chris Olson wrote this initial take on the representation of BMO in the cartoon series Adventure Time for a class paper. In the paper he argues that BMO\’s representation in the series demonstrates the fluidity and hyperreality of identity and the idea that we come to develop our sense of self via our interactions with our online social networks.
We will be furthering this idea, which I discuss briefly in today\’s article on the movie Her. But to get at the initial idea, read Olson\’s great paper: Adventure Time, BMO and the Networked Self.
The following is an excerpt from the paper I will be presenting at the 2014 Central States Communication Association Convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This paper presents a new analysis from the data collected for my dissertation on gendered media engagings. With the help of my undergraduate research assistant, Kevin Miller, we were able to conduct this thematic analysis on how the men of the dissertation’s sample perceived gender in relation to their reasons for starting, stopping, and continuing cross-gendered media engagings. This excerpt focuses on the analysis presented in the paper.
In the beginning of the 21st Century, in the United States, it appears more acceptable for women to cross the gendered boundaries than men. While not a completely sanctioned act, such transgression by women may be 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.
The purpose of this study is to focus on men’s selections and interpretations of cross-gendered media products. The goal is to understand how a man’s perception of gender and what is appropriate for either gender is related to their reasons for engaging with media products they saw as meant for women. The hope is that by understanding how men see gender not as an absolute but as an interpretation during their engagings, we can better understand what leads them to engage with media products the industry has deemed as not for them. The study’s approach considered gender as an interpretive frame that is learned from society and culture and performed by how they engage with gendered media products. Thus, how a person views himself in accordance with what is appropriate gender behavior may impact how gendered media are selected and interpreted.
Interviewing process. As the study’s goal was to understand the processes of media engagings, it was necessary to conduct an interpretive investigation of their actual media engagings. By focusing on specific situations of media engagings, the person’s experiences and evaluations of the gendered media were thoroughly probed for how they made sense of what happened in the situations. Using Dervin’s Sense-Making Methodology (SMM) (Dervin & Foreman-Wernet, 2003), an in-depth interview was constructed that asked people to recall their experiences for four types of gendered media engaging. The interview was constructed as a combination of SMM Life-Line and Micro-Element interviewing protocols (Dervin, 2008). The Life-Line protocol asked interviewees to recall all of their gendered media engagings over the course of their lives. The Micro-Element protocol asked interviewees to recall specific aspects of how they made sense of selected media engagings, such as their questions at the time, their emotions, their ideas, their sense of self, and so forth; these specific aspects are referred to as sense-making instances. SMM provided the interview protocol and template for data collection, but data analysis proceeded with thematic analysis on specific sense-making instances.
The sample consisted of 22 men. Most of the men were undergraduates at a large Midwestern university with five being solicited to participate outside of the university setting but still residing in the Midwest. The majority were Caucasian, with only two self-identifying as Hispanic. Their ages ranged from 19 to 44 years-old at the time of the interviews in 2008. The majority reported that they were single, with four in a relationship and three married at the time of the interview. Participation ranged from being interviewed by the primary investigator — in person, over phone or instant messenger — to interviewing themselves via an in-depth open-ended questionnaire; all methods of participation included the same questions in the same order.
The study involved a 2x2x2 factorial design. The interviewees’ self-proclaimed gender was one factor. Another factor asked them to recall their experiences with media meant for women and those meant for men. The interviewees determined the gendered nature of the media products; the senior author, as primary investigator, did not impose any definitions of what was meant by gendered media, as only examples were offered. The final factor was one of time. Interviewees were additionally asked to recall gendered media products that they engaged with once and only once (Used Only Once), and those that they engaged with repeatedly over some span of time (Used Repeatedly). For analysis purposes, this paper focuses on men’s recollections of cross-gendered media products Used Only Once and Used Repeatedly. All the men had at least one experience for these two types of engaging, resulting in 44 experiences to be analyzed. The generic nature of the media products they discussed in these situations is relayed in Figure 1, which indicates that the vast majority of these genres match with traditional conceptualizations of gendered media, as previously discussed.
For each specific type of engaging – Used Only Once and Used Repeatedly — the interview protocol was structured to elicit various sense-making instances of their cross-gendered media engagings (see Senior Author, 2008). First, the interviewee discussed why they saw the media product as being directed to one gender and not the other. This question measured the interpreting of the media product as meant for men or meant for women. After getting this interpretation, the next series of questions focused on: what led to the engaging, what led them to use this product only once or repeatedly, and how they saw the issue of gender appropriateness relating to their previous answers. The first two questions measured the selecting of the media product, while the third question measured the perception of gender in their reasons for engaging with the media product.
Coding process. The analysis focuses on answers to specific sense-making instances: their reasons for starting the engaging (Why Started), their reasons for stopping (Why Stopped) or continuing (Why Continued) the engaging, and how they saw issues of gender appropriateness relating to those reasons (How Saw Gender). To find patterns in what men were saying as their reasons and perceptions of gender, and to link those two sense-making instances to one another, a thematic analysis was conducted. In iterative turns through the interviews, the primary investigator located themes in their reasons and their views on gender appropriateness. Codes were produced to represent these inductively identified themes, and the codes were used to develop a codebook that was given to the research assistant, who is the second author on this paper. The junior author, an undergraduate research assistant, coded those interview answers in two passes, and the primary investigator followed with a third coding pass. After each pass, the two coders discussed the resulting codes, until all coded responses were agreed upon.
The first set of codes reflects the themes in the men’s answers to what led them to start engaging with the cross-gendered media product. These themes were developed by considering their answers in both types of engagings, allowing for a comparison of their answers whether the media product was engaged with only once or repeatedly. Certain themes indicate more of a voluntary nature to the start of the engaging, such as Satisfying, Seeking and Being Surrounded. Others indicate the start of the engaging being more coincidental, such as Stumbled into it. The final subset appears to be indications of having the engaging, in some way, forced upon them by those they were with, such as Brought to It and Being with Another. The distinction is in the extent to which the engaging was completely the choice of the man, or if it was partially due to the situation he was in. The frequency of these themes across the two types of engagings is illustrated in Figure 2.
After asking the men to discuss what led to the start of the engaging, they were asked to discuss what led to stopping the engaging in the Used Only Once type, or to continuing the engaging in the Used Repeatedly type. During the grounded coding of these responses, it appeared that the reasons given to the Why Stopped and Why Continued questions had thematically similar answers, allowing for the creation of a codebook with similar codes yet different valences. While codes for the Why Stopped answers may be seen as a negative, those for the Why Continued may be seen as a positive. In the Used Only Once engagings, these reasons could be seen as hindrances, as obstacles to their further engaging with the media product. Whereas in the Used Repeatedly engagings, the reasons were more seen as helps, or facilitators to further their engaging with the media product. These codes’ frequency of occurrence is in Figure 3.
The final sense-making instance analyzed was how they saw gender appropriateness in relation to these reasons for starting, stopping and continuing. These themes are meant to illustrate how men were considering what was more or less appropriate for one gender compared to the other. This coding scheme was developed for and applied to both types of engagings, for Why Started, Why Stopped, and Why Continued. Figure 4 illustrates the frequency with which these themes occurred with the three sense-making instances.
In the following results sections, these codes are presented for how they relate to one another across the sense-making instances. For the Used Only Once type of engaging, the thematic analysis illustrates the links between the reasons the men gave for starting and stopping their cross-gendered media engagings, and how those reasons related to how they interpreted what is appropriate for a gendered individual. For the Used Repeatedly type of engaging, these thematic analysis demonstrates the links between the reasons given for starting and continuing such engagings, and how those reasons relate to issues of gender appropriateness. All of the men’s recollections from the interviews are reported using pseudonyms and pertinent demographic information from the time of the interviews to illustrate their reasons and interpretations of their cross-gendered media engagings.
Engaging with Cross-Gendered Media Products Only Once
Sam, a single 22 year-old Caucasian, discussed the self-help, fashion magazine Cosmopolitan for this type of engaging. While partly something that just happened, he took advantage of the situation due to a particular goal.
Well, I was just sitting there, and I was, well, I might as well just take a look. I wasn’t in a relationship but getting into college it’s like, hey, you’re trying to make yourself as appealing to women as possible, and you want to see what they think and what articles would apply to them. And I was more looking at, as far as, like, the dating and relationship and how to be a nice attractive guy, and I ended up looking at more of the like how to please yourself type deal and started thinking it could come in handy in certain situations.
Sam was recalling a time when he looked through the magazine with the idea that doing so could possibly help him learn how to attract a women. He had seen it lying around, and thus had Stumbled into It, but in deciding to pick it up he was Seeking it out to determine if there was any useful information in it to be had. As someone new to college, and thus the college dating scene, he was looking to gain insight that could benefit him. It was perhaps this reason, the utility sought from the magazine, that led him to not consider gender appropriateness as part of why he started the engaging.
Not really, because I wasn’t really paying attention to the larger context of the magazine. I was more just looking at stuff that would be beneficial to me trying to become more attractive to a woman.
For Sam, there was No Connection to Gender in his reason for starting the engaging. However, the issue of gender appropriateness did factor in his reason for stopping the engaging. After a while, the magazine had No New Information for him.
Well, because I read it and most of the stuff about relationships and dating and, you know, just being able to hold a conversation were things that I’d already gathered. You know, how to please a woman in bed type of deal was something that was good information. I don’t need to read it again and again.
Once the magazine stopped being useful to Sam, he had no reason to keep reading it. At the same time it seems, according to his recollection, that he became aware of the inappropriateness of his engaging with it.
I guess it was kind of like, a light turned on. Because most guys don’t do this, and I started to realize…I don’t know, maybe a guy is supposed to be more of a prick and that he’s supposed to impose himself on a girl, whereas a girl is never really supposed to approach a guy.
Sam’s seeing the magazine as no longer useful appears to have been linked to his thoughts over how men and women are supposed to be, as he Discussed Stereotypes about dating behaviors by indicating what he thought is Appropriate for Men. His saying “a light turned on” gives some indication that these thoughts about gender appropriateness may indeed have been partially influential in his no longer finding the magazine useful.
Like Sam, Barclay, also a single 22 year-old Caucasian, did not see a connection to gender when discussing why he started watching the 1990s sitcom Golden Girls, but he did discuss of number of gender appropriate issues in his reason for stopping the engaging. Barclay recalled having started watching the series because of his mother, who was watching the series and thus controlling the television.
I was just kinda…like when I work late I always want to get up later than my mother does. She’s waking up usually before the sun’s out. Especially on weekends, I’ll get up pretty late. Oh, about 8 or 9:00, most of the time. Especially if I’m home during school quarters, and have homework and stuff, I’ll kinda go off and do homework. … It kinda happened on me. I certainly don’t watch it by myself.
Barclay’s initial encounter with the Golden Girls was recounted as due to his mother’s watching the series, meaning that, for Barclay, he was Brought to It. He even tried to indicate that watching the show would not have been his choice when he said he would “certainly” not watch it by himself. While this assertion might seem to be an indication of seeing gender in his reason, it was not really mentioned here.
I’d have to say no. Old women talking much about relationships. It’s three old ladies talking to each other and men bashing once in a while. Basically what it is.
At least at this point, Barclay saw No Connection to Gender, or, at least, no connection that was strongly related to why he started watching the series. This would change upon discussing why he stopped engaging with the series.
I can’t relate to it. I certainly don’t want other guys to catch me doing it. Lifetime network actually says it in some of their promos, it’s for women. I kinda take that to heart. And my mom doesn’t like that either, so.
Barclay mentioned a number of reasons: he thought that Self Cannot Relate, as was mentioned first; he was worried about what other men would think, and thus he was Seeking Relationships with Men; and he mentioned the way the series and the network it was on was meant for women, indicating that he Saw Gender Differences. The concern over wanting to maintain his relationships with his friends became the focus for how he saw gender appropriateness as an issue in his reasons.
I guess so, but not actually by my parents, more by the other guys at school, that men really shouldn’t be watching Lifetime. Us guys shouldn’t be watching Golden Girls, or admitting to it. I have a feeling some might, but none of us would ever admit to it to each other. I think it says that men have to be hard, tough, macho. It’s kinda related to that.
Barclay appeared to have been very concerned with how his friends would have reacted should they learn what he was watching, as watching Golden Girls was seen as Inappropriate for Men. When further questioned about why that is, Barclay went on and Discussed Stereotypes of how men are supposed to be, as he learned of it from his society and upbringing.
Engaging with Cross-Gendered Media Products Repeatedly
Oliver, a single 44 year-old Caucasian, recalled his use of the cookbook The Joy of Cooking as the cross-gender media product he had engaged with repeatedly. The first time he used the cookbook, it was out of necessity, as an injury his mother sustained led to his needing to develop new skills.
My mother threw her back out, and it was Thanksgiving, she’d thrown her back out. She was so stiff, that when she dropped her keys all she could do was stare at the keys, I had to pick them up for her. When she got home, we already had a turkey we were going to cook, and I said, “You know what, let me do it.” She was upset, she couldn’t do it, I said let me do it. She kinda got this look of horror on her face, because at that time all I could do was cook hamburgers. I saw the book and figured I’d just look in the book, and follow everything that they suggested, which is what I did. And it turned out good.
Oliver recalled a Seeking reason: he was met with the requirements of the situation, which led him to need to find a way to solve a problem. He turned to the cookbook as the potential solution. As with Sam, perhaps the utility sought in the media product offset the interpretation of the reason as relating to gender appropriateness.
Not at the time, no. To me it was more like a tool. Not that this was meant for men or women, just for someone who wants to cook.
Oliver saw the beginning of his engaging with The Joy of Cooking as being Not Gender, About Humanity; that anyone who wants to cook can find the book useful in achieving that goal. Unlike Sam, Oliver found the cookbook to be continually useful to him, providing New Information as he sought to learn how to cook other dishes, which led to his continuing to engage with it.
To help myself, because if I want to learn to cook something right, it gives you the basics. That’s where it’s most helpful. Instead of winging it or watching a TV show that I have to rewind all the time. At least I can just look at the words and rely on that.
At yet, even the continuing utility of the media product could not completely outweigh the interpretation – even if just in hindsight – that this was a media product more meant for women.
I don’t know – it made me look, like hindsight being 20/20, what used to be thought of what a woman should be or do. That’s the only thing that crossed my mind. I don’t know if it’s appropriateness but more like what … I’m drawing a blank on the right word.
In thinking back over his use of The Joy is Cooking, Oliver could Discuss Stereotypes, especially those that associate women as being in charge of the household’s cooking. However, his saying “what used to be” indicates that it is more a reflection on American society and culture, and less about endorsement of those stereotypes. Since the social and cultural stereotypes exist, this perhaps is what led him to label the cookbook as a media meant for women.
Elliot, a married 31 year-old Caucasian, recalled repeatedly watching a number of makeover reality shows with his wife. Like Barclay, Elliot indicated that the first time, he was Brought to It due to his wife’s control over the television: “I’m sure I was sitting down to watch TV with my wife and that’s where the remote ended up.” Elliot indicated that his wife was the one deciding what they would watch, and that it was her choice to watch these particular shows. He did not indicate that it was something forced on him, unlike Barclay, who appeared more concerned with the ramifications of the engaging than Elliot. Additionally, while Elliot saw Genders Different in how he viewed gender appropriateness relating to why he started watching the shows, this interpretation did not rise to the level of stereotypes or norms of appropriate behavior.
No, the show has both a male and female host, so I suppose in that way, it shows the way that the issues concern…I don’t know quite how to put it. How male clothes also can be put together…not something that is an exclusively male concern, at least among the professionals in the field. I guess the fact that the contestants are primarily – I think exclusively female suggests that men don’t need, don’t have the same need or appreciate or warrant or what have you, the same treatment. So I guess that would be a question of what’s appropriate for men versus women. Other than that I would say, not really.
Such a lack of concern over gender was also seen in his reason for continuing to watch the shows. Elliot recalled many reasons for not stopping that included finding the product useful to him in different but related ways.
It’s popular with other members of the household, but I find it engaging enough to watch, as opposed to ignore. If the host of the show were to, you know, get their own talk show or host the Tonight Show or whatever, I wouldn’t tune in on their strengths. It’s not that I feel I’m being particularly well entertained in that regard. But the show works, and the pleasure of the grateful recipient of the makeover, and her just moving through that arc, and plus the ability to again expand my knowledge about women’s wear, that pertains to me as a gift-giver to my wife, and the father of a daughter, I suppose that has some benefit.
Elliot’s reasons for watching the shows include: Appreciating Product, when discussing enjoying the narrative arcs of the women; New Information, such as learning what the women of his family might like; and Seeking Relationship with Women, which related to New Information, as a way to maintain those relationships. The personal enjoyment for and perceived utility of the shows might have helped him overlook any concern of gender appropriateness in his continual engaging with them.
No, it’s not about appropriateness. I just don’t think there’s enough pleasure or interest to it for men to…that would make a guy care. It’s about motivation more than appropriateness.
Elliot did not see continuing to watch these makeover reality shows as something that only men or only women should be allowed to do; the matter for him was not about appropriateness and social norms, but more about the content perhaps not offering something for men, and thus men not choosing to engage with it. For Elliot, his continuing to watch the shows was Not Gender, About Choice.
Connections Between Sense-Making Instances
The previous analysis sections feature qualitative examples of the men’s reasons for engaging with their gendered media products and how they saw gender appropriateness. From these examples, the connections between sense-making instances start to reveal potential commonalities about the impact of seeing gender when engaging with a media product not meant for one’s own gender. Another way to illustrate these commonalities is by charting the frequency with which the How Saw Gender codes occurred in relation to the Why Started, Why Stopped, and Why Continued codes. To clarify these connections, the How Saw Gender codes were combined to represent two abstractions: Interpreted Gender Relevant (the first six codes) and Interpreted Gender Irrelevant (the last three codes). This abstraction allows for the frequency charts to demonstrate the connections in a more succinct manner. Figure 5 shows how frequently these abstracted themes for the How Saw Gender codes related to the reasons for why they started their engagings, while Figure 6 shows the frequency of these abstracted themes for why they stopped or continued their engagings.
These frequency analyses illustrate some patterns in how men saw gender appropriateness in relation to their reasons for the engagings. Seeing issues of gender appropriateness appeared to be common in the reasons the men gave for starting the engagings, whether it would be an only once or repeatedly type of engaging. The only time there was no mention of seeing gender was when they discussed Seeking out the media product in the Used Repeatedly engagings. It may be that the perceived utility of the media product meant they offset or downplayed the issue of whether or not they should be engaging with it. Additionally, the ratio of Interpreted Gender Relevant to Interpreted Gender Irrelevant was apparently reduced when the men in the Used Repeatedly engagings reported starting due to Being with Another and Stumbled Into It; here gender may be downplayed because gender was already on display in the heterosexual nature of the relationships in the former, and because the beginning of the engaging was seen as something that just happened in the latter. The ratio seemed to increase in the Used Only Once reasons of Being with Another and Satisfying, and in the Used Repeatedly reason of Being Surrounded. All of these results could be due to the initiation of the engaging due to the women in the men’s lives, and their gendered nature would be transferred to the nature of the media product and thus the engaging.
As for the men’s reasons for stopping or continuing their engagings, they apparently Interpreted Gender Relevant more often when they were discussing how they could relate to the content of the media product or how they were focusing on their relationships to other gendered individuals in their lives. Thus, whether it was the Used Only Once or Used Repeatedly type of engaging, if the men said they were stopping or continuing because of the men or women in their lives, they seemed to see gender associated with these reasons. If they saw that they could not relate or could not gain anything new from the engaging, then issues of gender appropriateness were not offset or downplayed. However, when the men saw their reasons being more about what they did or did not like or prefer about the media product, then they appeared to be more likely to see gender as irrelevant to why they stopped or continued the engaging.
Overall, all of these men, at some level, were struggling with issues of gender appropriateness and how they should engage with something deemed to be stereotypically feminine. Thus, there were many times when their reasons for engaging were related to interpretations of gender and gender appropriateness that align with social and cultural gender norms. However, there is some indication that the perception of utility of the gendered media product and the focus on personal affinities for the gendered media product may help offset, downplay or otherwise reduce the concern over being appropriate given these gender norms. When the focus was more on themselves, on their personal affinity and situated needs, the men may have been able to overlook or ignore the social and cultural conventions.
Thus, the less men saw engaging with the media product meant for women as being about other gendered individuals in their lives, and the more they saw the engaging as being about themselves, then the less they were concerned about issues of gender appropriateness in their reasons for engaging with the cross-gendered media product. This conclusion could usefully draw on the concept of priming, social schemata, and schema theory (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). Perhaps the conclusion to draw from these connections between the reasons for engaging and the interpretations of gender appropriateness is that we tend to only think about gender when we are primed to do so. Unless something happens to have us think about gender, that particular mode of thinking, or socially informed schemata, may not be activated, and we may relate to the media product based on some other schemata, such as any based on personal affinity or situated needs.
In modern times, in reaction to the rise and struggles of feminism, there has been a concurrent rise and struggle over the definition of masculinity. The concern with the “crisis of masculinity” in Western societies and cultures is emblematic of the reactionary approach taken to the empowerment of women. As men struggle with what they “should be,” the struggle manifests in what they “should do.” If the struggles result in anti-women sentiments of Western men, then this includes views on anything feminine, and toward any men seen as acting or consorting with anything feminine. The pressure to not be seen as doing anything feminine was definitely felt by a number of men in this study. If men in general cannot be comfortable confronting the stereotypes associated with cross-gendered media engagings, then how can we expect them to be comfortable in other stereotypically feminine spheres of life, such as being the primary child-care provider or the secondary income earner? If they cannot be comfortable with something so seemingly trivial as engaging with a media product meant for women, then how can we expect them to be comfortable when crossing the gendered line in more serious matters?
While there does appear to be a pattern of men being less concerned – or at least portraying themselves as such – about gender for personal reasons, there was also a high amount of being in such situations only because of their relationship with women. It is possible that the men’s engagings were due more to the women they were with than to their own personal affection for the media product, similar to the finding from Harris et al’s (2004) study on dating couples and romantic films. Our goal should be for men to feel as comfortable engaging with media products meant for women as we want women to feel engaging with media products meant for men – so that men will seek them out on their own, and not via a situation involving women. There is some indication in this study of that possibility, if the men can find value in the product or in the process. It may take being introduced to such media products in situations when they already feel comfortable, such as with people they respect and for whom they have affection. However, if they do not see value, then they may transfer the usefulness of such engagings to those they are with, rather than to the media product. It may be that they need to see value in engaging with the media product to help them become generally more comfortable with media meant for women.
Such transference may be most likely to occur with heterosexual men seeking to create or maintain a relationship with a romantic partner; it would be necessary to see if homosexual men make the same transferences. Indeed, homosexual men may be less likely to feel constrained by the need to maintain certain interpretive and performative behaviors that align with notions of traditional masculinity, and thus may be less likely to be affected by the “crisis of masculinity.” Their reactions to these gendered media products could be different from those discussed in this study; even how much importance men ascribe to adhering to such hegemonic notions of masculinity could impact their engaging with these gendered media products. The men in this study were not asked to identify their sexual orientation, which is a limitation in need of address. Further research should consider these factors when understanding the connections between the reasons for engaging and the interpretations of gender appropriateness.
Further analysis of the interviews could also help to show whether or not what was found in this particular aspect of the situation was common throughout the situation. That is, did the reasons men gave for their engagings, and how they interpreted gender appropriateness related to those reasons, relate to the other sense-making instances that were involved in the situation, such as questions they had, emotions they felt, their sense of self, conclusions they drew, and so forth. If gender continues to be overcome, downplayed, or ignored when the men are discussing all aspects of the engaging, then this theorization would be strengthened. If not, then their interpretation of gender may be more complexly interwoven with their actions than accounted for by this analysis.
Additionally, women’s cross-gendered media engagings should be studied to see if they were also reporting a similar phenomenon of personal affinity and situated need, and thus downplaying the role of gender. However, this phenomenon might be less seen with women because they might have less of a concern about appearing against the norm than men do. From the original analysis of these interviews (Senior Author, 2008), no woman ever indicated fearing the same types of social ramifications that the men did; indeed, that finding was the impetus for this analysis. Women may be more willing to continue to talk about gender, even in the cross-gendered media engagings, because they have more social allowance to do so. Men, on the other hand, may be downplaying it in order to cope with the portrayal of themselves as repeatedly returning to something others may think they should not be returning to; the additional analysis discussed above may help us clarify this matter.
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.
This is the second part of my dissertation’s first chapter. The first part was on defining gendered media engagings.
Theoretical constructions of gender
In order to properly begin a discussion on the theoretical approach being employed in this study, it is necessary to define what is meant by the gendering process. The concept of gender is much contested as various definitions and related concepts overlap, to the point of confusion with the term of sex and its application to differentiate people (Deaux, 1985; Hawkesworth, 1997; Laner, 2000). The common use of the term “sex” is to refer to the individual’s observable biological nature as being male or female as determined by sexual characteristics, both directly related to reproduction and indirectly related as physical features (Deaux, 1985). Alternatively, gender is referred to as the psychological characteristics that are seen as masculine or feminine (Deaux, 1985), or as the sociocultural information that shapes these psychological, and ultimately identity, characteristics (Hawkesworth, 1997; Laner, 2000).
This discussion of sex versus gender involves differentiating structural versus agentic approaches to understanding differences between people. It is argued below that there are three primary ways in which differences between men and women are explained: two are primarily structural, while the third makes allowances for agency. Before this argument can be developed, how the terms are being used here must be clarified. As Antony Giddens’ structuration theory is closest to my own beliefs about the relationship between structure and agency, I defer to his work for my definitions (1976/1993; 1979/2002; 1984). The definition of structure used here is an overarching system that is external to the individual, although features of the structure, such as norms and ideologies, may be internalized by the individual, and not under the immediate volition of the individual. The definition of agency used here is a human’s ability to choose to engage in some activity, be it internal (thoughts, feelings, decisions) or external (observable behavior).
Across a variety of academic fields, theories construct this relationship as one where a society or culture structures the agents’ internal and external behaviors because the structure transmits information on what are acceptable behaviors. The structure molds the “perfect” individual, whose agency is an illusion, just as the dance of the marionette appears lifelike due to the disappearance of the puppet master into the shadows. These conceptualizations have been discussed by such theorists as Karl Marx, Claude Levi-Strauss, Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, and Michel Foucault – all seeing the power of structure in varying ways over the individual (Althusser, 1971; Foucault, 1978; Hall, 1977; Hebdige, 1979; Ryan & Wentworth, 1999; Storey, 1993). Other theorists see individuals having power, again to varying degrees, over how they are subjugated, interpolated, or subjectified by the structure. These theorists include George H. Mead, Herbert Blumer, Pierre Bourdieu, Antony Giddens, Watsuji Tetsuro, and Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (Bourdieu, 1980/2002; Blumer, 1969; Giddens, 1976/1993; 1979/2002; 1984; Giddens & Pierson, 1998; Lane, 2000; Thompson, 1989, Watsuji, 1937/1971). Common to all these theorists is the recognition of some relationship that produces and reproduces the sociocultural environment, the individuals within that environment, and the collective action by individuals that may change that environment.
Those who study gender have discussed it in regards to all of these relationships (Fowler, 1997; Smith, 2001). As Deaux indicated, “…underlying the debate on the use of sex versus gender…are assumptions about the determinants of differences between men and women, whereby sex often implies biological causes while gender invokes explanations based on socialization.” (p. 51, 1985). Depending on the scholar’s academic field, he or she may invoke one term to label people when attempting to differentiate them. Someone seeking biological constructions as the reason is referring to sex differences. Someone seeking sociocultural constructions as the reason is referring to gender differences.
However, there is a third approach that connects these previous two by adding a perspective less utilized. According to Deaux (1985), the common application of sex or gender is via the observer’s imposition. That is, the researcher assigns the categorization to the study’s participants, either by direct observation of physical features or by the results of some measurement scale, such as Bem’s Sex Role Inventory. Less common is to study men and women’s interpretations of their sense of self as being gendered. The third approach involves someone seeking interpretive/performative acts as the reason for gendered differences. This third approach is argued as the nexus for all three and serves as the foundation for this study.
Biological constructions. The foundation for arguments about why men and women are different can be reduced to biological sex differences. Even in the face of other reasons for why differences exist and persist, it cannot be ignored that there are indeed differences between the male and female sexes of the human species. The question becomes not do they exist, but do they exist to a strong enough degree so as to determine differences between people on other aspects that cannot be easily reducible to sex differences?
The nature structural argument focuses on hormonal differences that exist between men and women due to their different sexual reproductive systems (DeFrancisco & Palczewski, 2007). The existence of such a difference is a biological fact and cannot be disputed as existing in the species. However, those who adhere to the nature structure to determine gender differences argue variations in hormones will impact neurological chemistry, thereby impacting the structure of the brain. Differences in how the brain operates determines how the person thinks, feels and behaves, producing general tendencies that can be described as “masculine” for appearing in men and “feminine” for appearing in women. Gender differences between men and women become naturalized, determined by the genetics of X and Y chromosomes before any outside societal and cultural information could occur.
The genetic aspect of the argument is further developed with the addition of evolutionary theory. Here gender differences are said to have been reinforced by early human behavior, preexisting civilization with its societal and cultural influences. Men were the hunters, competition-oriented and polygamous, while women were the child bearers, relationship-oriented and monogamous. This gender difference was built on the sexual reproductive difference, which led to specific behaviors that were then reinscribed into what males do to be men and females to do be women. Evolutionary psychology often harkens back to this pre-civilized state of humanity in their attempts to describe current gender differences (Condit, 2004).
Men and women thus are doubly inscribed by the nature structure: genetics leads to hormonal differences which impact personality, and sexual reproductive differences concretized the relationship between male and female during the predawn of humanity. The agency of the individual may be able in modern times to impact this structure, as in sex change operations, but for the most part its predetermined argument remains intact as immutable. However, the nature structure can also be seen as the foundation for the nurture structure, for how societies and cultures determine and recreate gender differences.
Sociocultural constructions. Whereas the biological constructions of gender differences constitute the nature structure, sociocultural constructions constitute the nurture structure. Under this structure, the arguments for where gender comes from are reducible to gender having to be learned by the immersion into and instruction by a sociocultural environment. In order to become a gendered individual, the male or female human being is socialized by a sociocultural environment to identify with masculine or feminine internal and external behaviors.
While the nurture argument can be seen as separate and opposing to the nature argument, the two in fact reinforce each other, as the classic nurturing information was based on naturalized sex differences. The factual sex differences of the nature structure become the symbolic gender differences of nurture structure. Indeed, it was the goal of feminism to deconstruct gender as naturalized due to biology by showing cultural variation in what gender was and where the differences lie (Andersen, 2003; DeFrancisco & Palczewski, 2007; Hawkesworth, 1997; van Zoonen, 1991; Wood, 1994). However, if we trace back the genealogy of the discourse around gender, we can find these biological differences were used as a foundation upon which sociocultural, or symbolic, differences between males and females have been built (Foucault, 1978; Seidman, 2003). Thus, biological sex differences are transmitted via the sociocultural symbolic differences.
Symbolic differences found in sociocultural norms define the boundaries of each gender; that is, the information encapsulated in these norms structure what each gender should feel, think and do in their everyday lives in order to be treated as a proper member of that sociocultural environment (DeFrancisco & Palczewski, 2007). Members are taught the proper behavior, internal and external, to match their biological sex — information that an individual must know to function as a successful member of that environment. Individuals are expected to be willing and able recipients of this information; males and females would want to receive this guidance from the sociocultural environment in order to successfully, i.e. without extreme prejudice and/or harm, exist within it.
Hence a transmission model of communication is the most common conceptualization for how gendering occurs, and is depicted in Figure 1.1 below. The symbolic differences are the messages transmitted to the members of that sociocultural environment through communication pathways that include more channels than just interpersonal and mediated; they can also be other socializing institutions, such as religion and schools (Mastronardi, 2003; Kelly & Donohew, 1999). Normative information can be reinforced from a variety of sources and may be in the form of entertainment, such as stories, songs, and art. In industrial and post-industrial societies, where the mass media permeate the sociocultural environment, the individual is inundated daily with this gendering information. Increasingly, if not already, mass media are the primary channel through which symbolic differences are woven into people’s everyday lives and sense of selves.
Figure 1.1. Transmission Model of Gendering Process
Interpretive/performative acts. The nature/nurture structure is predicated on the belief that individuals will accept the packaged information about gender without resistance because it is in the individual’s “best interests” if that individual desires safe integration into the corresponding society and/or culture. However, such an approach to understanding the creation of a sense of self as gendered, or gender identity, and thus the maintenance of sexual/gender differences, has two interrelated problems. First, the approach presumes the individual has no agency in its dealing with the nature/nurture structure, and thus is passive toward any subjugation, interpolation, and subjectification process (Butler, 1997; McNay, 2005). Second, feminists advocating this approach have replaced the naturalization of sex with the universalism of gender as the determining factor in human activity (Butler, 1988; Hawkesworth, 1997). To address these problems, the third and most recent approach to understanding gender as a process restores the individual’s agency and recognizes situationality in the matter of developing a sense of gender.
Instead of seeing the construction of a sense of gender, and thus gender differences, as an act of being open to transmitted information, the interpretive/performative construction operates from a dialogic model, as depicted in Figure 1.2 below. The individual is in constant negotiation with the information being provided by the nature/nurture structure, and this negotiation manifests itself in how the person thinks, feels and acts as a gendered individual within situations deemed requiring such actions. Reflecting on the structure’s information is the interpretive act, while manifesting some internal or external behavior based on this reflection is the performative act. In this way, gender moves from being a noun that encompasses stable traits to being a verb that reflects a fluctuating, responsive process (Hawkesworth, 1997); instead of gender being constructed solely by the structure, it is deconstructed and reconstructed by the individual (Poggio, 2006).
The individual’s capacity and requirement to engage in this negotiation has been discussed from such theoretical perspectives as symbolic interactionism (Blumer, 1969) and performance theory (Butler, 1988). Uniting these different theories is the basic belief of gender as an interpretive frame, or script, or schema, that is only known to observers in how the person discusses their views and actions, and the observation of such actions. An interpretive frame contains, maintains and informs how the self meets with conditions of life as experienced at that moment; the frame can draw upon a repertoire of experiences with previous moments and the knowledge of and reaction to the nature/nurture structure.
For any situation in which the individual interprets the need to act in a gendered way, that determination is the result of the negotiation of this repertoire with the interpretation of sense-making instance aspects of the situation, which includes manifestations of the sociocultural environment, such as gender stereotyped norms (Blumer, 1969). In some situations, this process may result in interpreting/performing gender in accordance to the nature/nurture constructions, but it is just as likely to be against, negotiated, or any position across that range (Ruddock, 2001). Knowing how gender will manifest within a person, and thus across people, is dependent upon the individual’s interpretation of the situation as “what works best for me”, and not what the structure deems is best.
Because of the central focus of negotiation, the dialogic model of communication is applicable. Using this model means gendering does not happen solely through the force of the society or culture, nor does it arise fundamentally from the actions of a lone individual. Gender arises from the confluence of the structure and the individuals who reside with it, where the exchange of information between these various factors results in something more than the sum of its parts.
Figure 1.2. Dialogic Model of Gendering Process.
Gender differences, as stereotyped by the nature/nurture structure, are maintained by the interpreting/performing of individuals in accordance with the structure’s categorization. While there are pre-existing definitions as to what constitutes gender, it is only through the actions of individuals that these definitions are maintained (Blumer, 1969; Butler, 1988; Wood, 1994). Indeed, these definitions cannot be escaped as they are always present, always the information that the individual must contend with in making his or her own determination for a sense of gender. But the individual’s power lies in his or her ability to reflect upon the situation and what is required in it to successfully negotiate, survive, handle, move through it (Dervin, 2003a; Weigert & Gecas, 2005). If the individual deems the structure’s categorization and expectation is not sufficient, then the individual may act in degree counter to the structure. If enough actors interpretively and performatively respond in this manner, then the structure must change to maintain unity and its hegemonic influence.
Gender in this study. With the three major disciplinary approaches to studying and understanding gender sketched, I want to clarify how the concept of gender is defined for use in this study. Gender is a category created from biological sex differences into sociocultural norms that are replicated through interpretive and performative acts, creating a naturalized, ideological, hegemonic construct that may or may not be replicated through individual agency. In this study, the gendering process refers to the means by which an individual comes to see him or herself as having gender, in relation to how gender is constructed by the sociocultural environment. Thus, the gendering process concerns how gender is defined, how it is assigned to specific individuals, and how those individuals come to accept and/or resist this assignment. A sense of self as gendered, alternatively known as gender role or gender identity, is the sense the individual has of being in some quality and quantity in concert with the ideological construct of gender. The gendered interpretive stance is the interpretive framework built of information about the construct of gender that influences the individual’s interpretive/performative acts as interacting with the parameters of a situation.
As this study focused on the individual’s interpretive stance, it is also important to point out how gender stereotypes operate. Stereotypes are reductions of complicated groups to simplified definitions to explain differences that are then integrated into a person’s interpretive frame as part of the repertoire to be called upon in times of need (Deaux, 1985; Fisk & Taylor, 1991). Gender is a stereotype, used within the sociocultural environment to divide people into categories, and used by people to understand others in times when predictions need to be made quickly. Stereotypes in a gendered interpretive stance, as the exclusive, primary information source, would be revealed if resulting performings are in concert with the expectations of the nature/nurture structure within a situation in which gender is present.
In other words, for this study, a person is interpreting/performing in concert with the nature/nurture structure if any aspect, or sense-making instance, of the situated process of engaging with a gendered media can be explained by a pre-existing gender stereotype. Those divergings between individuals that are stereotypical may be indication of person interpreting gender, the gendering process, and/or gendered self in concert with what is constructed by nature/nurture. Convergings between individuals are expected to be counter-stereotypical, traceable to some other aspect of the individual’s sense of self and life situation. Those divergings that are not stereotypical would be presumed to be either evidence of breaking down stereotypes or the individual negotiating with something other than gender for that aspect of the engaging process.
Part 3: Why It Matters can be found here (coming soon).
The following is how I began my dissertation, “Gendered media engagings as user agency mediations with sociocultural and media structures: A Sense-Making Methodology study of the situationality of gender divergences and convergences.” The discussion focuses on defining the concepts studied in the dissertation, focusing on the research topic of gendered media engaging. The results of the dissertation have thus far led to a consideration of men’s cross-gendered media engagings. Since this chapter was long, I have separated it into three parts. This first one speaks to the matter of defining gendered media engagings; the second part is concerned with defining gender, and the third with why all of this matters (coming soon).
“Sex is a nominal variable. This means that although two different units of analysis may vary in terms of their sex, this variation implies to rank ordering. A man is worth no more than a woman is.” –Andy Ruddock, Understanding Audiences
As the sizable corpus of scholarly work indicates, gender is used quite commonly as a variable or phenomenon of interest in media studies. Numerous media effects, uses, and reception studies have focused on understanding men and women as they engage with media products, from technologies like computers and television sets to content like films and advertisements. Research has sought to understand how often men and women use these media, what was their reason for using the media, what they thought about these media, and how these media impacted their lives.
Across three fields of inquiry into the whats, whys and hows that people engage with media in their everyday lives, such questions are often addressed separately. In humanities film studies, studies focus on differences in how media is encoded with messages to create/ promote/allow either a masculine or feminine interpretation or spectatorship. In media uses and effects, studies focus on differences in why men and women use the media they do, and in how the media impacts them. In critical/cultural reception, studies focus on differences in how media is interpreted and enmeshed in people’s lives, with more focus on women due to feminist concerns. Across these various studies, little has been done to understand how the various aspects of men and women’s involvement with these media products individually and holistically coalesce. The deficit indicates a need for comprehensive studies to be conducted that will explore the whats, hows and whys of men’s and women’s engaging with media products that were either meant for them or for the other gender.
Understanding convergences as well as divergences is required as a continual focus on gender differences is worrisome. A narrow focus perpetuates a simplistic conceptualization of people as always man or woman, as determined by biological, religious, psychoanalytical, societal, and/or cultural definitions. This is particularly important in media studies as the media, both traditional and “new”, are criticized as being institutions of socialization, providing information for individuals to “learn” how to behave. Studying and reporting only differences in how men and women engage with the media can undermine attempts to equalize gender representations in that media. If your audience believes they should only be watching specific types of representations, then from a market perspective attempts to equalize representations will fail. If men and women will only engage with stereotypical male and female representations, then there is less economic incentive to produce counter-stereotypical representations. Why produce for consumers who will not consume?
The problem of focusing on gender differences is related to the problem of how people’s engaging with the media has been studied. The process of engaging with a media product is complex, with a variety of material, aka structural, and interpretive, aka agentic, factors interacting that must be studied to understand the process, and definitely before attempting something as complicated, but as desired, as predicting when an engaging will take place, where, with what, how often, and to what effect. To understand this process, the encoding or creation of the media product must be as investigated as the decoding, the selection and interpretation, and the recoding, the impact and incorporation into life. Often times a single study will focus on one particular aspect of this process, assuming the nature of the others, and in these assumptions gender stereotypes can take root.
The study reported in this dissertation is an attempt at remedying these problems. The approach taken is not the only possible route towards solution, nor does it cover all aspects of an individual’s engaging with a media product. Instead, this study focused on the interpretive process of engaging with a media product, and the extent to which gender is integrated into this process as a material condition and an interpretive process. This study argues that gender should be studied as the manifestation of an individual’s behavior, from desires and thoughts to observable deeds, which result from interacting with the environment in which he or she lives. This study also argues that investigating a specific engaging with a media product is the best method for illuminating these various factors as existing in the individual media user’s interpretive stance. Also, by studying situationally, the specific cognitive and affective sense-making acts of an engaging process can be used to compare men and women. Studying the specific sense-making instances would help to determine if the oft-reported gender differences manifest during all aspects of an engaging with a media product, if they exist only in an aggregate, or under certain conditions requiring the individual’s interpretation. This is a study that explores a person’s interpretive stance to simultaneously study encoding, decoding and recoding of media products. This is a study of an individual’s agency as reaction to how the manifestations of sociocultural, media and situational structures are interpreted, and using this approach to investigate gender as a variable and phenomenon of interest in media studies.
Media engagings with the sociocultural environment
The sociocultural environment around us has been bifurcated into “for him” and “for her” since before the arrival of what is considered the mass media. This bifurcation is based on assumptions of what is appropriate behavior for either gender, with rules on how men and women are expected to behave, think, and feel given a particular situation. In order to be a “gentleman”, a man was expected to be decisive, chivalrous and considerate of others, especially women. In order to be a “lady”, a woman was expected to be demure, polite, and nurturing of others, especially men. Such assumptions and expectations were structured into numerous aspects of a sociocultural environment’s landscape.
Before moving on, I should pause to explain the use of the term “sociocultural environment” in this study. The term “sociocultural environment” has been used by various authors to refer to the social and cultural context in which human behavior occurs. For examples pertinent to this study, see Dressman, 1991; Paquette & Raine, 2004. While societies and cultures are very distinct concepts and structures, they share common features in how they interact with the individuals who are their members (Hall, 1977). Both are large structures with material aspects that are external to the individual, and both promulgate information or norms that the individual internalizes and utilizes to navigate his or her daily life. As these two aspects are fundamental to the arguments and purpose of this study, society and culture are being discussed as a unified structure against and with which the individual interacts.
The reason the entire term is called “environment” is due to the pervasiveness of sociocultural influences in the lives of its members. From an ecological standpoint, an environment is a complex network of factors, which includes (among other things) individual life forms, geological entities, and the fluid dynamics of climatology. On a conceptual level, a human’s membership with a society or culture is the same construct. A sociocultural environment is a complex network of norms, belief systems, institutions, rituals and stories. One cannot remove a life form from an environment and expect either the life form or the environment to remain unchanged. The same relationship applies to a human and his or her society or culture (Watsuji, 1937/1971).
As the media industry is part of the landscape for a sociocultural environment, the assumptions and expectations for men and women are transferred to media products. In many patriarchal sociocultural environments, anything competition-oriented is meant for men (action movies, video games, sports), while anything relationship-oriented is meant for women (romance novels, soap operas, “chick flicks”). A media product may be created with the intention of being consumed more regularly by one gender more than the other in order to encourage sales by that market. Or, a media product may come to be identified as being better suited for one gender than the other. In either case, such media products can be seen, accepted and thus labeled as gendered media.
Through the course of their daily lives, men and women engage with media meant for their gender, as well as with media meant for the other gender. What media products people engage with, how and why they do so, are impacted by the conditions of the sociocultural environment in which they live and how they interpret these conditions (McQuail, 1994). Gendered media contains features that society and media producers feel are more suitable for one gender versus the other; thus, each gender may feel most comfortable engaging with the media meant for them (Morley, 1994). These gendered media products range from technologies (e.g., computers and digital gaming devices) to genres (e.g., sports versus romance) to specific texts (e.g., All My Children and Pretty Woman) (Lull, 1990). Same-gender media engagings occur when the engaging is with the media product seen as meant for one’s own gender. Cross-gender media engaging occurs when men engage with media meant for women and women engage with media meant for men.
The term media engaging is being used here instead of “media use” due to the varying applications of the term “use” in describing the activities that constitute a person’s encounter with a media product. The term “use” has been applied both as a measurement of exposure and a description of the reason for the encounter. As a measurement, use is a quantitative variable, implying an interest in how frequently and what type of media encounter a person has. As a description, use is a qualitative variable, applied to understand what purpose the person has for the encounter. Naturally, these two conceptualizations overlap, with the reasons a person has for the encounter related to the frequency of exposure to that media product.
However, use excludes other aspects of a media encounter that are potentially relevant in understanding the relationship between reasons for and frequency of use. Levy and Windahl (1984, 1985), in discussing audience activity, developed a typology with both a temporal dimension and an orientation dimension. The orientation dimension included the individual’s selection, involvement and utilization of a media product. These terms correlate to my choice of terms: respectively, selectings, interpretings, and utilizings. In both the qualitative and quantitative use of the term, use refers to the selecting or the utilizing of the media product, although more focus has been on the reasons for and frequency of selectings. What is excluded is the interpreting of the media product by the individual. And yet the way in which the media product is interpretively received can stand as a mediator or moderator between the selecting and utilizing. To reintegrate this aspect of an encounter, I have decided to use the term “media engaging” instead of “media use” to discuss the processes that constitute an encounter with a media product.
The other purpose in using the term media engaging is to emphasize how any encounter with a media product is a series of actions that include internal and external behaviors (from thinking, feeling, to acting) and occur within certain time- and space-based contexts, or situations. Researching a media engaging requires understanding a number of different factors that are holistically tallied to determine the nature of the media engaging. These factors include the features of the media product, the individual’s personal preferences and interpretive stance, the sociocultural environment, and the situation of the encounter. Any of these factors may cue or constrain the selecting, interpreting, and utilizing of the media product.
Thus, what is being studied here is an individual’s interpretive process of engaging with a media product that in some way reflects upon the sociocultural environment in which both the media industry and the individual are ensconced. The variety and abundance of media available to any single individual will vary on a number of factors from person to person, but that media constitutes the individual’s media environment, which serves to provide the individual with chances to engage with various media products. Some of these media products will be seen as gendered due to the overlapping of the individual’s media environment with the individual’s sociocultural environment. The individual’s sociocultural environment provides information as to what media products are deemed most appropriate for which gender. Likewise, since the media industry is enmeshed in the same or at least similar sociocultural environment, the industry will create media products to reflect what are believed to be the desires of either gender based on sociocultural stereotypes. In this way, an individual is faced with a two-prong structure: his or her sociocultural environment provides information about gender stereotypes that are to some degree replicated and reinforced by the media products in his or her media environment.
The expectation then, which is often discussed and reproduced in academic research, is that men and women will differ in their media engagings in ways that align with gender stereotypes. The purpose of this study is to explore an individual’s engaging with these gendered media products to determine if this expected gender difference is maintained when it is examined from the individual’s interpretive stance and is focused on the situated and sense-making aspects of the engaging process.
Christopher J. Olson presents his MPCA 2013 Conference talk on the portrayals of girls exploring their emergent sexuality in the coming-of-age stories Spirited Away, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Coraline. The films’ depictions of the girls’ experiences present positive representations for girls to embrace their agency, their sexuality, and their identity.
(The literature review for this paper can be found in this previous post.)
As indicated above, our purpose for this study was to enter the literature on gender differences in game playing with two variations on the extant literature. One of these was to include male and female assessments of game playing gratifications and feature preferences in the same study, something rarely seen in prior literature. The second was to examine how gender predictions of these measurements of game playing vary across game playing situations. For purposes of this study, game playing situation was defined as each player’s report of a game they liked, a game they disliked, and an imagined game they desired. We specified only guiding research questions rather than hypotheses given the paucity of empirical and theoretical work directly pertinent to our focus. In general, we expected gender differences from past literature to be reconfirmed. But, we expected situation differences as well. And, we expected gender differences to be complicated and mitigated at least partially by situation differences.
RQ1: How do men and women players differ on their game playing gratifications and game feature preferences?
RQ2: How do the three game playing situations differ on the reported game playing gratifications and game feature preferences?
RQ3: To what extent do the player’s gender and the specific game playing situation interact to impact game playing gratifications and game feature preferences?
I think I have now determined what my main research trajectory will be, and I wanted to take the opportunity to organize these thoughts to provide the beginning of a structure for how to organize my research, past, present and future.
For awhile now, I’ve been convinced that how the new media has affected our understanding of “audience” is by highlighting certain behaviors that have always been a part of being an audience, or “audiencehood”, but were not due to the media technologies they engaged with and the sociocultural formations that influenced how they could behave. We’ve heard of how the audience was characterized as being passive, as required to consume and not talk back. This conceptualization was found in the early days of media studies, with the heightened concern about media effects on vulnerable populations. This conceptualization was found in the traditional approaches to US broadcasting, positioning the “audience-as-consumer”, to be packaged and sold to advertisers. While there was acknowledgement that people had the agency to choose, that agency was often thought to be lessened when in an era of restricted choices in media output.
However, this conceptualization has been repeatedly challenged since the 1970s. In the academic realm, this challenge came from critical-cultural theories and uses-and-gratifications models that sought to empower the audience as meaning-makers in their media engagings. With increases in media output, due to cable and satellite technologies, nichecasting began to replace broadcasting business models. New technologies gave more control to the audience for deciding what to watch and when. These “new media” helped to drive academic and public discourse on “audience activity”, moving away from passivity models and into physical and interpretive activity as moderating and mediating variables in media effects.
The focus on audience activity increased with the digital revolution, especially as it involved the evolution of the Internet into the central communication network for distributing and exhibiting media output. Because the Internet, and more specifically the World Wide Web, allowed for people to connect to one another and form communities, they were able to build fan communities online across time and space in ways that they could not in the physical, pre-Internet world. Academics, and the industry, turned their attention to the Internet and other digital media technologies, such as DVR, for empowering the people by requiring them to be active in order to gain content from their media technologies. Fan-scholars in particular began to celebrate the ability for people to organize and vocalize their affection and activities online.
The paradigmatic shift into Web 2.0 has, on the one hand, heightened this discourse of empowering people by turning them into produsers or prosumers, but on the other hand it has also been met with increased calls for reducing the celebratory approach and a sometimes implicit technological deterministic approach. The idea of the Internet spawning these activities has been challenged by media historians conducting research into how fans of film, television, radio, and comics have always been engaged in the types of activities for which the online fan communities are lauded. The historical approach has helped us to understand that fan activities have always existed as they currently do — they may only be modified in how they are presented due to the technology through which they are produced, distributed, and exhibited.
Now, I am not saying that there are no differences between media technologies. Obviously they are. Each has a unique interface and a specific combination of communication channels that impact how the content is produced and engaged with for that technology. However, I do not agree that the “new media”, which has been code for digital media technologies, produce as different of engaging situations as some new media scholars may assert. While there are going to be differences, such differences should not be assumed to be primary and always there. Similarities should be sought for as much as differences.
I make this assertion because of the historical research into media technologies that asserts that every medium was a “new medium” at the time of its introduction; that each new media technology underwent a period of revolution-evolution that, in some ways, show similar patterns for how people, individually and collectively, come to engage with it. Being a new medium indicates that these technologies are undergoing a period of flux as societies and cultures determine how to “manage” them through developing rituals and conventions of use, and integrating the technology into the delicate, malleable and fluctuating fabric of societies and cultures. As people develop practices and arrangements for using the new technology, it becomes more accepted into the people’s daily lives.
Now the main thing here is that people learn how to engage with the media, either through their own personal experiences or via instruction that comes formally or informally, such as through popular cultural portrayals of the technologies. Each technology has a learning curve — and the newer the technology, the more unfamiliar the person is with it, then the steeper that learning curve may be if there are no analogs that the person can draw upon to help them engage with it. But regardless of what type of media technology, whether it is “old media” or “new media”, we should be able to discern this learning, or sense-making, by investigating the sense-making within situations of engaging with that technology and its content. I believe that by conducting such investigations would help us to understand the similarities as well as the differences in how people engage with and are affected by media technologies.
I believe that the Web 2.0 paradigm and the concern about interactivity as a dividing line between “old media” and “new media” has provided the opportunity to explore how people engage with all media to understand just what separates the new from the old. I believe that we will find more similarities than we had expected by conducting such investigations into how people make sense of the media they engage with. I believe that the notion of transgressing audiencehood, which some will claim has happened because of the Internet and more recently Web 2.0, because of empowerment through interactivity, happens with other media as well, drawing us back to the 1970s critical and cultural models of people interpretively interacting with media content.
Overall, I want to understand how the interactivity of the digital media and the Web 2.0 paradigm shift has changed: how the industry responds to the audience, how audience activity is defined and understood, and how people have actually always been engaging with the media, through their sense-making and appropriating, as we celebrate them for now. I have started this trajectory with work: on gameplay marketing and experiments in interactive television to understand what the industry is doing; on virtual world television production, online fan identities, and gender negotiation in fandom to understand what is now audience activity; and on sense-making in a range of media technologies, from films to virtual worlds.
I hope to do more to strengthen this trajectory and this central idea: that we have always been active audience, interpretively and physically, regardless of the media technology we engage with to reach the content, but that the technology does certain impact the parameters of that activity for how we are active. I hope to understand these parameters and how they impact what we are supposed to do, what we can do, and what we have to do to do what we want to do.