Grad students post thoughts and comments on What is Gender readings.
When reading about the Olympic committee’s testing of women to determine if they were/are female enough I was reminded of a similar instance in history. According to sources, at times in the Medieval period Popes had to prove that they were male. They did this by seating themselves on a special inspection chair called the “Sedia Stercoraria.” Investigating clerics could then look under what was most akin to a toilet seat to determine the gender of the incoming Vicar of Christ. I think it’s worth noting that the pope could remain in a robe and was able to show as little of himself as possible while still giving necessary evidence of his sex. This in comparison with the Olympic Committee’s parade of naked female Olympians to verify their sex presents an underlying heirarchy of respect. Now maybe I am making some logical leaps, but I think it’s worth thinking about that when men needed to verify their gender they were allowed to do so with a certain level of respect. Our Olympian women however, had to experience a debasement in being displayed in the nude. I might have gone on an unnecessary tangent, so please bear with me.
As far as the second reading concerning the theories of Adorno and Fiske, I must say that I align with Fiske more so; but not with the same level of idealistic naivete. Adorno’s theories demonstrate an innate distrust of popular art out of both fear that it can be used for propaganda’s sake and that it was just too “popular.” Adorno’s beliefs seem grounded in an elitist perspective and an inherent phobia of the corporate world and its commercial interests. Fiske on the other hand believes too much in the supposed democratic nature of generating popular art. Like the author, I find a moderate view somewhere in the middle is most appropriate. I do believe that those pursuing careers in the manufacture of popular art should have a training in more classical approaches to their fields, and thus should have respect for the careful thought provoking rich art of the past. However, I do not believe that their work is automatically rubbish because it is popular. Art exists in many different ways in our media rich world. Ways to distinguish whether or not art is worthwhile or not greatly depends on personal taste and interests. So in the end all I can do is personally state why I recommend certain pieces d’art. I feel so lost in our post modern world, the Victorians had it easier.
Adorno and Horkheimer presupposed that the values and ideologies instilled in us by the media are shaped by those controlling what they called “the culture industry”. We might bundle Hollywood, the print media industry, the music industry, the ad industry, et cetera and claim that they are, in Adorno and Horkheimer’s model, those that are driving the machine that is the culture industry or are the culture industry themselves. This concept must have seemed relatively straightforward in 1944, in the days before video and the internet and other democratized formats when media content was indeed mostly made and distributed by larger companies.
John Fiske is perhaps on the opposite end of the spectrum as he places the power of determining ideology in the hands of the masses–the audience “taking it in”–as those making media are locked into making products that serve the desires and values of their consumers. Fiske also takes issues with Adorno and Horkheimer’s assumptions that audiences lack the power of interpretation. Fiske, writing in late 80s, is now dealing with a more media literate mass, a mass that not only has had several more decades of media-watching and interpreting experience than those of A&H, but also who, with the advent of video and the burgeoning technology of the internet, are now becoming media-makers and distributors, themselves contributing to the “culture industry”.
I think the truth lies somewhere on the spectrum between Fiske and A&H. True, the culture industry is very much a slave to the desires of its consumers, but the desires of its consumers are based on the limited of span of possibilities of which they are cognizant. In other words, an audience cannot demand what is does not know it is missing. For example, conceivably cinema audiences are not calling for a larger female character presence in films (a 1:1 ratio, for instance), because they are used to seeing a lopsided proportion–a greater number of male characters. Therefore, interpretation is limited by one’s expectations. And while it is true that individuals may have a variety of different interpretations based on their own psychology, what Fiske calls the “preferred meaning” (the intended message) still dominates. If it didn’t, we would more often see a break from the ideological conventions that continuously roll out. The culture industry has had a lot of practice perfecting its messaging and has gotten very good at it. What you have, oddly, is a kind of paradox: the culture industry is producing what it thinks are the values of its consumers and its consumers are in turn swallowing and accepting these values, thus feeding them right back into the machine to be churned out again.
Still, the paradox can be broken and the masses do have the power to demand more from the culture industry. They need only stay their wallets at the ticket booth and the studio will begin to rework its output. Those that are making media themselves have the ability, and arguably the responsibility, to present alternative values to audiences, raising awareness and driving all of us to demand more from the powers that be.
Media is a social institution that functions as a microcosm of societal ills. Television and film are two facets of media that continually reproduce all of the isms and phobias – including racism, sexism, homophobia, trans*phobia, classism – so the continual misrepresentation of gender as space, performance and social construct is appalling, but doesn’t evoke surprise. One of the questions posed in Gauntlett’s (2008) examination of the differences in Theodor Adorno and John Fiske’s media ideologies is whether or not “the media shapes the consciousness of the modern public (Gauntlett, 2008, p. 22).” In considering this question, Fiske and Adorno offer divergent understandings of the power dynamics between content creators and executives and the audience.
Adorno and his Frankfurt School of Critical Theory brethren explored media as a “culture industry,” in which audiences are inundated with “manufactured products” that “reflect the values of the established system.” Through this lens, Adorno and his colleagues are asserting that a patriarchal, capitalist, racist, sexist, trans*phobic, homophobic, heteronormative society will propagate such ills through the vessel of media, leading to a continual reproducing of discrimination through mass communication. It is a powerful perspective that I am apt to agree with. Media is a powerful institution where the misrepresentation of women, particularly women of color is common.
Prolific images like the hypersexual jezebel, asexual and nurturing mammy and calculating welfare queen are all promoted through media texts – including television (Tyler Perry’s House of Payne, Basketball Wives, Girlfriends and Beulah) and film (Gone with the Wind, Precious based on the book Push by Sapphire, Think Like A Man) – and impact the realized experiences of Black American women in innumerable ways. So, when the “power of the culture industry’s ideology is such that conformity has replaced consciousness (Gauntlett, 2008, p. 25),” it has an immediate and irreparable impact on how womanhood is constructed and performed for women of color. Misrepresentation in media texts is another example of the personal as political because so often women of color absorb media without examining it through a critical lens.
Tyler Perry is one of the most successful filmmakers in the movie business. His films have grossed more than $414.9 million, according to Box Office Mojo, and his core demographic is Black American women. However, the stereotypes he promotes within his films – best surmised by Dr. Brittney Cooper, assistant professor of Women and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, as a modern minstrel show – are detrimental to the representation and performance of womanhood for Black American women. For instance, his latest venture with the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) is a soap opera tome titled The Have and the Have Nots (2013).
It is extremely problematic since it presents three narrow performances of Black American womanhood: Hanna, a maid; Veronica, a wealthy woman construed as a bitch; and Candace, a manipulative prostitute. These are the same characters depicted time and time again in Perry’s productions, but Black American women remain dedicated to his patriarchal productions. So it is simple to align with Adorn’s understanding of mass-produced popular culture as a critical analysis blockage.
However, it is important to consider Fiske’s oppositional perspective that “popular culture is made by the people, not produced by the culture industry (Gauntlett, 2008, p. 27).” It is understandable to think audiences control their interpretation of media texts based on their ideologies and lived experiences (Hall, 1973). This is especially true in the age of Netflix binge-watching. However, it is impossible not to consider the purpose of commercializing mass media. Mass media is designed to sell audiences to advertisers. It is a profit-generating business and the preferences of the viewership have little influence on the content produced. Furthermore, it is irresponsible to place preferences in a vacuum of personal choice. The production of controlling images of women of color in media manifests in their every day existences. So the “preferred” meaning of the text matters little depending on its impact.
Misrepresentation in media is an issue. The false construction of womanhood narratives is problematic. Women of color are forced to navigate this harmful terrain daily, since media is invasive and leaves little room for resistance through counternarrative storytelling. Unfortunately, that’s the reality that some theorists never consider when placing their academic research into praxis.
Media Representation Response
I’m infatuated with romantic comedies. I’m not ashamed to admit that I spend hours watching modern princesses claim their princes and gallivant off into the skyline of Los Angeles or New York. As much as I love the research I’m conducting, the problem I’ve found with black romantic comedies is that the genre relies on controlling images of women of color.
Patricia Hill-Collins, a groundbreaking sociologist who studies women of color, defined controlling images in a 1999 essay titled “Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling Images.” She wrote that “portraying African-American women as stereotypical mammies, matriarch, welfare recipients, and hot mommas has been essential to the political economy of domination fostering Black women’s oppression.”
Name a romantic comedy with a woman of color in it and I can pinpoint one or more stereotypes entwined in the plot. That’s no surprise—romantic comedies are a platform that reproduces all of our cultural “isms” and phobias. Most women of color have intersectional oppressions that lie on the cusp of several “isms.” We are objectified, pathologized, and forced into stereotypes that don’t represent the fullness of our humanities.
One of the stereotypes depicted through romantic comedies is the jezebel. Hill-Collins defines the jezebel as a hypersexual woman with an insatiable horniness. In America’s history, for example, overseers and plantation owners depicted black women as jezebels who were incapable of being raped (which kept them from serving time in prison while victimizing black women). The jezebel is prominent in romantic comedies: she’s the character who’ll sacrifice love for an orgasm. The jezebel is immoral and thus has no qualities worth loving.
We see remnants of the trope in Lysterine, Vivica A. Fox’s character in Booty Call (1997). The film is about Nikki and Rushon, a couple considering consummating their relationship. Both are nervous, so they invite their friends, Lysterine and Bunz, to partake in a blind double-date. Lysterine loves sex and has no qualms about hitting the sheets with men she’s just been introduced to, like Bunz. In one striking scene, Lysterine is berated by her friend, Nikki, for her sexual innuendos.
Fox’s character is depicted as a woman with a voracious craving for sex that defies all logic. She doesn’t utilize condoms or birth control, making her susceptible to diseases and unworthy of love.
Lysterine is still single at the end of this romcom. Bunz leaves her unsatisfied when he orgasms in two minutes. But the final credits show Lysterine exacting her revenge by whipping Bunz in a BDSM scenario. Nikki’s new relationship survives, seemingly due to her decision to wait seven weeks before bedding her beau. Jezebels are outcasts who are punished for their sexual liberation. Therein lays the paradox between the jezebel and the “virtuous” woman. Women of color are presented with an either/or option. We can be virtuous or we can be slutty. Booty Call captures that dichotomy well.
This is kind of off subject to what you were saying, but I really dislike the AXE commercials because they imply that if a man sprays himself with their (stinky) cologne, women will swoon all over him. Also, overseas AXE distributes a mouse pad of a woman’s skirt that a man must reach his hand up into in order to move the mouse. I, myself, dislike anything that is demeaning to women. For me, I think video games are just as insulting. Most of the women on the covers are skinny, big-busted, ditzy chicks that are wearing skimpy outfits. In fact, a lot of the female characters are killed first in violent games. Unfortunately, I have only been able to find one article that addresses gender and violence in video games with a ton of statistics.
Thanks for reading and responding Kerra. I am also not a fan of the Axe commercials. The brand deduces women to carnal creatures only concerned with the smell (or it can be read as the presence) of males.
I’ve never considered the construction of gender within video games. That is extremely interesting and I’d love to read more. Could you provide the title of the article?
So, I had a chance to read the article on Re-Viewing Reception and I was a little confused about this essay. But if I am to understand this, the article bases its argument that scholars do not watch television, therefore the viewers must be youth and women. While television in the 1980s addressed death, money, and the overall status of the economy, the assumed viewers that watched were categorized as women and children that must be stupid, needy, focused on consuming, and only watch Daytime TV and music videos. This article is unfounded with poor examples of how research was conducted and the percentile of the actual sex of the viewer. In the 1950s, I can see how consumerism applied and even see examples of it today, but I feel that there are far more shows that address all classes, sexual orientation, diversity, and intellect. The overall implication is that by watching television, in the 1980s. viewers became morphed into society as “brainwashed” individuals that couldn’t think of what they really wanted to purse in life but rather have propaganda tell them what to think and buy because everybody else is doing it or already has one. Today, it seems everyone has a tablet, laptop, console, smartphone, i-pad, i-pod- whatever, is that also not consumerism? Overall, I can say regardless or your sex, it’s only cool to have these things and keep up with technology. In this article, I am not sure how masculinity would be lost in this and TV could only have been for the feminine perspective in the 1980s.
When we were talking in class on the first day about the 1950s and what was expected of women, I thought of the movie Mona Lisa Smile with Julia Roberts. I am an art major/grad student and I have always had a respect for the arts. This movie addresses college in the 1950s and women’s education and family roles. I highly recommend that you watch this movie because it talks about avoiding scandal (divorce, adultery); women should marry by a certain age; women should go to college and then marry immediately- leave school and then raise the children; women should always abide by their husbands; women should always be proper and organized, etc. The movie also talks about propaganda and that after the war, women had to return to the homes as their duty. Posters were distributed to encourage the consumers (women) to stay at home using the latest products to keep them occupied. Overall, the movie is about discipline, customs, values, and traditions, but it is also about breaking barriers and having freedom to pursue one’s dreams. Watch it!
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