Feminist criticism has undergone a number of shifts as applied
to media texts. It initially focused on the patriarchic nature of
media texts, both in terms of the fact that males were not only
the dominant producers of such texts, but most of the main characters
with power were male. Feminist critics also noted the ways in which
audiences were invited to adopt a “male gaze” stance
(Mulvey, 1989) that positioned viewers to perceive females as objects
of masculine desire. For example, Jean Kilbourne, (1999) in her
Us Softly series, and in Slim
Hopes, demonstrates how advertising creates gender
images that sexualize adolescent females and define norms for body
weight associated with the beauty industry.
And, in his documentary, Dreamworlds
II, Sut Jhally demonstrates how MTV music videos
portray women as sex objects within the context of an adolescent
male fantasy world.
As questions arose from poststructuralist feminists about the
“essentialist” binary oppositions of males versus females,
feminist critics, as well as queer studies, focused more on the
gendered nature of certain social practices associated with power,
as well as the gendered nature of media genres and social contexts
such as sports games or the Internet as highly masculine sites.
A leading theorists who challenges these essentialist gender
notions is Judith Butler. In her book, Gender Trouble,
she argues that gender should be perceived a an historical or cultural
set of performances that are continually changing to adopt to different
Butler’s theories on gender
on Judith Butler’s theories
Klages: summary of Gender Trouble
In a student essay, Sally
Young, describes Butler’s position on performance applied
to popular culture:
Butler concludes that our gender is not a core aspect
of our identity but rather a performance, how we behave at different
times. Our gender (masculinity and femininity) is an achievement
rather than a biological factor. To illustrate this point Butler
refers to the Aretha Franklin song, You make me feel like a
natural woman. In this song, Franklin can sing, “You
make me feel like a woman” without this being presumed necessarily
obvious. In other words, a woman does not necessarily feel feminine
all the time, any more than a man feels masculine. Butler suggests
that we should think of gender as free-floating and fluid rather
“When the constructed status of gender is theorized as
radically independent of sex, gender itself becomes a free-floating
artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just
as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine
a male body as easily as a female one.”
(Butler, 1990, p.6)
Butler advocates “gender trouble” as
a way of challenging traditional notions of gender identities. Butler’s
main metaphor for this is drag. By dressing up as a member of the
opposite sex, drag artists are subverting ideas of gender norms,
challenging the “constitutive categories that seek to keep
gender in its place by posturing as the foundational illusions of
identity” (Butler, 1990, p. 148). Although Butler does not
offer any other concrete examples of how people might go about subverting
gender roles, Madonna is often used as an illustration of someone
who does not keep to traditional gender roles. In the video of her
song, Justify My Love, for example, there are several characters
who are dressed and behave in ways which make their sex and gender
indeterminable. During her Blonde Ambition tour, Madonna openly
defied traditional feminine roles by performing in a sexually dominant
and confident way:
“She is not so constrained by the gender boundaries that
control most of her audience . . . She is able
to use her power as a star to articulate the sexualities and fantasies
that other women would be condemned for.” (Skeggs, 1993,
Butler’s argument that gender performances are continually
changing given historical and cultural forces is evident in the
emergence of the “men’s magazine” that celebrates
traditional performances of masculinity and femininity. Lucy Brown
in an essay, “Are
magazines for young men likely to reinforce stereotypical, ‘macho’
and sexist attitudes in their readers?” argues
that in the current culture, that challenges facing masculinity
leads to backlash adoption of traditional masculine roles in ways
that exclude the emotional “soft” side of males.
Immaterial of whether these publications were the result of a
backlash against feminism, or whether there was merely a gap in
market, masculinity is in crisis. Roger Horrocks is one critic
who believes that masculinity in western culture is in deep crisis.
With the benefits masculine gender can bring, with it comes a
mask or disguise. The emphasis on male dominance in public areas
of life has tended to obscure the emotional poverty of many men's
lives. Magazines tend to reflect this in that they portray
only one side of masculinity, leaving out the emotional bit, and
concentrating on the outward display of masculinity. Here one
can see that the stereotyping of men within these magazines as
macho male and ignoring the stereotypical 'emotional male' or
even 'soft lad', can lead to problems and criticisms. Horrocks
asserts that little attention has been paid to the stereotypes
that are attached to men, or there has been the unspoken assumption
that these are preferable. 'In this world, 'real men'
are fearless and invulnerable, unburdened by emotion or sensitivity
to others.' Buckingham is asserting that to be seen as
a real man, you cannot show emotion, and so men's magazines exclude
sensitive issues and emotions in order to be seen as magazines
for 'real men'. In discussing the release of a new magazine 'Deluxe'
in an article for the media guardian, John Dugdale writes 'even
though banning babes sacrifices the one sure-fire sales-boosting
device in today's men's market, not least by reducing horny schoolboy
appeal. Are there really 150,000 soft lads out there.'
There appears to be a widely held assumption that if you don't
mind the absence of scantily dressed babes from your magazine,
then you are a soft-lad.
'What is obviously missing from this celebration of one-night
stands, obsessive consumerism and male bonding is how men's needs
for reciprocity and emotional warmth are to be met.' (Stevenson
et al, 2000)
In an excerpt from a book by David Gauntlett Media,
Gender and Identity: An Introduction, New York, Blackwell
Kirsten Pullen about the role of magazines in constructing
KP: One of the things I like about your work and that this book
seems to do well is to recognize and interrogate the ambivalence
of some of the new ways of talking about gender in the media --
Maxim and other men's magazines are both about an assertive
masculinity and about a vulnerability and concern with image traditionally
associated with women's magazines. My question, then, is what
tools do you bring to bear, both in your writing and in your classes,
to go beyond an initial 'yay, pop culture!' or 'ugh, pop culture!'
DG: Oh that's a good question. It's not really satisfactory to
have an essay that goes, 'Are women's magazines a good thing or
a bad thing?', and then they debate the pros and cons and decide
that they are mostly bad (or good) but with some good (or bad)
aspects. As you suggest, that doesn't get us very far. To understand
these questions better I think we need to look at what the appeal
of the magazine (or whatever other piece of popular culture) is
-- in other words, why is it popular? -- and then look at what
meanings that thing might have for an individual and how it might,
in any small or subtle way, have an influence on a person's sense
So I'm always on the lookout for any theorist that might give
us useful tools for thinking about that. In Media, Gender
and Identity I aim to show how people can make use of the
work of Anthony Giddens (on how media products can be used as
part of the construction of a 'lifestyle' and a 'narrative of
the self'); and Michel Foucault (on how media may contribute to
the cultivation of the self, and also lead people to monitor and
police themselves and their projected identities); and Judith
Butler (on the fluidity of identities); amongst others.
KP: You seem to suggest that 'popular feminism' has allowed many
young men and women to shift some of their ideas about gender
roles -- the 'radio-friendly remix' has disseminated feminism
to a wider audience. While I think this is certainly true and
even positive, I wonder if there isn't a danger here. Many of
my students and colleagues (of all ages and genders) assume that
the 'women's lib' battles have been fought and won -- after all,
Ally McBeal is a serious lawyer despite her gender and her short
skirts. For someone who is always aware that it's more complicated
than that (my favorite phrase), I worry that 'popular feminism'
masks more ambivalence about gender roles than its widespread
acceptance suggests. Any thoughts?
DG: There's certainly a problem that people think debates about
gender are over with now, and that feminism has come, and done
its thing, and that's that. I think it's interesting that Angela
McRobbie, who would probably call herself a feminist, dares to
suggest that the problem is partly because feminism failed to
keep up, after certain popular discourses (Cosmo, and
later Madonna, and then the Spice Girls, then Destiny's Child)
picked up the ball and ran with it. (They popularised certain
ideas -- assertiveness for women, basically -- but also of course
didn't carry forward all of feminism's messages. The idea that
you shouldn't have to conform to a glamorous ideal, for example,
seems to have been lost here). McRobbie realistically recognises
that young women today grew up in a time when feminism was the
language used by some well-established authority figures -- it's
like the voice of your parents! We couldn't expect them to just
accept that ideology -- rebellion is much more healthy. And in
fact, it's not like the new generations have rejected
feminism -- they have embraced it really, but they wouldn't call
it 'feminism' because of feminism's image problem.
But, as you say, although the popular remix of feminism is accepted
by young women, it remains the case that most women and men remain
somewhat constricted within particular gender roles. My students
would say 'That's because we like it like this,' but I still think
it's rather too delineated. What do you think has been
the significance (or not) of the populist remix of feminism put
forward by Cosmo and the confident female pop groups?
Feminist critics also focused attention on how female adolescents
constructed gendered identities through responses to romance novels
and teenage magazines (Alvermann, Moon, & Hagood, 1999; Christian-Smith,
1994; Finders, 1997; McRobbie, 1993). Pre-adolescent females constructed
their responses to a romance novel around categories of "good"
versus "bad" girl defined within the historical context
of patriarchic discourse (Enciso, 1998). The females in this study
collectively created their own subject position for dealing with
the contradictions or double-binds associated with being both “good”
and “bad” girls in school. This research also examines
how, even within gender groups, adolescent females respond in ways
that serve to socially exclude others students perceived to have
less power (Finders, 1997). They also examined how teen magazines
position and socialize adolescent females to assume membership in
imaginary communities of consumption, noting the ways in which,
for example, ads address readers as “you,” in an attempt
to create a “synthetic sisterhood” (Currie, 1999). And,
they examined how the beauty industry’s merchandizing and
marketing associated with products such as the Barbie Doll served
to construct gender identities (Wasson-Ellam, 1997).
More attention has also been given to analysis of how masculinity
is constructed in media texts, particularly in terms of male power/control
and in terms of portrayals of violence in computer games and films:
of Iowa Communications Department site [lots of links on gender
and the media]
of theories of gender and sexuality by Dino Felluga
excellent set of essays on role models in popular culture, with
a particular focus on magazines, related to gender
discussion of masculinity and academic discourses
applications of gender theory to media
of sites related to feminism
For the application of feminist criticism to television, go to:
Criticism and Television
on women, gender, and feminism
For abstracts on the following books, see:
Bornstein, K. (1998), My Gender Workbook.
New York: Routledge.
Bristow, J. (1997), Sexuality. New York:
Brooks, A. (1997). Postfeminisms: Feminism,
cultural theory and cultural forms. New York: Routledge.
Brunsdon, C., D’Acci, J., & Spigel,
L. (Eds.). (1997). Feminist television criticism: A reader.
New York: Oxford University Press.
Carson, D., Dittmar, L., & Welsch, J. (Eds.).
(1995). Multiple voices in feminist film criticism. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press.
Clare, A. (2001). On men: Masculinity in crisis.
Eagleton, M. (1996), Working with Feminist
Criticism. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Foucault, M. (1976). The history of sexuality
Volume One: The will to knowledge. New York: Penguin.
Foucault, M. (1984). The Foucault Reader
(Ed.), P. Rabinow. New York: Penguin.
Halperin, D. (1995), Saint Foucault: Towards
a gay hagiography. New York: Oxford University Press.
Harding, J. (1998). Sex acts: Practices of
femininity and masculinity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Hermes, J. (1995), Reading women's magazines.
Cambridge, England: Polity Press.
hooks, b. (2000). Feminist theory: From margin
to center - Second Edition. London: Pluto Press.
Humm, M. (1997). Feminism and film. Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press.
Jackson, P., Stevenson, N. & Brooks, K. (2001),
Making sense of men's magazines. Cambridge, England: Polity
Joyrich, L. (1996). Re-viewing reception:
Television, gender, and postmodern culture. Bloomington, IN:
Indiana University Press.
Kaplan, E. A. (1997). Looking for the other:
Feminism, film, and the imperial gaze. New York: Routledge.
Kaplan, E. A. (Ed.). (2000). Feminism and
film. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kuhn, A. (1994). Women’s pictures: Feminism
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McRobbie, A. (1999), In the culture society:
Art, fashion and popular music. New York: Routledge.
Nixon, S. (1996), Hard looks: Masculinities,
spectatorship and contemporary consumption. London: UCL.
Ruby, R. (1998). Chick flicks: Theories and
memories of the feminist film movement. Durham, N.C.: Duke
Schwichtenberg, C. (Ed.). (1993), The Madonna
connection: Representational politics, subcultural identities, and
cultural theory. Boulder, CO: Westview Press,
Smelik, A. (2003). And the mirror cracked:
Feminist cinema and film theory. New York: Palgrave.
Thornham, S. (1997). Passionate detachments:
An introduction to feminist film theory. London: Arnold.
Thornham, S. (Ed.). (1999). Feminist film theory:
A reader. New York: New York University Press.
Whatling, C. (1997), Screen dreams: Fantasising
lesbians in film. Manchester, England: Manchester University
Whiteley, S. (2000), Women and popular music:
Sexuality, identity and subjectivity. New York: Routledge.
Application: There is explicit reference to gender roles
in the Secret ad. How would feminists examine these portrayal of
roles in the ad?