Femininity is represented in the media by the multi-billion dollar
beauty industry in ways that links certain social practices associated
with femininity as central to defining one’s identity as a
female. All of this can have a limiting influence on adolescent
females, as documented in the following factoids cited on the PBS
The average model today weighs 23% less than the average American
If the measurements of a Barbie doll were translated into human
terms, a 5'9" tall Barbie would be 33-18-28 (bust-waist-hips).
The average 5'6" beauty contest winner measures 36-25-35.
More than 80% of grade school girls (6th grade and below) report
having been on a diet at least once. 40% of nine and ten year-old
girls report having been on a diet. Most of them were not overweight.
50% of white girls ages 12–16 consider themselves overweight
and only 15% consider their bodies normal. This is 6 times the
rate for boys.
Girls start school testing higher in every academic subject,
yet graduate from high school scoring 50 points lower than boys
on the SAT.
Prior to entering college, 23% of male valedictorians and 21%
of female valedictorians felt intellectually “far above
average.” After four years of college, 25% of the males
felt intellectually “far above” their peers; none
of the women believed that about herself.
When asked “What is the best thing about being a boy?”
the most common response among middle school aged boys was “not
being a girl.” When asked “What is the best thing
about being a girl?” the top answer was “I don’t
know” or “Nothing” followed by responses focusing
on hair and shopping.
85% of girls in grades 8–11 report experiencing sexual
One primary example of the role of media representations related
to the construction of femininity is a focus on body weight. This
focus on slimness is a current cultural phenomenon that reflects
current cultural beliefs. In the late 1900s, women who were not
slim were viewed in a positive light given they assumption that
they were well-fed — a status feature associated with class.
Since that time, the ideal body weight as portrayed in the media
has moved towards increasing slimness. The Jean Kilbourne video
Hopes documents the ways in which the diet, weight
loss, food, and even smoking industry associates slimness with a
positive cultural image.
In media representations of female adolescent body weight, slimness
is assumed to be the ideal “look.” These representations
have resulted in adolescent females engaging in unhealthy eating
habits and bulimia, with long-term negative effects on their bodies.
For more information, search for “Standards of Attractiveness”
on the following site:
See also the video clip and resources from the Media Education
Bodies: Overcoming Eating Disorders.
A study conducted in 1996 by Children
Now of media texts frequently used by female adolescents
indicated that media texts emphasized the importance of adopting
an ideal appearance:
Across media, between 26 and 46% of women are portrayed as “thin”
or “very thin” (compared to between 4 and 16% of men.)
Women are much more likely than men to make or receive comments
about their appearance in all three media — on TV 28% of
women compared to 10% of men, in movies 58% of women to 24% of
men, and in commercials 26% of women compared to less than 1%
Women are seen spending their time in appearance-related activities
such as shopping and grooming. On TV 10% of women compared to
only 3% of men can be seen “grooming” or “preening.”
In movies, this grows to 31% of women and 7% of men. In TV commercials,
it’s 17% of women to 1% of men.
37% of the articles in teen magazines included a focus on appearance.
Such images may lead adolescent females to unhealthy eating practices
and anorexia, with highly adverse health effects. One
study found that:
“the majority of preadolescent and adolescent
girls . . . were unhappy with their body weight and shape. This
discontent was related strongly to the frequency of reading fashion
magazines, which was reported to influence their idea of the perfect
body shape by 69% of the girls.” It also obtained data showing
that frequent readers of fashion magazines were significantly more
likely to diet and exercise to lose weight and to get their image
of ideal body shape from the pictures of grossly underweight models.
For other sites on body image:
Eating Disorders Association
Academy of Pediatrics
A survey of adolescents’ perceptions of gender role portrayals
on television conducted in 1997 sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation
indicated that they are attending to these messages related to body
Both girls (61%) and boys (53%) say the female characters
they see on television are thinner than women in real life, but
that male characters on television are about the same weight as
the men in real life (61% of girls and 58% of boys). Older girls
(71% of girls ages 16-17) are more likely to think women television
characters are thinner than women they know in real life than do
younger girls (51% of girls ages 10–12).
Kids notice an emphasis on attractiveness, especially
for women and girls, in television shows: 57 percent of girls and
59 percent of boys say the female characters in the television shows
they watch are “better looking” than the women and girls
they know in real life.
Worrying about appearance or weight, crying or whining,
weakness, and flirting are all qualities both girls and boys say
they associate more with a female character on television than a
male character. Playing sports, being a leader, and wanting to be
kissed or have sex, on the other hand, are thought of as characteristics
displayed more often by male characters.
Both girls (62%) and boys (58%) say the female characters
they see on television usually rely on someone else to solve their
problems, whereas male characters tend to solve their own problems
(53% of girls and 50% of boys agree).
Girls want to look like the characters they see
Seven out of ten (69%) of girls — and 40 percent
of boys — say they have wanted to look like, dress, or fix
their hair like a character on television. Furthermore, almost a
third of girls (31%) and 22% of boys say they changed something
about their appearance to be more like a television character. Only
16% of girls and 12% of boys say they have ever dieted or exercised
to look like a television character. For more info, see Kaiser
As documented in the video, Playing
Unfair, sports coverage women’s sport also frequently
represent female athletes in ways that emphasize their femininity
and sexuality — as being married, or as mothers, or even as
sex objects. In contrast, male athletes are represented more in
terms of their physical strength and skills.
For example, an article in Golf
for Women examined the degree to which sex appeal was being
used by the LPGA to attract attention to women’s golf. Some
promoters of the sport suggested that increased focus on the physical
appearance of female golfers would enhance attention to golfing,
currently dominated by Tiger Woods and the PGA.
The article raises the question as to whether sexual appearance
necessarily attracts more attention:
“Everybody keeps saying sex sells,” says Mary Jo
Kane, professor of sport sociology at the University of Minnesota
and director of the Tucker Center for Research on Women and Sport.
“Sells what? Maybe it gets a blip in terms of people who
write about it in the sports world, but does it translate to more
sales on the ground? Does it make the purses bigger? Do corporate
sponsorship and TV coverage go up? Show me the data that says
that. Show me the research, the marketing studies. Show me a conversation
where a person says, ‘I want to buy season tickets to a
team because the players are sexy.’”
Media Awareness Project: Sex
in Advertising lesson
To study media representations of female athletes, students could
examine descriptions and images employed in sports magazine articles
about female athletes, noting, for example, the type of adjectives
or categories employed in describing these athletes. Students could
also examine the discourses of sports, competition, gender, or bonding
employed in these representations.
Femininity is also represented in the media as fulfilled almost
exclusively through heterosexual relationships. For example, traditional
Hollywood comedy or romance films, as well as the romance novel,
portrayed females in the role of the nurturer who transformed the
impersonal, distanced male into a more loving character (Radway,
1987). Adolescent females in films such as She’s
All That conveys the message that popularity is achieved
primarily by adopting feminine social practices.
Similarly, females on soap opera or drama are often represented
as primarily concerned about relationships, family, personal matters,
home, and talk, while males are more concerned with business, institutions,
self, and competition outside of the home. Female audiences are
positioned to be engaged as part of being “in the home”
focusing on domestic or interpersonal conflicts. The Children
Now study indicated that women were represented more in terms
of being in relationships while males were represented more in terms
of being in careers:
Women are most often portrayed in the context of relationships.
Men, on the other hand, are most often seen in the context of
More women than men are seen dating across a range of media —
on TV 23% of women compared to 17% of men, in movies 27% of women
compared to 16% of men, and in commercials 9% of the women compared
to 4% of the men.
In contrast, men are seen spending their time “on the job”
far more often than women in all media — on TV 41% of men
compared to 28% of women, in movies 60% of men and 35% of women,
in commercials 17% of men and 9% of women.
Women are also more likely to be motivated by the desire to have
a romantic relationship — on TV 32% of women and in the
movies 35% of women, compared to 20% of men in each instance.
In contrast, on TV 32% of men are motivated by the desire to
get or succeed in a job compared to 24% of women. In movies 53%
of men were motivated by their career compared to 31% of women.
Magazine articles reinforce this message by focusing much more
on “dating” (35% of their articles) than they do on
subjects like “school” or “careers” (12%).
Magazines for females focus primarily on topics related to creating
and establishing heterosexual relationships. Topics include focus
on fashions, cosmetics, flirtation, tips for attracting males, romance,
marriage, etc. Much of these magazines is devoted to advertising
of products associated with these topics, so it is difficult to
distinguish between the articles and the ads — both are attempting
to promote or sell the idea of being appealing to males as constituted
by a discourse of romance and sexuality. Students could analyze
the most prominent topics/themes in these magazines, as well as
the relationships between the content of the magazines that promote
certain social practices associated with consumerism, and the advertising
that does the same thing, creating blur between the two:
Adolescents are often socialized or positioned to adopt certain
stances and beliefs about femininity through “quizzes”
in these magazines. The questions employed often presuppose certain
attitudes associated with adopting an identity defined by being
outgoing, appealing to males, using certain products, or adopting
practices associated with the idealized role models portrayed in
the magazine. By answering questions in a certain manner, females
are then scored on the degree to which they adopt the desired beliefs.
For example, in a quiz in Seventeen Magazine, entitled,
“Are You Hot?” readers were given the following quiz:
Do you ooze sex appeal or play it cool? Forget posting
your picture on HotOrNot.com, take our quiz and find out! By Melissa
Questions 1–3 of 10
At a long-awaited party in your best friend’s
basement, a group decides to start up a game of Spin the Bottle.
Everyone else is playing. Are you in?
Duh! The game was your suggestion.
Doubtful. You’re not very keen on exchanging spit with
any random guy.
Sure, why not? As long as you can rig that Coke bottle to
point to your buddy’s big brother across the circle...
You’re taking a breather at
the spring dance when the reggae version of “Sexual
Healing” comes on:
You grab your friends and start grooving — it’s
too good a song to sit still.
Shoot your boy a come-hither glance while lip-synching
the suggestive lyrics.
Break from the girls to go grind with the nearest guy
— it’s a couples’ tune!
A candid photo taken at the
cast party for the play you were just in is being
passed around class. You’re in the background
leaning against the set with your arms folded, talking
to crew members perched on the stage, legs crossed
and one shoe dangling off your toe, standing with
friends, holding a cup of punch and laughing hysterically.
The guy at the locker next to yours compliments
you on the great new angora sweater you’re
wearing. You reply:
“Oh, you like it? It’s very soft
... wanna feel?”
“Really? I don’t know, I think the
fuzziness adds a few pounds.”
“Thanks! It’s new.”
After receiving a score, readers
were then given the following advice:
Feeling the Heat
You know what boys want — you! There’s
a definite sexual energy that confident
girls give off and you’ve got it.
“When a woman thinks she’s
attractive or desirable, it adds to her
sex appeal," says Rebecca Curtis,
Ph.D., professor of psychology at Adelphi
University in Garden City, New York. But
while you’re always game to cha-cha
with the cute kid in gym class, your value
as a person doesn’t depend on whether
you can successfully proposition him.
“You’ve got power to wait
until someone appealing comes along,”
explains Curtis. Keep being your alluring
self — and it won’t be long
till he shows up.
Click here for other Seventeen
These practices related to a discourse
of heterosexual romance are also reflected
in advice books. For example, Ellen
Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing
the Heart of Mr. Right”
advertise and encourage the idea that
a women’s mission in life is
to find a “keeper.”
Adopting a rhetorical/audience
perspective, students may survey their
peers reactions to an
article critical of the gender representations
in Seventeen magazine.
Females are also represented in
television commercials and magazine
ads as consumers, particularly in
terms of assuming domestic family
roles as homemaker, cook, mom, cleaner,
laundry person, and as finding satisfaction
through shopping. Or, teachers are
assumed to be middle-class, white
females. Students could draw pictures
of what they envision “homemakers”
or “teachers” and then
discuss how and why they portrayed
these roles as they did: Nelsonthornes.com
In a Campbell Soup™ ad, the
mother is shown preparing the Supper
Bake with a voice over stating that
“Any GOOD mom knows that a quick
meal is a good one.” The following
from the 1960s portray the housewife
as obsessed with cleanliness —
through use of Liquid Ajax or Man
From Glad (with its male image of
power which needs to used by the female).
These representations continue
today, in the image of a female housewife
in the following ads that presupposes
that it is the female who is responsible
for cleaning the house:
Another major issue is the representations
of female adolescent body weight in
which slimness is assumed to be the
ideal “look.” These representations
have resulted in adolescent females
engaging in unhealthy eating habits
and bulimia, with long-term negative
effects on their bodies. For more
information, search for “Standards
of Attractiveness” on the
Media Awareness Network.
See also the video clip and resources
Media Education Foundation’s
Slim Hopes video and
Bodies: Overcoming Eating Disorders.
It is also important to study counter-examples
that challenge or interrogate these
traditional roles of femininity as
evident in representations of females
in non-traditional magazines:
Moon (for younger females)
Although, as Lisa
some of the these magazines are not
all that much different from the more
On the other hand, there are also
many websites devoted to examining
women’s issues in more non-traditional
and films about and by women:
Studies Database: Film Reviews
In summary, there is considerable
interest in the influence of media
representations of women on cultural
constructions of female identities.
The following sites focus on critiquing
gendered media representations:
Literacy: Gender Equity
Women + Media Project
Scope: Teens, Sex & the Media
Cottingham: Gender Stereotypes
roles in Disney films
And, Adbusters has included some spoofs on gender ads, for example,
on an Obsession ad.
Chavanu, B. (1999). Seventeen,
self-Image, and stereotypes. Rethinking schools, 14(2).
unit on advertising and media literacy
Espinosa, L. (2003).
Seventh graders and sexism. Rethinking schools, 17(3).
Media Awareness Project: Gender
Unit: Alison Zimbalist and Javaid Khan, The New York Times
Sex, Guise, and Video Games: Assessing the Portrayal of Women in
Video Games and Across Entertainment Media