How the Media Affects Real Women

Ross, Karen. Gendered Media: Women, Men, and Identity Politics. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc, 2010.


In this book, Ross tackles the issue of how women are portrayed across several forms of media, and particularly focuses on how the media affects how women view themselves. A 2000 study showed that the average American is exposed to 3,000 ads every day (Ross 43), and the way women are shown in those ads has an effect both on their own self confidence and esteem, and on the way society at large chooses to accept and view women. When women are in commercials, they tend to be either overtly sexualized or shown in a subservient role to men. Rather than speaking in voiceovers or in a healthy dialogue with men, women instead have been shown to speak predominantly to children and animals in commercials. And rather than showing an entire woman, commercials tend to focus only on the body part in question, showing just a hand or a foot or a face or a pair of breasts rather than an entire woman. One researcher has suggested that this choppy view of the female body implies violence against women, echoing the dismemberment of women (Ross 44-46).


Although the media messages about women are often subtle, they have a large impact on the women who see them. The obsession with the “perfect woman” in the media, with a perfectly flat stomach and glossy hair, has led to an epidemic of self-esteem issues and the preponderance of anorexia, especially in the fashion industry, where two models died of complications regarding anorexia in the same year (Ross 50). At the opposite end of the spectrum from women who suffer from anorexia, partially because of unrealistic media expectations about size, is the issue of women who are obsess and face stigmatization from society for their excess weight. Ross points out that men tend to be characterized as obese less often than women, because obesity implies that one has let themselves go, and men are generally perceived as having more self-control than women. Overweight women’s lack of control in dieting and exercise is often connoted with a lack of control in all areas of her life (Ross 47), and thus fat women are seen as not only lacking the ideal body, but also lacking the ideal qualities and characteristics that a woman should have. Ironically, when dieting first gained prominence in the Western world in the 1800s, it was marketed solely to men, as women were perceived to lack the discipline and self-control necessary to successfully diet. Diet magazines emphasized the comeliness of a woman’s curves, explaining that because women were unlikely to be successful in any dieting endeavors, they should simply not try. Today, women are still seen as lacking in self-control, although now the message is that rather than simply not attempting to diet, they desperately need to if they ever wish to be fully accepted by society. This message is especially pernicious in a world where the average size of the American woman has risen to a 16, because their lack of representation in mainstream media keeps them as “other,” rather than the norm. This serves to stigmatize women who do not fit the ideal, even though they are more common than women who do.


Ross also discusses the blatant sexualization of women in the media, talking of the booming pornography industry. Interestingly, she mentions that rather than simply being a way men exploit and objectify the female body, pornography has also become appealing to a large group of women. However, porn geared towards women tends to be different than porn directed toward men in its focus and the material portrayed (Ross 76-77). The porn industry’s recognition of this, and their effort to make pornography something that women as well as men want is indicative of society’s acceptance of women as sexual beings. In a way this is liberating, as women have been fighting for their sexual rights for centuries. The existence of a porn market for women shows that society has fully rejected the idea of women as sexless, passionless beings, and that the sexual revolutions of the 1920s and 60s were effective in their goal of allowing women to be sexual creatures. However, the widespread availability of pornography has also helped contribute to a culture where women are seen as prudes if they do not perform sexually (Ross 85). Thus pornography can be both liberating for women, making it acceptable for them to be more overtly sexual, and also exploitative, contributing to societal pressure for women to always be sexy. This also raises the question of whether women’s sex appeal is played up in the media in order to empower women or to satisfy the male gaze. In some ways the sexual revolution has liberated women from traditional constraints, but in other very real ways, it has simply placed additional unrealistic expectations on women and their inclination and ability to perform sexual acts for men, a problem that is exacerbated by the mainstream media.


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