Media Representations

Global Reality TV formats like Wife Swap, international best-sellers like Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and Hollywood blockbusters like Avatar do not just reflect our understandings of gender and sexuality. They also shape these.

The media is thus an important influence. However, it is not easy to understand this influence since people do not passively absorb what they read, see and hear but instead we critically engage with it.

Media representations of women and men are also changing, though not in straightforward ways. Some have argued that while media representations now reflect social changes in society – such as women’s movement from the domestic sphere and into public spheres of work – these are not necessarily positive, empowering or liberating. For example, some have pointed to the regressive representations of women within recent mainstream media. Using the term ‘post-feminist’ media cultures, feminist scholarship has looked at how contemporary mainstream media both acknowledges feminism and dismisses it as unnecessary to today’s young women (see McRobbie, 2008; Gill 2007; Tasker and Negra, 2007). This work has analysied television shows and films like Sex and the City, Ally McBeal, Desperate Housewives and magazines like FHM) to suggest that representations of feminism in mainstream media are narrowly focused, where empowerment and ‘choice’ becomes a matter of choosing to wear sexy clothing or embrace ‘laddish’ behaviour. Through the rise of celebrity gossip magazines and ‘makeover shows’ we also see a punitive surveillance and shaming of women’s bodies, particularly working-class women.

While representations of men and women are changing, we still see differences in men and women’s roles within popular culture and the ways in which they feature. Even smart, independent young women appearing in film and TV (for example, the pictured Veronica Mars, Hit Girl in Kick Ass and Olive Prenderghast in Easy A) are sexualised in a way that male characters are not.  This sexism spans the media from television and film through to newspapers and magazines. A recent report revealed  ‘endemic’ levels of sexism in the British press, and sparked campaigns to challenge sexist media representations (such )


More recently there have also been an emerging group of dramas focused around women with important public roles such as Birgitte Nyborg, the prime minister in Norwegian drama Borgen, and Carrie Mathieson, the intelligence officer in US drama Homeland. The relationship between the private and the public is an important part of these dramas but is definitely not all that’s going on in them. The female characters are complex and not easy to reduce to stereotypes. One of the most recent TV shows that has reignited debates about representation of women in the media is the American show ‘Girls’ starring and written by Lena Dunham. While some have praised the show for a more authentic portrait of contemporary western womanhood and celebrated it for attending to feminist issues, others have criticized the show for its lack of ethnic and class diversity.

The internet is also changing the ways that we engage with media – we are more able to write back to texts and to author our own. Which all in turn changes the ways that we do gender. While sites like Facebook still force people to fit themselves into rigid categories for gender and sexuality, role-playing games invite cross-gender play and interventions like wikigender address the relegation of women within wikipedia.

A key issue is the lack of women on the other side of the camera or writing desk in newspapers and newsrooms. Women are under-represented across the media and creative industries, particularly in creative roles.  Recent research shows that men not only dominate in terms of producing media, but also are much more likely to be called upon as ‘experts’ on various social issues including those affecting women such as abortion and reproductive rights. The website The Women’s Room was set up to counter this, providing a comprehensive database of female experts to help improve the representation of women – and women’s issues – in the media.

Although men still dominate mainstream films there are important women directors telling little known stories such Ulrike Kubatta’s poetic documentary about the women astronauts who nearly took Neil Armstrong’s place, while numerous film festivals support female filmmakers across the globe.

As well as the hyperlinks in the text above, the resources below explore these issues.


Useful Links

Watching Women’s Films: This is a UK-based feminist blog on contemporary cinema.

Miss Representation: This documentary, released in 2011, exposes and explores the representation of women in the media. A fantastic watch

Representations of Women in the Media: This project aims to raise awareness, research and to provoke debate and action in response to the way in which women are represented in the media

UKRC research page: This link is to research funded by the UK Resource Centre for Women in Science Engineering and Technology. There are six reports into representations of women in science, mathematics, engineering and technology in the media (including in: print, television drama, children’s television, films and the internet).

Smart Girls TV: A site dedicated to smart girls from High School Musical to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A chance for smart girls everywhere to discuss questions like: Who are TV’s smartest girls? What do smart girls watch? Do smart girls see themselves on TV or do they think the small screen is short on role models? This website forms part of a research project about smart girls on and off the screen.

CelebYouthUK: This is the website for the ESRC project on celebrity culture and British young people’s classed and gendered aspirations, looking at how young people engage with popular culture in the formation of their own identities and aspirations for the future.

Digital Beginnings: This was UK researcher Jackie Marsh’s blog. While no longer blogging, the site still contains Jackie’s reflections on her research relating to young children’s engagement with popular culture, media and new technologies.


Further Reading

Buckingham, D. and Bragg, S. (2004) Young people, sex and the media: The facts of life? Basingstoke, Hampshire, Palgrave Macmillan: This book draws on an extensive research project in England, involving in-depth interviews with children and parents, and diaries completed by children. It considers how young people (aged 9-17) interpret sexual material in television dramas, talk shows, music videos, advertisements, tabloid newspapers and teenage magazines; how they use such material to understand their experiences and build their identities; and how they respond to public and parental concerns about these issues.

Gauntlett, D. (2008) Media, Gender and Identity: An Introduction (Second Edition). Routledge, London: Popular media present a vast array of stories about women and men. This book asks: What impact do these images and ideas have on people’s identities?

hooks, b. (1994) Outlaw culture: Resisting representations. London, Routledge: bell hooks is an influential North American black feminist intellectual and analyst of culture. In this book, using a mix of essays and sometimes highly personal dialogues, she takes on Spike Lee and Naomi Wolf, Malcolm X and Madonna, Camille Paglia, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Ice Cube, and the films The Bodyguard and The Crying Game.

Kenway, J. and Bullen, E. (2001) Consuming children: Education-entertainment-advertising. Buckingham, Oxford University Press:  This book uses extensive school based research in Australia to address the following questions: Who are today’s young people and how are they constructed in media-consumer culture and in relation to adult cultures in particular? How are the issues of pleasure, power, agency to be understood in the corporatised global community? How are teachers to educate young people? What new practices are required?


Page author: Heather Mendick

Updated: 15th January 2013