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Representations of Gender in Popular Culture

Jemma and Lauren discuss representations of gender in popular culture. (Materials written by Dr Emma Jeanes, University of Exeter, with ideas from Lauren Castle).
Our lives are surrounded by representations of men and women that set out ideals in terms of how men and women are expected to look and behave. Representations in media are important because they have a significant influence on people’s attitudes and opinions and can reach large audiences – their effects are pervasive and extensive. Media representations in all their forms, including film, television, news reporting, advertising and social media, play a significant role in shaping culture. Within those, film, television and advertising in particular, also present us with what have come to be known as ‘ideals’, typically in terms of the so-called ‘perfect body’ or ‘perfect lives’. In this section we are going to look at representations in terms of “body” and “behaviour” .
Of course, behaviour is embodied and the separation between the two is artificial, but by treating them separately it enables us to focus on each aspect in turn. By “body” we refer to the sexed and sexualised body but include here appearance - dress and so on. By “behaviour” we refer to the actions – performed or intended – that are undertaken or suggested by men and women. We’re going to look at these in the context of popular culture – focusing on films and advertisements in particular. First we’re looking at the body . The body is one of the most widespread ways in which gender ideals are communicated.
It has received considerable interest not least for the damaging effect it can have on people who seek to achieve the ideal. As demonstrated in the “Killing Us Softly” film based on a lecture by Jean Kilbourne, evidence suggests that we know that many of the images presented to us are digitally enhanced (for example, waists are narrowed or breasts are enlarged). However this does not necessarily stop us desiring to attain that ideal. So let’s look at a typical image of a women in the media – as we might find in film or advertisements. What does this image suggest to you? Physically, we might consider her beauty and her slender body.
In terms of her pose we might note the way in which her clothes reveal her shoulders, presenting more flesh to the viewer. The pose is demure, submissive and yet sexual. There is an element of coyness in the way in which she looks away from the gaze. The empowerment she feels that might lie behind this can only be guessed at. Let us now look at a typical image of a man. By asking ourselves the same questions of this image we will note that the man is physically fit, strong and muscular. This makes his body attractive but also powerful. The pose suggests mastery and control of the sports equipment and his body.
It is more clearly reflecting a sense of empowerment, even if only over the shaping of his own body. . Of course, these are just two selected images. There are many of women or men who do not conform to the typical notions of beauty. And there are many images of women who are for example, muscular. However, these images reflect fairly typical representations, particularly in the advertising industry where much of it relies on selling us an often unattainable ideal rather than a reality. The problem here isn’t simply that of representing a narrow version of beauty, it is associated with anxiety and eating disorders and furthermore, reduces an individual to the status of an object – such as an object of sexual desire.
Objectification is the act of reducing someone to a ‘thing’ with the loss of their personhood. This has multiple dimensions initially set out by Nussbaum in 1995 that capture factors such as the denial of subjectivity (as if they have no feelings) and denial of autonomy, an assumption of a lack of agency, treatment as if they can be owned by others and using them instrumentally. Langton added to these dimensions including the act of reducing someone to be identified by their body or body parts, reducing them to their appearance, and treating them as if they don’t have the capacity to speak . Objectification can be identified in the trope of the ‘headless woman’.
Consider how many images of women you can think of – particularly in advertising and film – where the women is merely a torso.
You might want to search online for the following movie posters: Kingsman, the 2014 film, which has the male lead as viewed from between a woman’s parted legs, or TV series Beauty and the Geek, which has a promotion image with the male lead caught between a woman’s breasts. Marcia Belsky, who founded the “Headless Women” project seeks to bring attention to what she terms “the still standard practice of fragmenting, objectifying and dehumanizing the images of women we see in film, television, and advertisement”. As a result of this practice women lose their personhood and become a passive object to the male gaze.
The male gaze refers to the thesis that women in cinema are typically represented in ways that satisfy heterosexual masculine desires, which demonstrates an asymmetry of power. Women are typically considered to be passive recipients of this gaze. . Recently there has been much reporting of the lack of female directors. A 2016 report on the UK film industry “Cut out of the Picture” calculated that women made up just 13.6% of directors. This is of concern because film has an influence on society, therefore who chooses and directs the stories that are told is important. Since attitudes and opinions towards gender are constructed, it matters who controls the mechanisms that shape these constructions.
Beyond film, there is evidence that the appearance of women can influence how they are evaluated. Studies have shown that women are rated in terms of competence at work in terms of how they present themselves and also their natural facial beauty and body shape. For example, women who wear a lot of makeup have received lower ratings for moral character, and similarly more revealing attire can result in lower performance ratings, although wearing no make-up can also be disadvantageous to women. Similarly, being attractive is also associated with higher rates of competence in men, and lower rates of competence in women. Obese women are also more likely to face discrimination than obese men.
Overall it seems that women should be attractive enough, but not too much to succeed. In all cases it reduces women to a visual object rather than a complex person. It is therefore unsurprising that women’s opinions are not evaluated as highly as men, and they have to alter their voices – by deepening them – to project an impression of authority. This leads us to behaviour. We have already addressed behaviours in terms of roles and stereotypes in the workplace and at home, but here we’re going to concentrate
how popular culture represents gender, through two examples (or cinematic tropes): the Disney princess and ‘The Bitch’. The Disney Princess is about beauty as well as behaviour, but we’re just going to concentrate on the latter . It would be hard not to like the Disney Princess – she’s kind, caring, often clever and bold, but also demure and innocent. She represents an ideal of femininity to which young girls are encouraged to aspire. But the Disney Princess typically waits for her Prince to rescue her, and what constitutes ‘happily ever after’ is usually the successful match with the Prince.
This sustains the heteronormative stereotyping and gendered roles which girls and women are expected to play, and also sets out clear expectations with regards what constitutes feminine behaviour. A 2017 adaptation of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast received criticism when it was argued that the Beauty, Belle, was in an abusive and ultimately romantic relationship with the Beast who acted as her captor, and thus it reflects a dysfunctional relationship in which the Beast never apologises for his wrongful treatment of Belle. While Belle challenges the Beast, it ultimately retains a power imbalance. of course, not all women in film are demure, but when they are characterised as strong women they often fall under the trope of ‘the bitch’.
This was, until recently the proposed title of a controversial British Film Industry season of films that showed ‘fierce females’ – a powerful gendered word to reflect these powerful gendered characters. It has sparked controversy for reinforcing a stereotype about empowered women being deranged or malevolent, rather than portraying strong female characters that subvert gender norms. But the trope draws attention to the fact that strong females are generally something ‘other’ than an example of femininity, in the minority and often with a bad reputation. Advertisements are another powerful mechanism for informing and encouraging us to aspire to the ideal. They are one of the primary means through which we learn about so-called bodily ‘perfection’.
It is rare, for example, to see an advertisement selling shaving equipment for women that shows a woman with hair to shave. But here we also find examples of guides on behaviour, or the reflections of assumptions on gendered roles. For example, there was the controversial Huggies advertisement that suggested men were incompetent fathers and this was the best test for their nappies. Another advertisement, by Aptamil, selling babies milk suggested that baby girls grow into ballerinas, whilst young boys grow into scientists. Additionally, most perfume advertisements portray not only on the ideal of beauty but also of heterosexual desire between a strong man and an alluring woman.
Popular culture, such as film and advertisements, as explored here are a powerful means of influencing us, and generally retain our gendered stereotypes and tropes. This is why ‘who’ makes these productions of culture is important.

Jemma and Lauren discuss representations of gender in popular culture.

(Materials written by Dr Emma Jeanes, University of Exeter, with ideas from Lauren Castle).

Representations of Gender in Popular Culture

References and sources can be found here:

Advertisements (examples):

  • Aptamil, which gender stereotypes the future roles of girls and boys

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

  • Huggies, that treats men as incompetent fathers.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Attaining the ideal body

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

The Bitch

British Film Industry ‘bitch’ season:

Body image and work

Disney Princess

Evaluation of women’s performance

Female Directors

“Headless women”


  • Nussbaum M. “Objectification”. Philosophy & Public Affairs. 1995;24(4): 249–291.
  • Langton R (2009). Sexual Solipsism: Philosophical Essays on Pornography and Objectification. 1st Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press;2009
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Understanding Gender Inequality

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