Gendered Media

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Hill times more often than ones about women (“Study Reports Sex Bias,” 1989), media misrepresent actual proportions of men and women in the population. This constant distortion tempts us to believe that there really are more men than women and, further, that men are the cultural standard.
Of the many influences on how we view men and women, media are the most pervasive and one of the most powerful.

Woven throughout our daily lives, media insinuate their messages into our consciousness at every turn. All forms of media communicate images of the sexes, many of which perpetuate unrealistic, stereotypical, and limiting perceptions. Three themes describe how media represent gender. First, women are underrepresented, which falsely implies that men are the cultural standard and women are unimportant or invisible. Second, men and women are portrayed in stereotypical ways that reflect and sustain socially endorsed views of gender.
Third, depictions of relationships between men and women emphasize traditional roles and normalize violence against women. We will consider each of these themes in this section. Underrepresentation of Women A primary way in which media distort reality is in underrepresenting women. Whether it is prime-time television, in which there are three times as many white men as women (Basow, 1992 p. 159), or children’s programming, in which males outnumber females by two to one, or newscasts, in which women make up 16% of newscasters and in which stories about men are included 10
The media present a distorted version of cultural life in our country. According to media portrayals: White males make up two-thirds of the population. The women are less in number, perhaps because fewer than 10% live beyond 35. Those who do, like their younger and male counterparts, are nearly all white and heterosexual. In addition to being young, the majority of women are beautiful, very thin, passive, and primarily concerned with relationships and getting rings out of collars and commodes. There are a few bad, bitchy women, and they are not so pretty, not so subordinate, and not so caring as the good women.
Most of the bad ones work outside of the home, which is probably why they are hardened and undesirable. The more powerful, ambitious men occupy themselves with important business deals, exciting adventures, and rescuing dependent females, whom they often then assault sexually. From Gendered Lives: Communication, Gender, and Culture by Julie T. Wood, Chapter 9, pp. 231-244. 0 1994. Reprinted with permission of Wadsworth Publishing, a division of Thomson Learning. Fax 800-730-2215. 31 T LI Y IIYC~ WI I H MEDIA Other myths about what is standard are similarly fortified by communication in media.
Minorities are even less visible than women, with African-Americans appearing only rarely (Gray, 1986; Stroman, 1989) and other ethnic minorities being virtually nonexistent. In children’s programming when African-Americans do appear, almost invariably they appear in supporting roles rather than as main characters (O’Connor, 1989). While more African-Americans are appearing in prime-time television, they are too often cast in stereotypical roles. In the 1992 season, for instance, 12 of the 74 series on commercial networks included large African-American casts, yet most featured them in stereotypical roles.
Black men are presented as lazy and unable to handle authority as lecherous, and/or as unlawful, while females are portrayed as domineering or as sex objects (“Sights Sounds, and Stereotypes,” 1992). Writing in 1993, David Evans (1993, p. 10) criticized television for stereotyping black males as athletes and entertainers. These roles wrote Evans, mislead young black male viewers in& thinking success “is only a dribble or dance step away” and blind them to other, more realistic ambitions. &panics and Asians are nearly absent, and when they are presented it is usually as villains or criminals (Lichter, Lichter, Rothman, & Amundson, 1987). Also under-represented is the single fastest growing we are aging so that people over 60 make up a major part of our population; within this group, women significantly outnumber men (Wood, 1993~). Older people not only are under-represented in media but also are represented inaccurately In contrast to demographic realities, media consistently show fewer older women than men, presumably because our culture worships youth and beauty in women.
Further, elderly individuals are frequently portrayed as sick, dependent, fumbling and passive, images not borne out in real life. Distirted depictions of older people and especially older women in media, however, can delude us into thinking they are a small, sickly, and unimportant part of our population. group of Americans- older people. As a country, Stereotypical Portrayals of Women and Men In general, media continue to present both women and men in stereotyped ways that limit our perceptions of human possibilities.
Typically men are portrayed as active, adventurous, powerful, sexually aggressive and largely uninvolved in human relationships. Just as’ consistent with cultural views of gender are depictions of women as sex objects who are usually young, thin beautiful, passive, dependent, and often incompetent and dumb. Female characters devote their primary energies to improving their appearances and taking care of homes and people. Because media pervade our lives, the ways they misrepresent genders may distort how we see ourselves and what we perceive as normal and desirable for men and women.
Stereotypical portrayals of men. According to J. A. Doyle (1989, p. ill), whose research focuses on masculinity children’s television typically shows males as “aggressive, dominant, and engaged in exciting activities from which they receive rewards from others for their ‘masculine’ accomplishments. ” Relatedly, recent studies reveal that the majority of men on prime-time television are independent, aggressive, and in charge (McCauley Thangavelu, & Rozin, 1988). Television programming foi all ages disproportionately depicts men as serious confident, competent, owerful, and in high-status ‘positions. Gentleness in men, which was briefly evident in the 197Os, has receded as established male characters are redrawn to be more tough and distanced from others (Bayer, 1986). Highly popular films such as LethaI Weapon, Predator, Days of Thunder, Total Recall, Robocop Die Hard, and Die Harder star men who embody the The lack of women in the media is paralleled by the scarcity of women in charge of media. Only about 5% of television writers, executives, and producers are women (Lichter, Lichter, & Rothman, 1986).
Ironically, while twothirds of journalism graduates are women, they make up less than 2% of those in corporate management of newspapers and only about 5% of newspaper publishers (“Women in Media,” 1988). Female film directors are even rnonz-scarce, as are executives in charge of MTV It is probably not coincidental that so few women are behind the scenes of an industry that so consistently portrays women negatively Some media analysts (Mills 1988) believe that if more women had positions o; authority at executive levels, media would offer more positive portrayals of women. tereotype of extreme masculinity Media, then reinforce long-standing cultural ideals of masculinity:’ Men are presented as hard, tough, independent, sexually aggressive, unafraid, violent, totally in control of all emotions, and-above all-in no way feminine. Equally interesting is how males are not presented. J. D. Brown and K. Campbell (1986) report that men are seldom shown doing housework. Doyle (1989) notes that boys and men are rarely presented caring for others. B.
Horovitz (1989) points out they are typically represented as uninterested in and incompetent at homemaking, cooking, and child care. Each season’s new ads for cooking and cleaning supplies include several that caricature men as incompetent buffoons, who are klutzes in the kitchen and no better at taking care of children. While children’s books have made a limited attempt to depict women engaged in activities outside of the home there has been little parallel effort to show men involbed in family and home life. When someone is shown taking care of a child , ‘t is usually the mother, not the father. ’ This perpetuates a negative stereotype of men as uncaring and uninvolved in family life. Stereotypical portrayals of women. Media’s images of women also reflect cultural stereotypes that depart markedly from reality As we have already seen, girls and 7. Gendered Media JILL I remember when I was little I used to read books from the boys’ section of the library because they were more interesting. Boys did the fun stuff and the exciting things. My mother kept trying to get me to read girls’ books, but I just couldn’t get into them.
Why can’t stories about girls be full of adventure and bravery? I know when I’m a mother, I want any daughters of mine to understand that excitement isn’t just for boys. women are dramatically underrepresented. In prime- time television in 1987, fully two-thirds of the speaking parts were for men. Women are portrayed as significantly younger and thinner than women in the population as a whole, and most are depicted as passive, dependent on men, and enmeshed in relationships or housework (Davis, 1990). The requirements of youth and eauty in women even influence news shows, where female newscasters are expected to be younger, more physically attractive, and less outspoken than males (Craft, 1988; Sanders & Rock, 1988). Despite educators’ criticism of self-fulfilling prophecies that discourage girls from success in math and science, that stereotype was dramatically reiterated in 1992 when Mattel offered a new talking Barbie doll. What did she say? “Math class is tough,” a message that reinforces the stereotype that women cannot do math (“Mattel Offers Trade-In,” 1992).
From children’s programming in which the few existing female characters typically spend their time watching males do things (Feldman & Brown, 1984; Woodman, 1991), to MTV, which routinely pictures women satisfying men’s sexual fantasies (Pareles, 1990; Texier, 1990), media reiterate the cultural image of women as dependent, ornamental objects whose primary functions are to look good, please men, and stay quietly on the periphery of life. Media have created two images of women: good women and bad ones. These polar opposites are often juxtaposed against each other to dramatize differences in the consequences that befall good and bad women.
Good women are pretty, deferential, and focused on home, family and caring for others. Subordinate to men, they are usually cast as victims, angels, martyrs, and loyal wives and helpmates. Occasionally, women who depart from traditional roles are portrayed positively, but this is done either by making their career lives invisible, as with Claire Huxtable, or by softening and feminizing working women to make them more consistent with traditional views of fernininity For instance, in the original script, Cagney and Lacey were conceived as strong, mature, independent women who took their work seriously and did it well.
It took 6 years for writers Barbara Corday and Barbara Avedon to sell the script to CBS, and even then they had to agree to subdue Cagney’s and Lacey’s abilities to placate producer Barney Rosenzweig, who complained, “These women aren’t soft enough. These women aren’t feminine enough” (Faludi, 1991, p. 150). While female viewers wrote thousands of letters praising the show, male executives at CBS continued to force writers to make the characters softer, more tender, and less sure of themselves (Faludi, 1991, p. 152).
The remaking of Cagney and Lacey illustrates the media’s bias in favor of women who are traditionally feminine and who are not too able, too powerful, or too confident. The rule seems to be that a woman may be strong and successful if and only if she also exemplifies traditional stereotypes of femininity-subservience, passivity, beauty, and an identity linked to one or more men. The other image of women the media offer us is the evil sister of the good homebody Versions of this image are the witch, bitch, whore, or nonwoman, who is represented as hard, cold, aggressive-all of the things a good woman is not supposed to be.
Exemplifying the evil woman is Alex in Fatal Attraction, which grossed more than $100 million in its first four months (Faludi, 1991, p. 113). Yet Alex was only an extreme version of how bad women are generally portrayed. In children’s literature, we encounter witches and mean stepmothers as villains, with beautiful and passive females like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty as their good counterparts. Prime-time television favorably portrays pretQ nurturing, other-focused women, such as Claire Huxtable on “The Cosby Show,” whose career as an attorney never entered storylines as much as her engagement in family matters.
Hope in “Thirtysomething” is an angel, committed to husband Michael and daughter Janey. In the biographies written for each of the characters when the show was in development, all male characters were defined in terms of their career goals, beliefs, and activities. Hope’s biography consisted of one line: “Hope is married to Michael” (Faludi, 1991, p. 162). Hope epitomizes the traditional woman, so much so in fact that in one episode she refers to herself as June Cleaver and calls Michael “Ward,” thus reprising the traditional family of the 1950s as personified in “Leave It to Beaver” (Faludi, 1991, p. 61). Meanwhile, prime-time typically represents ambitious, independent women as lonely, embittered spinsters who are counterpoints to “good” women. Stereotypical Images of Relationships Between Men and Women Given media’s stereotypical portrayals of women and men, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that relationships between women and men are similarly depicted in ways that reinforce stereotypes. Four themes demonstrate how media reflect and promote traditional arrangements between the sexes. Women’s dependence/men’s independence.
Walt Disney’s award-winning animated film The Little Mermaid vividly embodies females’ dependence on males for identity. In this feature film, the mermaid quite literally 33 1 +3 LIVING WITH MEDIA I PAUL I wouldn’t say this around anyone, but personally I’d be glad if the media let up a little on us guys. I watch those guys in films and on TV, and I just feel inadequate. I mean, I’m healthy and I look okay, and I’ll probably make a decent salary when I graduate. But I am no stud; I can’t beat up three guys at once women don’t fall dead at my feet; I doubt I’ll make i million bucks; and I don’t have muscles that ripple.
Every time I go to a film, I leave feeling like a wimp. How can any of us guys measure up to what’s on the screen? I gives up her identity as a mermaid in order to become acceptable to her human lover. In this children’s story, we see a particularly obvious illustration of the asymmetrical relationship between women and men that is more subtly conveyed in other media productions. Even the Smurfs, formless little beings who have no obvious sex, reflect the male-female, dominant-submissive roles.
The female smurf, unlike her male companions who have names, is called only Smurfette, making her sole identity a diminutive relation to male smurfs. The male dominance/female subservience pattern that permeates mediated representations of relationships is no accident. Beginning in 1991, television executives deliberately and consciously adopted a policy of having dominant male characters in all Saturday morning children’s programming (Carter, 1991). Women, as well as minorities, are cast in support roles rather than leading ones in both children’s shows and the commercials interspersed within them (O’Connor 1989).
Analyses of MTV revealed that it portrays females as passive and waiting for men’s attention, while males are shown ignoring, exploiting or directing women (Brown, Campbell, & Fisher, 1986). In rap music videos, where African-American men and women star men dominate women, whose primary role is as objects of male desires (Pareles, 1990; Texier, 1990). News programs that have male and female hosts routinely cast the female as deferential to her male colleague (Craft, 1988; Sanders & Rock, 1988). Commercials, too, manifest power cues that echo the male dominance/female subservience pattern.
For instance, men are usually shown positioned above women, and women are more frequently pictured in varying degrees of undress (Masse & Rosenblum 1988; N&o, Hill, Gelbein, & Clark, 1988). Such nonverl bal cues represent women as vulnerable and more submissive while men stay in control. In a brief departure from this pattern, films and television beginning in the 1970s responded to the second wave of feminism by showing women who were independent without being hard, embittered, or without close relationships. Films such as Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Up the Sandbox, The Turning Point, Diary of a Mad 34
Housewife, and An Unmarried Woman offered realistic portraits of women who sought and found their awn voices independent of men. Judy Davis’s film, My BriZZiant Career, particularly embodied this focus by telling the story of a woman who chooses work over marriage. During this period, television followed suit, offering viewers prime-time fare such as “Maude” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” which starred women who were able and achieving in their own rights. “One Day at a Time rr which premiered in 1974, was the first prime-time program about a divorced woman.
By the 198Os, however, traditionally gendered arrangements resurged as the backlash movement against feminism was embraced by media (Haskell, 1988; Maslin 1990). Thus, film fare in the 1980s included Pretfy Woman’ the story of a prostitute who becomes a good woman when she is saved from her evil ways by a rigidly stereotypical man, complete with millions to prove his success Meanwhile, Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down trivialized abuse of women and underlined women’s dependence on men with a story of a woman who is bound by a man and colludes in sustaining her bondage.
Crossing Delancey showed successful careerist Amy Irving talked into believing she needs a man to be complete, a theme reprised by Cher in Moonstruck. Television, too, cooperated in returning women to their traditional roles with characters like Hope in “Thirtysomething” who minded house and baby as an ultratraditional wife, and even Murphy Brown found her career wasn’t enough and had a baby Against her protests, Cybill Shepherd, who played Maddie in “Moonlighting” was forced to marry briefly on screen which Susan Faludi (1991, p. 57) refers to as part of a “campaign to cow this independent female figure. ” Popular music added its voice with hit songs like “Having My Baby,” which glorified a woman who defined herself by motherhood and her relationship to a man. The point is not that having babies or committing to relationships is JOANNE I’d like to know who dreams up those commercials that show men as unable to boil water or run a vacuum. I’d like to tell them they’re creating monsters. My boyfriend and I agreed to split all chores equally when we moved in together. Ha! Fat chance of that. He does zilch.
When I get on his case, he reminds me of what happened when the father on some show had to take over housework and practically demolished the kitchen. Then he grins and says, “Now, you wouldn’t want that, would you? ” Or worse yet, he throws up Hope or one of the other women on W, and asks me why I can’t be as sweet and supportive as she is. It’s like the junk on television gives him blanket license for doing nothing. 7. Gendered Medi wrong; rather, it is that media virtually require this of women in order to present them positively Media define a very narrow range for womanhood.
Joining the campaign to restore traditional dominantsubordinate patterns of male-female relationships were magazines, which reinvigorated their focus on women’s role as the helpmate and supporter of husbands and families (Peirce, 1990). In 1988, that staple of Americana Good Housekeeping, did its part to revive women’s tradi: tional roles with a full-page ad (“The Best in the House n 1988) for its new demographic edition marketed to’ “the new traditionalist woman. A month later, the magazine followed this up with a second full-page ad in national newspapers that saluted the “new traditionalist woman m with this copy (“The New Traditionalist,” 1988): “She his made her commitment. Her mission: create a more meaningful life for herself and her family She is the New Traditionalist-a contemporary woman who finds her fulfillment in traditional values. ” The long-standing dominant-submissive model for male-female relationships was largely restored in the 1980s. With only rare exceptions, women are still portrayed as dependent on men and subservient to them.
As B. Lott (1989, p. 64) points out, it is women who “do the laundry and are secretaries to men who own companies. ” Men’s authority/women’s incompetence. A second recurrent theme in media representations of relationships is that men are the competent authorities who save women from their incompetence. Children’s literature vividly implements this motif by casting females as helpless and males as coming to their rescue. Sleeping Beauty’s resurrection depends on Prince Charming’s kiss, a theme that appears in the increasingly popular gothic romance novels for adults (Modleski, 1982).
One of the most pervasive ways in which media define males as authorities is in commercials. Women are routinely shown anguishing over dirty floors and bathroom fixtures only to be relieved of their distress when Mr. Clean shows up to tell them how to keep their homes spotless. Even when commercials are aimed at women selling products intended for them, up to 90% of the tim: a man’s voice is used to explain the value of what is being sold (Basow, 1992, p. 161; Bretl & Cantor 1988). using male voice-overs reinforces the cultural v&w that men are authorities and women depend on men to tell them what to do.
Television further communicates the message that men are authorities and women are not. One means of doing this is sheer numbers. As we have seen, men vastly outnumber women in television programming. In addition, the dominance of men as news anchors who inform us of happenings in the world underlines their authority (“Study Reports Sex Bias,” 1989). Prime-time television contributes to this image by showing women who need to be rescued by men and by presenting women as incompetent more than twice as often as men (Bayer, 1986; Lichter et al. , 1986).
Consider the characters in “The Jetsons,” an animate, television series set in the future. Daughter Judy Jetso is constantly complaining and waiting for others to he1 her, using ploys of helplessness and flattery to win men’ attention. The Rescuers, a popular animated video of the 199Os, features Miss Bianca (whose voice is that of Zs: Zsa Gabon fittingly enough), who splits her time evenl) between being in trouble and being grateful to mah characters for rescuing her. These stereotypical repre sentations of males and females reinforce a number o; harmful beliefs.
They suggest, first, that men are more competent than women. Compounding this is the message that a woman’s power lies in her looks and conventional femininity since that is how females from Sleeping Beauty to Judy Jetson get males to assist them with their dilemmas (McCauley Thangavelu, & Rozin 1988). Third, these stereotypes underline the requiremen; that men must perform, succeed, and conquer in order to be worthy Women as primary caregiverslmen as breadwinners. A third perennial theme in media is that women are caregivers and men are providers.
Since the backlash of the 198Os, in fact, this gendered arrangement has been promulgated with renewed vigor. Once again, as in the 195Os, we see women devoting themselves to getting rings off of collars, gray out of their hair, and meats on the table. Corresponding to this is the restatement of men’s inability in domestic and nurturing roles. Horovitz (1989), for instance, reports that in commercials men are regularly the butt of jokes for their ignorance about nutrition, child care, and housework When media portray women who work outside of the home, their career lives typicallyFreceive little or no attention.
Although these characters have titles such as lawyer or doctor, they are shown predominantly in their roles as homemakers, mothers, and wives. We see them involved in caring conversations with family and friends and doing things for others, all of which never seem to conflict with their professional responsibilities. This has the potential to cultivate unrealistic expectations of being Isuperwoman,” who does it all without her getting a hair out of place or being late to a conference. Magazines play a key role in promoting pleasing others as a primary focus of women’s lives. K.
Peirce’s (1990) study found that magazines aimed at women stress looking good and doing things to please others. Thus, advertising tells women how to be “me, only better” by dyeing their hair to look younger; how to lose weight so “you’ll still be attractive to him”; and how to prepare gourmet meals so “he’s always glad to come home. ” Constantly these advertisements emphasize pleasing others, especially men, as central to being a woman, and the message is fortified with the thinly veiled warning that if a woman fails to look good and please, her man might leave (Rakow, 1992).
There is a second, less known way in which advertisements contribute to stereotypes of women as focused 1 + LIVING WITH MEDIA on others and men as focused on work. Writing in 1990, Gloria Steinem, editor of Ms. , revealed that advertisers control some to most of the content in magazines. In exchange for placing an ad, a company receives “complimentary copy” which is one or more articles that increase the market appeal of its product.
So a soup company that takes out an ad might be given a three-page story on how to prepare meals using that brand of soup; likewise, an ad for hair coloring products might be accompanied by interviews with famous women who choose to dye their hair. Thus, the message of advertisers is multiplied by magazine content, which readers often mistakenly assume is ,independent of advertising. Advertisers support media, and they exert a powerful influence on what is presented. To understand the prevalence of traditional gender roles in programming, magazine copy, and other media, we need only ask what is in the best interests of advertisers.
They want to sponsor shows that create or expand markets for their products. Media images of women as sex objects, devoted homemakers, and mothers buttress the very roles in which the majority of consuming takes place. To live up to these images, women have to buy cosmetics and other personal care products, diet aids, food, household cleaners, utensils and appliances, clothes and toys for children, and so on. In short, it is in advertisers’ interests to support programming and copy that feature women in traditional roles.
In a recent analysis, Lana Rakow (1992) demonstrated that much advertising is oppressive to women and is very difficult to resist, even when one is a committed feminist. Women’s role in the home and men’s role outside of it are reinforced by newspapers and news programming. Both emphasize men’s independent activities and, in fact, define news almost entirely as stories about and by men (“Study Reports Sex Bias,” 1989). Stories about men focus on work and/or their achievements (Luebke, 1989), reiterating the cultural message that men are supposed to do, perform.
Meanwhile the few stories about women almost invariably focus on their roles as wives, mothers, and homemakers (“Study Reports Sex Bias,” 1989). Even stories about women who are in the news because of achievements and professional activities typically dwell on marriage, family life, and other aspects of women’s traditional role (Foreit et al. , 1980). Women as victims and sex objectslmen as aggressors. A final theme in mediated representations of relationships between women and men is representation of women as subject to men’s sexual desires.
The irony of this representation is that the very qualities women are encouraged to develop (beauty, sexiness, passivity, and powerlessness) in order to meet cultural ideals of femininity contribute to their victimization. Also, the qualities that men are urged to exemplify (aggressiveness, dominance, sexuality, and strength) are identical to those linked to abuse of women. It is no coincidence that all but one of the women nominated for Best Actress in the 36 1988 Academy Awards played a victim (Faludi, 1991, p. 138). Women are portrayed alternatively either as decorative objects, who must attract a man o be valuable, or as victims of men’s sexual impulses. Either way, women are defined by their bodies and how men treat them. Their independent identities and endeavors are irrelevant to how they are represented in media, and their abilities to resist exploitation by others are obscured. This theme, which was somewhat toned down during the 197Os, returned with vigor in the 1980s as the backlash permeated media. According to S. A. Basow (1992, p. 160), since 1987 there has been a “resurgence of male prominence, pretty female sidekicks, female homemakers. ” Advertising in magazines also communicates the message that women are sexual objects.
While men are seldom pictured nude or even partially unclothed, women habitually are. Advertisements for makeup, colognes, hair products, and clothes often show women attracting men because they got the right products and made themselves irresistible. Stars on prime-time and films, who are beautiful and dangerously thin, perpetuate the idea that women must literally starve themselves to death to win men’s interest (Silverstein et al. , 1986). Perhaps the most glaring examples of portrayals of women as sex objects and men as sexual aggressors occur in music videos as shown on MTV and many other stations.
Typically, females are shown dancing provocatively in scant and/or revealing clothing as they try to gain men’s attention (Texier, 1990). Frequently, men are seen coercing women into sexual activities and/or physically abusing them. Violence against women is also condoned in many recent films. R. Warshaw (1991) reported that cinematic presentations of rapes, especially acquaintance rapes, are not presented as power-motivated violations of women but rather as strictly sexual encounters.
Similarly, others (Cowan, Lee, Levy, & Snyder, 1988; Cowan & O’Brien, 1990) have found that male dominance and sexual exploitation of women are themes in virtually all R-and X-rated films, which almost anyone may now rent for home viewing. These media images carry to extremes long-standing cultural views of masculinity as aggressive and femininity as passive. They also make violence seem sexy (D. Russell, 1993). In so doing, they recreate these limited and limiting perceptions in the thinking of another generation of women and men. In sum, we have identified basic stereotypes and relationships between the two.
IndividualIy and in combination these images sustain and reinforce socially constructed views of the genders, views that have restricted both men and women and that appear to legitimize destructive behaviors ranging from anorexia to battering. Later in this chapter, we will probe more closely how media versions of gender are linked to problems such as these. . . . 7. Gendered Media pathologizing the Human Body One of the most damaging consequences of media’s images of women and men is that these images encourage us to perceive normal bodies and normal physical functions as problems.
It’s understandable to wish we weighed a little more or less, had better developed muscles, and never had pimples or cramps. What is neither reasonable nor healthy, however, is to regard healthy, functional bodies as abnormal and unacceptable. Yet this is precisely the negative self-image cultivated by media portrayals of women and men. Because sex sells products (Muro, 1989), sexual and erotic images are the single most prominent characteristic of advertising (Courtney & Whipple, 1983).
Further, advertising is increasingly objectifying men, which probably accounts for the rise in men’s weight training and cosmetic surgery Media, and especially advertising, are equal opportunity dehumanizers of both sexes. Not only do media induce us to think we should measure up to artificial standards, but they encourage us to see normal bodies and bodily functions as pathologies. A good example is the media’s construction of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Historically, PMS has not been a problem, but recently it has been declared a disease (Richmond-Abbott, 1992).
In fact, a good deal of research (Parlee, 1973, 1987) indicates that PMS affected very few women in earlier eras. After the war, when women were no longer needed in the work force, opinion changed and the term premenstrual tension was coined (Greene & Dalton, 1953) and used to define women as inferior employees. In 1964, only one article on PMS appeared; in 1988-1989, a total of 425 were published (Tavris, 1992, p. 140). Drug companies funded research and publicity since selling PMS meant selling their remedies for the newly created problem.
Behind the hoopla, however, there was and is little evidence to support the currently widespread belief that PMS is a serious problem for a significant portion of the female population. Facts aside, the myth has caught on, carrying in its wake many women and men who now perceive normal monthly changes as abnormal and as making women unfit for positions of leadership and authority Another consequence of defining PMS as a serious problem most women suffer is that it leads to labeling women in general as deviant and unreliable (Unger & Crawford, 1992), an image that fortifies long-held biases against women.
Menopause is similiarly pathologized. Carol Tavris (1992, p. 159) notes that books describe menopause “in terms of deprivation, deficiency, loss, shedding, and sloughing” language that defines a normal process as negative. Like menstruation, menopause is represented as abnormalcy and disease, an image that probably contributes to the negative attitudes toward it in America. The cover of the May 25, 1992, Newsweek featured an abstract drawing of a tree in the shape of a woman’s head. The tree was stripped of all leaves, making it drab and barren.
Across the picture was the cover-story headline “Menopause. ” From first glance, menopause was represented negatively-as desolate and unfruitful. The article ‘focused primarily on the problems and losses of menopause. Only toward the end did readers find reports from anthropologists, whose cross-cultural research revealed that in many cultures menopause is not an issue or is viewed positively Women in Mayan villages and the Greek island of Evia do not understand questions about . hot flashes and depression, which are symptoms often associated with menopause in Western societies (“Menopause,” 1992, p. 7). These are not part of their experience in cultures that do not define a normal change in women as a pathology Because Western countries, especially America, stigmatize menopause and define it as “the end of womanhood,” Western women are likely to feel distressed and unproductive about the cessation of menstruation (Greer, 1992). Advertising is very effective in convincing us that we need products to solve problems we are unaware of until some clever public relations campaign persuades us that something natural about us is really unnatural and unacceptable.
Media have convinced millions of American women that what every medical source considers “normal body weight” is really abnormal and cause for severe dieting (Wolf, 1991). Similarly, gray hair, which naturally develops with age, is now something all of us, especially women, are supposed to cover up. Facial lines, which indicate a person has lived a life and accumulated experiences, can be removed so that we look younger-a prime goal in a culture that glorifies youth (Greer, 1992).
Body hair is another interesting case of media’s convincing us that something normal is really abnormal. Beginning in 1915, a sustained marketing campaign informed women that underarm hair was unsightly and socially incorrect. (The campaign against leg hair came later. ) Harper’s Bazaar, an upscale magazine, launched the crusade against underarm hair with a photograph of a woman whose raised arms revealed clean-shaven armpits. Underneath the photograph was this caption: “Summer dress and modem dancing combine to make necessary the removal of objectionable hair” (Adams, 1991)...
Within a few years, ads promoting removal of underarm hair appeared in most women’s magazines, and by 1922, razors and depilatories were firmly ensconced in middle America as evidenced by their inclusion in the women’s section of the Sears Roebuck catalog. Media efforts to pathologize natural physiology can be very serious. As we have seen in prior chapters, the emphasis on excessive thinness contributes to severe and potentially lethal dieting, especially in Caucasian women (Spitzack, 1993).
Nonetheless, the top female models in 1993 are skeletal, more so than in recent years (Leland & Leonard, 1993). Many women’s natural breast size exceeded the cultural ideal in the 1960s when thin, angular bodies were represented as ideal. Thus, breast reduction surgeries rose. By the 198Os, cultural standards changed 37 1 6 LIVING WITH MEDIA to define large breasts as the feminine ideal. Consequently, breast augmentation surgeries accelerated, and fully 80% of implants were for cosmetic reasons (“The. Implant Circus,” 1992).
In an effort to meet the cultural standards of beautiful bodies, many women suffered unnecessary surgery, which led to disfigurement, loss of feeling, and sometimes death for women when silicone implants were later linked to fatal conditions. Implicitlp media argue that our natural state is abnormal and objectionable, a premise that is essential to sell products and advice for improving ourselves. Accepting media messages about our bodies and ourselves, however, is not inevitable: We can reflect on the messages and resist those that are inappropriate and/or harmful.
We would probably all be considerably happier and healthier if we became more critical in analyzing media’s communication about how we should look, be, and act. Normalizing Violence Against Women harmful, while sexually violent materials appear to be (Donnerstein, Linz, & Penrod, 1987). Pornographic films are a big business, outnumbering other films by 3 to 1 and grossing over $365 million a year in the United States alone (Wolf, 1991). The primary themes characteristic of pornography as a genre are extremes of those in media generally: sex, violence, and domination of one person by another, usually women by men (Basow, 1992, p. 17). More than 80% of X-rated films in one study included scenes in which one or more men dominate and exploit one or more women; within these films, three-fourths portray physical aggression against women, and fully half explicitly depict rape (Cowan et al. , 1988). That these are linked to viewers’ MYTHS Myth Rape is a sexual act that resuits from sexual urges. Rapists are abnormal. AND FACTS Fact ABOUT RAPE Since we have seen that media positively portray aggression in males and passivity in females, it’s important to ask whether media messages contribute to abuse of and violence against women.
There is by now fairly convincing evidence (Hansen & Hansen, 1988) that exposure to sexual violence through media is linked to greater tolerance, or even approval, of violence. For instance, I? Dieter (1989) found a strong relationship between females’ viewing of sexually violent MTV and their acceptance of sexual violence as part of “normal” relationships. He reasoned that the more they observe positive portrayals of sexual violence, the more likely women are to perceive this as natural in relationships with men and the less likely they are to object to violence or to defend themselves from it.
In short, Dieter suggests that heavy exposure to media tiolence within relationships tends to normalize it, so that abuse and violence are considered natural parts of love and sex. Dieter’s study demonstrates a direct link between sexual aggression and one popular form of media, MTV. Research on pornography further corroborates connections between exposure to portrayals of violence against women and willingness to engage in or accept it in one’s own relationships (Russell, 1993). Before we discuss this research, however, we need to clarify what we will mean by the term pornography, since defining it is a matter of some controversy.
Pornography is not simply sexually explicit material. To distinguish pornography from erotica, we might focus on mutual agreement and mutual benefit. If we use these criteria, pornography may be defined as materials that favorably show subordination and degradation of a person such as presenting sadistic behaviors as pleasurable, brutalizing and pain as enjoyable, and forced sex or abuse as positive. Erotica, on the other hand, depicts consensual sexual activities that are sought by and pleasurable to all parties involved (MacKinnon, 1987).
These distinctions are important, since it has been well established that graphic sexual material itself is not 38 Rape is an aggressive act used to dominate another. Rapists have not been shown to differ from nonrapists in personality, psychology, adjustment, or involvment in interpersonal relationships. Eighty percent to 90% of rapes are committed by a person known to the victim (Allgeier, 1987). Most rapes occur between strangers. Most rapists are African-Ameri- More than three-fourths of all can men, and most victims rapes occur within races, not are Caucasian women. between races.
This myth reflects racism. The way a woman dresses affects the likelihood she will be raped. The majority-up to 90%-of rapes are planned in advance and without knowledge of how the victim will dress (Scully, 1990). The majority of rapes are never reported (Koss, Cidycz, & Wisniewski, 1987). Less than 10% of rape reports are judged false, the same as for other violent crimes. The incidence of rape varies across cultures. It is highest in societies with ideologies of male dominance and a disregard for nature; it is lowest in cultures that respect women and feminine values Griffin 1981).
False reports of rapes are frequent. Rape is a universal problem own tendencies to engage in sexual violence is no longer disputable. According to recent research (Demare, Briere, & Lips, 1988; Donnerstein et al. , 1987; Malamuth & Briere, 1986), viewing sexually violent material tends to in- 7. Gendered Media crease men’s beliefs in rape myths, raises the likelihood thnt men will admit they might themselves commit rape, and desensitizes men to rape, thereby making forced sex more acceptable to them.
This research suggests that repeated exposure to pornography influences how men think about rape by transforming it from an unacceptable behavior with which they do not identify into one they find acceptable and enticing. Not surprisingly, the single best predictor of rape is the circulation of pomographic materials that glorify sexual force and exploitation (Baron & Straus, 1989). This is alarming when we realize that 18 million men buy a total of 165 different pornographic magazines every month in the United States (Wolf, 1991, p. 79).
It is well documented that the incidence of reported rape is rising and that an increasing number of men regard forced sex as acceptable (Brownmiller, 1993; Soeken & Danirosch, 1986). Studies of men (Allgeier, 1987; Koss & Dinero, 1988; Koss, Dinero, Seibel, & Cox, 1988; Koss Gidycz, & Wisniewski, 1987; Lisak & Roth, 1988) hav: produced shocking findings: While the majority of college men report not having raped anyone, a stunning 50% admit they have coerced, manipulated, or pressured a woman to have sex or have had sex with her after getting her drunk; 1 in 12 men at some colleges has engaged in behaviors meeting the legal definition of rape r attempted rape; over 80% of men who admitted to acts that meet the definition of rape did not believe they had committed rape; and fully one-third of college men said they would commit rape if they believed nobody would find out. Contrary to popular belief, we also know that men who do commit rape are not psychologically abnormal. They are indistinguishable from other men in terms of psychological adjustment and health, emotional wellbeing, heterosexual relationships, and frequency of sexual experiences (Segel-Evans, 1987).
The only established difference between men who are sexually violent and men who are not is that the former have “hypermasculine” attitudes and self-concepts-their approval of male dominance and sexual rights is even stronger than that of nonrapists (Allgeier, 1987; Koss & Dinero 1988. Lisak & Roth, 1988; Wood, 1993a). The difference b&ween sexually violent men and others appears to be only a matter of degree. We also know something about women who are victims of rape and other forms of sexual violence.
Between 33% and 66% of all women have been sexually abused before reaching age 18 (Clutter, 1990; Koss, 1990). The majority of college women-up to 75%-say they have been coerced into some type of unwanted sex at least once (Koss, Gidycz, & Wisniewski, 1987; Poppen & Segal 1988; Warshaw, 1988). A third of women who survivi *ape contemplate suicide (Koss et al. , 1988). It is also clear that the trauma of rape is not confined to the time of its actual occurrence.
The feelings that accompany rape and sexual assault-fear, a sense of degradation and shame, anger, powerlessness, and depression-endure far beyond the act itself (Brownmiller, 1975; Wood 1992b 19930. Most victims of rape continue to deal v&h the emotional aftermath of rape for the rest of their lives (Marhoefer-Dvorak, Resick, Hutter, & Girelli, 1988). What causes rape, now the fastest growing violent crime in the United States (Doyle, 1989; Soeken & Damrosch, 1986)?
According to experts (Costin & Schwartz 1987; Koss & Dinero, 1988; Koss, Gidycz, & Wisniewski’ 1987; Scott & Tetreault, 1987; Scully, 1990), rape is not the result of psychological deviance or uncontrollable lust. Although rape involves sex, it is not motivated by sexual desire. Authorities agree that rape is an aggressive act used to dominate and show power over another person, be it a man over a woman or one man over another as in prison settings where rape is one way inmates brU1 talize one another and establish a power hierarchy (Rideau & Sinclair, 1982).
Instead, mounting evidence suggests that rape is a predictable outcome of views of men, women, and relationships between the sexes that our society inculcates in members (Brownmiller, 1975. Costin & Schwartz, 1987; Scott & Tetreault, 1987; South & Felson, 1990). Particularly compelling support for the cultural basis of rape comes from cross-cultural studies (Griffin, 1981. Sanday, 1986), which reveal that rape is extremely rar: in cultures that value women and feminine qualities and that have ideologies that promote harmonious interdependence among humans and between them and the natural world.
Rape is most common in countries, like the United States, that have ideologies of male supremacy and dominance and a disrespect of women and nature. Cultural values communicated to us by family schools, media, and other sources constantly encourage us to believe men are superior, men should dominate women, male aggression is acceptable as a means of attaining what is wanted, women are passive and should defer to men, and women are sex objects. In concert these beliefs legitimize violence and aggression agains; women.
While the majority of media communication may not be pornographic, it does echo in somewhat muted forms the predominant themes of pornography: sex, violence and male domination of women. As we have seen, thesi same motifs permeate media that are part of our daily lives, which generally portray males as dominating in number, status, authority, and will. Substantial violence toward women punctuates movies, television-including children’s programming-rock music, and music videos desensitizing men and women alike to the unnatural~ ness and unacceptability of force and brutality between human beings.
Thus, the research that demonstrates connections between sex-stereotypical media and acceptance of sexual violence is consistent with that showing relationships between more extreme, pornographic media and acceptance of and use of violence. . . . 39

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