I chose this area of sociology to study because I found the recent debate about the media’s portrayal of women and the decision of the Madrid Fashion Week in October 2006 to ban size zero (UK size four) models very interesting. Media empires such as those controlled by the Murdock family and EMAP have become increasingly powerful and their focus on celebrities and their promotion of a western ideal of beauty have only become recent topics of research. Personally, I hold the view that the overemphasis on body size by the media can have a very negative affect on women’s body image.
This could be a factor in the development of eating disorders and low self confidence in those most vulnerable. As a teenager I have grown up in an era in which celebrity magazines commend slim bodies and ridicule anything that does not fit that image with red circles of shame pointing out any imperfections. However even though I have a strong personal view on this topic I will try to minimise bias when undertaking this study. I have decided to use content analysis as my method because I think it will be simple and effective to do and I can obtain clear results with minimal bias.
However unlike interviews it will be difficult to achieve in-depth information. If I was to do this piece of research as an individual piece of work I would use more than one method (combined methods research) but due to time and financial constraints and a word limit this is not possible. Therefore I feel content analysis of magazines is the best method. Surveys to find out people’s feelings and opinions on this topic could be problematical because it may be difficult to find a selection of participants who are comfortable and uninhibited about going into detail about their feelings on this topic.
Also researchers need to be careful not to influence responses by asking leading questions. While carrying out my content analysis I might encounter some problems for example how to ensure I get a mix of magazines, (celebrity magazines, lad’s magazines etc). An incorrect balance could undermine the results of the research. I have many questions I would like to ask whilst researching this topic but to answer many of them will not be possible with my small scale piece of research. Firstly, I would like to find out how women’s bodies are portrayed in magazines.
I have pre-conceived ideas that there is a negative view that unless a body is flawless it is unattractive. Yet this may not be the case especially with the embracing of the curvier figure more recently in magazines and advertising campaigns such as ‘Dove’ which celebrates older and more curvaceous women. Secondly, I want to investigate whether there are differences in portrayal between different magazines or whether there is a homogeneous view of beauty. Thirdly, does the media provide positive role models for women to aspire to?
I think investigating these questions may not give me a definite answer but it could help me understand the topic more. The topic I am researching can be related to Feminist conceptual theories. Feminists have often criticised the media for the way that they reinforce traditional gender stereotypes. For example Tuchman (1978) reviewed evidence on the representation of women by the American media during the period 1950s to the 1970s. She claimed that women were portrayed mainly in terms of their sexual attractiveness and in their performance of domestic roles.
She noted that women often appeared as nurses rather than doctors and secretaries rather than lawyers. Tuchman claims the exclusion, marginalization, and trivialisation of women’s activities resulted in the ‘symbolic annihilation of women’ so that they were viewed as one dimensional and incapable of performing other roles. However this study was carried out a long time ago and I aim to discover whether these stereotypes still exist or whether media representations of women have changed. The two main theoretical perspectives that explore the impact of the media on society are Marxism and Feminism.
The Marxist position is that knowledge of society is dependent on one’s social class and that those possessing the greatest power and wealth also have control over ideology. Feminism is an alternative theoretical perspective that claims that knowledge is gendered so that our view of the influenced by being male or female. Feminists believe experience and emotion should be valued as much as facts and rationality. They suggest that concepts such as structure, system, and action form part of a male world view.
They consider over-emphasis is given to social class rather than issues of gender and ethnicity. In this study I will be concentrating on the content of girls’ and women’s magazines. A similar piece of research was carried out by McRobbie (1983) in which she studied the teenage magazine ‘Jackie’. McRobbie used semiology, the personal interpretation of an image to examine the underlying meaning, ‘connotative codes’ present in the publication. The four codes identified were the code of romance, domestic life, fashion and beauty, and pop music. These were displayed in easy to identify stereotypes.
For example, all brunette girls were seen as vicious in some way, whereas the blonde girls were quiet and timid. The code running throughout is that the girls’ goal is to find and keep a man. The code of beauty and fashion instils in girls that they have to find a suitable image for themselves in order to find a partner. This study showed that even in younger generations, the media continued to place girls into the pre-existing ideological constructs of society. Barker (1989) criticised this approach as his analysis came up with different findings and he accused her of making unfounded assumptions.
A study by Ferguson (1983) explored the changes in post war magazines and noted that there had been a slight shift from ‘getting and keeping your man’ to ‘self help’ e. g. being a better mother or worker, staying slim and overcoming illness and crises . By 1996 McRobbie had noticed a more varied approach in magazines such as More, to women’s roles with more emphasis on equality in relationships, an encouragement for women readers to satisfy their sexual and social needs and sex being handled in a humorous way. The magazine More also featured in a case-study by Lacey (1998) in which he found that women were represented and defined by sex.
The publishers justified this as being the number one issue in young people’s lives. The age range of the readership is between 15 and 24 and there has been a lot of criticism about the over casual representation of sexual encounters for the lower age range Spectatorship of women is a key theme in the media world, with the ‘objectification’ of women’s bodies. This is clearly presented in pornography, but is also present in many other genres of the media such as the advertising of drinks, clothes and very commonly, cars. Many adverts for lingerie in women’s glossy magazines have much in common with soft pornography.
An example of this was the advert promoting ‘Opium’ perfume featuring Sophie Dahl. A large number of people complained about the image of women portrayed in the advert. John Berger (1972) labels women in many adverts, “a sight”, and nothing more. This contrasts with men who are frequently portrayed as being powerful and doing active things. Cover images on magazines are shaped by the consumer culture geared to selling fashion and making profit. Berger suggests the women’s face is usually white, young, smiling seductively, smoothly attractive and immaculately groomed.
Naomi Wolff’s 1990 bestseller, ‘The Beauty Myth’ looks at the effects of voyeurism upon women in western society. Wolff argues, “The cultural industry’s prescriptions for women to be beautiful and slender have produced a generation of women who suffer from eating disorders. ” i?? va Szi?? kely agrees with this in her book and critiques of society, ‘Never Too Thin’. In recent media, it has been suggested that women who are over weight are not only victims of prejudice in the workplace, but are actually paid less. It is this type of media coverage that motivates women into changing their appearances.
However, it is important to reflect upon the unreliability of some media reporting. It is very common that scientific results are distorted or over simplified for the readership. This exploitation of ‘facts’, although they may be incorrect, has the desired effect for the global market that includes dieting companies and cosmetic surgery, generating a billion pound turnover per year. Williams (2003) in his exploration of the sociology of the body noted women’s increased use of plastic surgery to manipulate their bodies to meet current fashion trends.
In conclusion, it is clear that feminists have identified the media and some aspects of modern society as having a negative impact on women’s aspirations and self image. Studies of the cosmetic industry regarding the types of products produced and advertised show their success in creating products that women believe will enhance their beauty, personal happiness, and success. Advertising in the media is widely held as being the catalyst in awakening these inert desires within women.
Fashion plays a role within this widespread body dissatisfaction, as clothes form the covering for the body underneath. Women are constantly presented with images of ‘beauty’ presented by the super model and spend a large part of their income trying to find the perfect outfit. However, as these women are seen as both successful and beautiful, the average young woman will aspire to be like them. It is clear that this sets up a vicious cycle in which women become entrapped by advertising, the rest of the global media, sexuality, fashion and cosmetic surgery.
This study intends to widen my knowledge of media’s effects upon women, and more specifically how the media portrays women’s bodies through content analysis of a range of women’s magazines. A problem I will encounter will be to prevent my personal opinions biasing the outcome of my piece of research. For example if I hold a strong feminist opinion that women are portrayed negatively in the media then I must be careful not to use evidence which will only support my opinion as this would make my work unreliable and difficult to replicate.