Representations of Femininity
Feminism has been a recognised social philosophy for more than forty years, and the changes that have occurred in women’s roles in western society during that time have been nothing short of phenomenal. Yet media representations of women remain worryingly constant.
Representations of women across all media tend to highlight the following:
- beauty (within narrow conventions)
- size/physique (again, within narrow conventions)
- sexuality (as expressed by the above)
- emotional (as opposed to intellectual) dealings
- relationships (as opposed to independence/freedom)
Women are often represented as being part of a context (family, friends, colleagues) and working/thinking as part of a team. In drama, they tend to take the role of helper (Propp) or object, passive rather than active. Often their passivity extends to victimhood. Men are still represented as TV drama characters up to 3 times more frequently than women, and tend to be the predominant focus of news stories.
The representations of women that do make it onto page and screen do tend to be stereotypical, in terms of conforming to societal expectations, and characters who do not fit into the mould tend to be seen as dangerous and deviant. And they get their comeuppance, particularly in the movies. Think of Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) in Fatal Attraction or, more recently, Teena Brandon/Brandon Teena (Hilary Swank) in Boys Don’t Cry. America seems to expect its women to behave better than their European counterparts – British viewers adored the antics of Patsy & Edina in Absolutely Fabulous, but these had to be severely toned down (less swearing, NO drugtaking) for the US remake, High Society (which was a flop).
Representations of Masculinity
‘Masculinity’ is a concept that is made up of more rigid stereotypes than femininity. Representations of men across all media tend to focus on the following:
- Strength – physical and intellectual
- Sexual attractiveness (which may be based on the above)
- Independence (of thought, action)
Male characters are often represented as isolated, as not needing to rely on others (the lone hero). If they capitulate to being part of a family, it is often part of the resolution of a narrative, rather than an integral factor in the initial equilibrium. It is interesting to note that the male physique is becoming more important a part of representations of masculinity. ‘Serious’ Hollywood actors in their forties (eg Willem Dafoe, Kevin Spacey) are expected to have a level of ‘buffness’ that was not aspired to even by young heart-throbs 40 years ago (check out Connery in Thunderball 1965).
Increasingly, men are finding it as difficult to live up to their media representations as women are to theirs. This is partly because of the increased media focus on masculinity – think of the burgeoning market in men’s magazines, both lifestyle and health – and the increasing emphasis on even ordinary white collar male workers (who used to sport their beergut with pride) having the muscle definition of a professional swimmer. Anorexia in teenage males has increased alarmingly in recent years, and recent high school shootings have been the result of extreme bodyconsciousness among the same demographic group.
You can construct your own table of ‘typical’ male/female characteristics, like this one:
|Typically masculine||Typically feminine|