Media Depictions of Women by Emily Huynh


In our TCO2 workshop, we consider how the media plays a role in influencing our understanding of gender. Media depictions of men and women; boys and girls, can inform us of how each gender is expected to look, dress and behave.

In 2011, many problematic representations of women were found in popular media. We saw Lady Gaga take the female sex symbol to a new level of raunch, surpassing her pop princess predecessors to break records for most scantily clad pop star and least interested in censorship for her young audiences. Gaga epitomizes a focus of sexually explicit celebrities from reality TV stars like the Kardashian’s, to music’s biggest hit-makers like Katy Perry and Ke$ha, to silverscreen actresses like Megan Fox and Kirsten Stewart. Breaking Dawn, the third installment of the Twilight movie series and this year’s tween blockbuster, depicts a helplessly lovestruck Bella, so transfixed by her male suitor that she sacrifices her humanity to join her lover’s eternally tortured ranks as a vampire.

The argument must be made that we have regressed in some ways from our gender equality initiatives of the 80’s and 90’s. And while pop culture staples like Gaga may seem to show more sexual agency, compared to the passive portrayal we have seen for so long, this self-objectification can be seen as equally if not more harmful for young women’s body image and self-worth. While it may seem to empower Ke$ha to claim her sexual autonomy through raunchy music videos, perhaps this is only setting a new standard for young women. Now, not only should we be impossibly beautiful, we should also be “sexy, sexually knowledgeable/practiced and always ‘up for it’.” (Gill, 2008) This issue of the sexually objectified representation of women in the media (whether passive or active) is a tired one; yet we still must ask: How are these depictions informing our youth? Below is a video clip of the trailer for the new documentary, Miss Representation, which explores this question pertinently.

In our workshop, we discuss how these images and representations of women can affect our self esteem, our sense of worth, and our understanding of how we are valued. In short, they can make us feel vulnerable when we inevitably cannot meet their impossible standards for beauty and sex appeal. And Canadians agree. A national survey in the Girls Action 2011 report shows that 87% of Canadians feel that the media puts too much emphasis on young women being sexy and not enough on their abilities and intelligence. We brainstorm with students how these depictions might make a person feel when they don’t fit the narrow mold of gender roles set by the media’s standards. We also talk about how these representations can affect the way boys and young men believe that girls should look, act, and be treated. Ultimately, these depictions make it unsurprising that there is a notion of entitlement to female bodies in the issue of sexual exploitation.

With all this in mind, we encourage students to hone their media literacy and to be critical of the depictions they see of women and girls in popular culture. While pressures may exist to interact and present our gender in a certain way, these expectations only limit us from being comfortable and safe in our own skin.


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