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.