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.