Media images of women and men are everywhere. From movie theaters to smartphones, from televisions to billboards, society is subject to a barrage of information suggesting how we should look, what we should wear, and how we should behave. These messages, whether overt or subliminal, shape the ways in which gender roles in America are shaped and perpetuated. Whether positive or negative, the images people see of others in the media impact the way they view themselves in both present and future tenses. As Kruse and Prettyman (2008) claim, media stereotypes influence constructs around education, identity, leadership, and how individuals define themselves. Ultimately, media stereotypes drive the establishment of cultural norms about what is considered “normal and natural” (452). Through television programs depicting women as frumpy housewives to films such as American Reunion which over-sexualizes young females, media is responsible for perpetuating negative stereotypes of submissive femininity and dominant masculinity to families and children in America.
“Media and communication are central elements of human life, whilst gender and sexuality remain at the core of how we think about our identities” (Gauntlett 1). Because of the central role media plays in a twenty-first century existence, it is impossible to separate the ways in which humans perceive themselves and their roles from the media they are exposed to. On a daily basis, humans of all ages are subject to a barrage of images suggesting that they should be smarter, thinner, sexier, more athletic, more domestic, more muscular…the list goes on and on. Rarely does a day go by in which one can escape media images of what are assumed to be ideal individuals living ideal lifestyles. As Postman puts it (1984), “our politics, religion, news, athletics, education, and commerce have been transformed into congenial adjuncts of show business” (5).
Americans, then, receive their ideas of what is and what should be from a media industry which is largely consumed with turning out as much material at as little cost as possible as quickly as possible. By design, this suggests an industry that will stick with “what works” and resist looking at damage they may inflict by perpetuating stereotypical roles of men and women which originated in the 1950’s and 1960’s when media was finding its place in the world (Collins). Now, some sixty years later, Americans are still faced with movies like American Reunion where housewives are domestic creatures designed for facilitating the activities of the home and useful for very little else. Young women, all of whom have perfect bodies, are sexual creatures there for the entertainment and use of males in the story. Males themselves are stereotyped into two distinct categories: those who are mature providers, maintaining a home with a wife and children, and the immature playboy types who have yet to settle down. Both male stereotypes, however, contain an element of the “boyishness” which women are purported to find attractive and appealing – their foibles and misadventures are seen as an acceptable part of simply being male.
The humor of the film American Reunion has, at its core, the mockery of male-female interactions. Men are portrayed as virtually unable to mature and grow out of their boyish fascination with sex and sexualized women; in many cases throughout the film, adult men are caught behaving in a sexually-inappropriate manner usually attributable to teens and adolescents. The producers of the film include these activities (such as ogling women and masturbation) as acceptable of the testosterone-driven male stereotype (Biggs, Scott and Hannigan). It seems not to matter whether the men are businessmen, teenagers, or twenty-somethings still searching for their own identity, media portrays them all in much the same manner: men are little boys at their core, looking to add “toys” such as fast cars and motorcycles to their possessions in a quest to retain their youthful playfulness.
Certainly male stereotypes aren’t confined simply to the youthful playboy. As with female stereotypes, media portrayal of men has chosen another “category” in which to place males when the boyish blunderer isn’t appropriate to the storyline. That second category, unfortunately, is rife with violence. According to Marilyn Gardner (1999), “some level of violence appears in…virtually all the movies most popular among adolescent boys” (Gardner 14). Even in sports, the violence mentality is reinforced by commentators who glorify “hits” and “kills” in male-dominated sporting events referred to as “battles.” Athletes who make it off the field injured after a sporting match are the “heroes” of the game as much as the man who made the winning touchdown or basket. Males are taught by media culture that they can either be buffoons or warriors, but that little lies between for those who choose to be neither.
Another stereotype reinforced by film and media is that of the man as provider. Whereas mature women are portrayed as blasé homemakers, men in their thirties and forties are more often shown in roles of power and high-prestige positions. Men are shown as those who successfully climb the corporate ladder while their wives tend to the domestic and supportive roles which play little to no role in the males’ ascent to power. Males in film are likely to be shown as executives, politicians, and celebrities while women in the same age group are teachers, homemakers, or clerks, thereby reinforcing the dominant male-supportive female stereotypes (Gardner 14). Children exposed to this type of stereotype see the message as being one of superiority: males are able to achieve at higher levels than females, so women should thereby recognize their inferior role in the schema of society.
The disparity of representation of women in the media has persisted through many decades, over which span of time the role of females in society has expanded and changed in a dramatic fashion. Currently, for every one female portrayed in film, there are approximately 2.1 male characters to offset her presence (Collins 292). The lack of numbers, when coupled with the disparaging stereotypes often chosen for female characters, provides the subliminal message to society that women are needed less than men and appear and disappear only when convenient for males. According to Smith and Choueiti (2011), “gender hegemony is still alive and well in the movie business. Only 29.2% of all speaking characters are female across 122 G, PG, and PG13 films theatrically-released between 2006 and 2009” (5). These statistics suggest that the general public has become accustomed to the lack of representation of women and simply accept it as a reflection of the circumstances of society. Even worse, the continued manufacture of media with skewed representation poses the risk that the need for gender equality in media may be a non-issue for most. Considering the low numbers of women portrayed in film, the tendency for popular media to impose traditional stereotypes on those characters is all the more disturbing.
Even with the low number of women in popular film and media, it seems as though it is more a matter of how they are portrayed in the media more than whether they are portrayed (Collins 293). In fact, because of the prevalence of overly-sexualized stereotypes in film, should the industry increase the portrayal of women in movies it stands to reason that more of the same would be shown and thus the situation for women would become even more dismal. It seems women in today’s media are forced into a role of submission or into no role at all.
Media also serves to reinforce the idea that individuals who don’t meet the stereotypical ideals portrayed in the movies can seek to transform themselves through means shown in the movies – and that such transformations are preferable to an existence wherein one doesn’t fit the traditional “mold.” In many films, including American Reunion, the message is clear: “if you want to become a new you, to transform your identity, to become successful, you need to focus on image, style, and fashion” (Kellner 245). Ironically, it is the media industry itself which determines what is “fashion” and “style” thereby engaging in a circular type of reasoning whereby individuals, particularly women, find themselves with little in the way of options when selecting an image or deciding on personal style. That which they see portrayed in the media will be that which is acceptable in society and available in stores, and should they choose not to conform, they will find their options limited.
Media creation of image is not exclusively female; both men and women are subject to the “image and style” argument. The “metrosexual” movement of the early twenty-first century was fueled in large part by media portrayal of toned, tanned, and bare-chested men with nary a hit of body hair visible. Manicured hands and groomed brows are shown on both men and women in movies and on television, and teeth-whitening is prevalent with both genders. The pressure to conform in terms of body type, athleticism, and style is most certainly not gender specific.
“Women are under-represented and women are sexualized, are so clearly documented across such a variety of media and settings that it is clearly time for the next stage of research” (Collins 296). The question becomes not whether or not media reinforces negative stereotypes but what to do about it. If women are to be accurately portrayed in film and television media, it would force a shift in the stereotypes used for male characters in male-dominated story lines. If the number of women portrayed in such media were to be brought to parity with the actual percentage of women in society, it would also force a re-examination of how media portray women in submissive or overtly-sexualized manners. As to how to accomplish parity and realistic portrayal of both genders in media, the solution does not seem straightforward or even partially clear. What is imperative, though, is that the general populous be made aware that what they are seeing in the media does not represent what is playing out in life around them. Perhaps then future generations of film makers and movie-goers would be able to move away from stereotypes and toward a more fair representation of men and women in the media.
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