Gender stereotypes in mass media. Case study: Analysis of the gender stereotyping phenomenon in TV commercials
Mass media play a significant role in a modern world, by broadcasting information in fast pace and giving entertainment to vast audiences. They consist of press, television, radio, books and the Internet. The latter is now the most developing medium, however, TV also has a wide field of influence. By creating a certain type of message, media can manipulate people’s attitude and opinions. I would like to focus on this problem by investigating commercials structure; I will also attempt to specify gender stereotypes, which are used in advertising as a persuasion technique.
People organize their knowledge about the world around them by sorting and simplifying received information. Therefore, they create cognitive schemes, which are certain representations of the reality displaying its most typical and fundamental elements and properties. These schemes are responsible for defining the essence of our worldview and have a significant influence on social cognition – understanding, anticipation, situation and emotion control.
One of the most important types of schemes used for orientation in the social environment are the stereotypes, representing the opinions among members of a certain group about the other groups. They are internalized during the socialization. They can be a result of our own observations or be adopted from the influence of the significant others, such as family, friends, teachers and media. Because of many simplifications and generalizations that they produce, stereotypes present incomplete, subjective and sometimes false image of the reality. They are often based on tradition and are resistant to change. Although they can both have positive and negative undertone, the latter is much more common. Even if certain arguments allow to refute a stereotype, people would rather treat it as an exception that proves the rule, than change the way of thinking. Besides, social categorizations can lead to the effect of homogeneity of the foreign group. Elliot Aronson, another American psychologist, said that stereotypes are used to attribute the identical features to each member of a certain group without taking the existing differences among the members into consideration (1972).
Difficulties in differentiating gender roles in the modern societies can be a perfect example of the negative social effects of using stereotypes. A division of gender roles is deeply rooted in the social archetypes. In the past, the patriarchy was a dominant family model. Through the ages men have been considered to be financial providers, career-focused, assertive and independent, whereas women have been shown as low-position workers, loving wives and mothers, responsible for raising children and doing housework. Nowadays a family model is based rather on a partnership than on patriarchy and women have more rights and possibilities on the labor market. Feminist environment had a significant impact on the change in this situation. Women’s liberation movement fought for the rights of women and for redefining traditional gender roles. They claimed, that there should be no distinction between typical masculine and feminine occupations, and that traits of character should not be ascribed once and for all to one gender. Although females and males are still not equal, the differences between gender are not so vast anymore. Nevertheless, many social institutions, such as mass media, still use gender stereotypes, basing on the assumption, that they are well known to everyone and help the receivers to understand the content of the message.
Gender in mass media
Now I would like to focus on the attendance of gender stereotypes in the mass media, which nowadays has a great power and reaches large audiences. In order to create a medium which is universal, understandable and acceptable for numerous and diverse recipients, senders very often use stereotypes, which fill the social life and evoke certain associations. However, mass media not only gives people information and entertainment, but, according to a Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan, it also affects people’s lives by shaping their opinions, attitudes and beliefs (1964). It controls social life by invisibly transferring the dominant hegemonic ideology. Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxian thinker, created a concept of cultural hegemony, which is an intellectual and moral leadership, distinguished from armed force. It can be formed by cultural and political consensus through institutions such as the church, schools or media. The last one creates a state of domination by focusing on the elites and the dominant ideologies, subsequently neglecting the subordinate groups (Durham, Kellner 2006: XV). In the case of gender roles, the societies have established the hegemony of males by institutionalizing of male dominance over women. As I mentioned above, men have been perceived as the head of the household and women were mainly housewives. Nowadays the differences between male and female roles are smaller, however mass media still perpetuates traditional gender stereotypes. Moreover, due to their great influence on people’s attitudes, they can depict certain social groups in negative and unrealistic manner. They can be a very useful tool for those remaining power. By manipulating the message, media can create a certain image of reality, which is consistent with the policy of the dominant group. As a result, the reflection of a real world is incomplete and distorted. Although people are aware of the unequal representation of certain social groups in mass media, it is hard to remain objective and insensitive to its influence.
Commercials are the vast source of gender stereotyping, because they are adapted to the specific, either male or female target, and are “the reflection of the recipient”. The aim of the modern commercial is not only the satisfaction of needs but also their creation.
Women are more often presented in commercials, because they are seen as responsible for making everyday purchases. Men generally advertise cars, cigarettes, business products or investments, whereas women are shown rather in the commercials with cosmetics
and domestic products. They are also more likely portrayed in the home environment, unlike men, who are shown outdoors. Another important distinction is the face-ism phenomenon in the commercials, which consists in showing the entire figure in case of women and close-up shots in case of men (Matthews, J. L. 2007). The first method lowers the receiver’s estimation of the intelligence of the person on the photo. The second one more often evokes positive associations.
According to Steve Craig’s research (1997), women can be presented in commercials in several variants. The first one is the most popular: a housewife obsessed by a steam on a new tablecloth or a woman whose main problem is lack of ideas for dinner. The other examples are less traditional, however, they are still very stereotypical. One can distinguish commercials with female vamps – sexy seductresses, the objects of desire of every man. They mostly advertise cosmetics, but they also appear in the commercials directed to men. When a beautiful woman accepts and praises the male cosmetics, it is treated by men as a guarantee of its quality. Another type is a woman, whose major concern is to preserve her beauty. Hence, she presents a healthy life style, is physically active, uses a wide range of body and facial cosmetics. However, one can observe mainly the presence of very thin actresses in this type of commercials, which can lead to the assumption, that only thin women can be beautiful and healthy. As a result, many female receivers fall into the obsession with their weight, which sometimes can have negative effects.
Male stereotypes are also various. The first model is “a real man”, athletic, successful, professional, seducer with a beautiful woman by his side. He also has a branded car and a smartphone. The other type is less popular and presents men devoted to their families who can save enough time for them. Men are very rarely presented during housecleaning. And if they are, it is rather a satirical image – e.g. in the Mr. Muscle commercial – or they appear as the experts and they advise women, for instance, how to do laundry properly. Advertising specialists also use the stereotype of male friendship, which can be called “buddy narratives”; men are presented as acting together, for instance by going to a football match or to the pub. They share the same interests and opinions, and they enjoy spending time together by doing something extremely interesting and adventurous (Pawlica, Widawska 2001).
More and more commercials are directed to children. They indicate “the proper place” in the society for girls and boys. Girls are shown as babysitters nursing dolls or cleaning house with a pink cleaning kit, whereas boys do sports or play computer games (ibid).
If men and women appear in the commercials together, they are mainly presented as a couple or marriage. A sexual subtext is also often used in this case, even if the advertised product has nothing in common with the erotic sphere. In the situation of competition, women appear to be weaker than men (Lukas 2002).
Breaking gender stereotypes
In spite of significant presence of the stereotypes in commercials, advertising specialists more and more often use non-schematic ideas of the promotion of products and services. Women are presented as liberated, strong and independent of social expectations and men are shown while washing or cleaning.
The most popular, non-stereotypical commercial is Dove campaign aimed at women at every age and with different kinds of figures. It emphasizes natural beauty instead of perfect shapes. The female viewers prefer to watch women, with whom they can identify, thus the campaign proved to be a great success.
Male roles in advertising are redefined as well – British commercial of a cleanser called Ajax presents handsome men cleaning kitchen with this product; in the other example a man is striping for his girlfriend and then throws his clothes in the washing machine called Ariston. This situation is opposite to the traditional scheme, in which a girl is a seductress and a man is a viewer.
Commercials are the powerful tool used for creating and shaping people’s opinions. Their structure is simplified in order to be understood by mass receivers. Advertisement text contains dominant and well known characteristics of the reality. Therefore stereotypes are very often used in the commercials as one of the most popular techniques of persuasion. However, they describe specific groups in relation to the whole regardless of individual differences.
The main aim of mass media is to be universal and suitable for everyone, in order to gather the largest possible audience. Thus television, responsible for providing the central social discourse, is supposed to be “a mirror of the society”. However, because of stereotypical way of explaining the reality, some groups are underrepresented or ignored, and therefore the society image
is incomplete. For instance, the way in which male and female roles are presented in commercials reflects the traditional notions of gender, where women are dominated by men (Pawlica, Widawska 2001). Although people are aware of the dangers posed by generalization, they tend to be conformists and would rather submit to the dominant patterns than oppose them and risk a negative reception of such behavior from the others.
There is a hope to change the current situation, though. According to Debra Pryor and Nancy Nelson Knupfer (1997), “If we become aware of the stereotypes and teach critical viewing skills to our children, perhaps we will become informed viewers instead of manipulated consumers”. Moreover, the commercials evolve along with the development of a society and are the answer to many social and political changes, such as emancipation of women, growing role of individualism, globalization and revaluation of patterns and social roles. More and more advertising specialists produce non-stereotypical commercials. However, the attempts to break down the stereotypes threaten to reject the message; they affect security and well-established knowledge about the world. Hence, a society has to achieve an adequate level of social readiness, so that messages breaking gender stereotypes could be effective.
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