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Gender and Popular Culture

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Dr Victoria Cann

on 7 December 2017

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Transcript of Gender and Popular Culture

Gender and Popular Culture
Lecture Aims:

To consider the extent to which we can consider popular culture to be gendered

To use feminism to analyse popular culture

To explore the different ways in which men, women and non-binary genders are (not) represented within popular culture

To think about the ways in which audiences of popular culture are gendered

Why gender?
"Cultural politics are crucially important to feminism because they involve struggles over MEANING"
Barrett, 1982: 37
Why gender?
"Though contemporary feminists have taken a diversity of approaches to popular culture, they have shared two major assumptions.
The first is that women have a particular relationship to popular culture that is different from men's
[...] The second assumption is that understanding how popular culture functions for both women and for a patriarchal culture is important if women are to gain control over their identities and change both social mythologies and social relations [...]
Feminists are saying that popular culture plays a role in patriarchal society
and that theoretical analysis of this role warrants a major position in ongoing analysis"
Rakow, 2006: 202
What is gender?
Sex = biological (male/female)
Gender = the culturally constructed roles and expectations associated with masculinity and femininity
Feminists are largely interested in popular culture for two main reasons:

1. Because it is a pervasive cultural force and is the site of patriarchy
2. Because women are frequently represented poorly
3. Because it's usually women that enjoy popular culture, yet it's rarely taken seriously (e.g. feminine - trivial)
The objectification of women
In the Home
Women and media representation

Key themes:
Historically, women aren't represented
- invisible
If they are represented, it is either:
- in the home/private sphere
- as sexual objects
The 'Symbolic Annihilation' of women in the media

“What can the pre-school girl, the school girl, the adolescent female and the woman learn about a woman’s role […] The answer is simple. Women are not important in American society, except perhaps within the home”
Tuchman in Boyd-Barrett and Newbold, 1995: 410
"Women ‘symbolically annihilated’ by the media, whereby if and when women appear in the media they are represented through “stereotypes and taken-for-granted ‘ideal’ images”
(Boyd-Barrett and Newbold citing Tuchman, 1995: 389)
Women = invisible
TV in the 1950s, 60s and 70s; only 20-35% of characters were female
1970s; equal representation in sitcoms
1970s; 15% of leading characters in action-adventure shows
Taken for granted ideal images = conventionally 'beautiful', in the home, and/or concerned with the 'right' things:
1970s: 74% of female characters on TV were concerned with marriage, parenthood and domesticity

(Male characters, 18%)
Okay, but that was ages ago, and stuff has changed, right?
Not really!
But of course, women ARE represented in popular culture sometimes...
Why is this a problem?
It's a problem because women (and everyone else), don't see women in the public sphere (where all of the power is, where the money and decisions are made)
It's also a problem because women then become defined by their domestic position, as mother, housewife etc.
Key thinker: Gaye Tuchman
Women become objects for the 'male gaze', reduced to a few 'sum parts'
Objects don't have agency, they can't DO things
OR, when women were given 'regular' speaking roles, they're usually white, usually slim, almost ALWAYS able-bodied, usually educated (read: not working class)
So, what about men then?
Men have a different history of oppression, in that (white, wealthy) men have been represented in history
However, it is still worth critically examining the ways in which men have been, and are, represented within popular culture because masculinities have their own hierarchies of power
Key themes in the representation of men:
Hegemonic Masculinity
Hypermasculinity as overcompensation
Display of 'macho' masculinity reveals anxiety about identity
From hard bodies (1980s) to soft bodies (1990s) (Jeffords, 1994)
Masculinity in Hollywood:
Action genre:
- Exercising authority
- Sexualisation of violence
- Toughness, endurance
- Absent women (either at home or object to be abused)
- Homophobia
- Homosocial worlds; buddy movies (see also MacKinnon 2003, 38)
- Emotionless (lack of personal grief) (see also MacKinnon 2003, 40) 
- Whiteness privileged
New Man
Late 1980s & 1990s
- ‘New man’ and consumer culture (Beynon 2002, 13-15)
- Male body: objectified commodity
- Male-on-male gaze
- Masculine sensuality sanctioned (Nixon 1996)
- New man as narcissist (Beynon 2002)
The 'new man' is almost always white
Examination of masculinity and men in relation to popular culture is a relatively underexplored field
Examining masculinity has emerged as a field of academic study in the past 20 years
Popular culture is often linked to the (mis)representation of women
Audiences of popular culture are often thought of as female
Unfortunately this is still largely the case, but there have been some changes....
'Girl Power' and Female Assetiveness
Programmes like Sex and the City and magazines like Cosmopolitan:
Encourage women to be sexually independent
Insist on being treated as equals
Spend THEIR OWN money
But is this really power?
Audience research
Finds that women are highly sophisticated audiences of popular culture and write in their own meanings
Maybe soaps can be feminist?
Politics of representation - Tuchman (1978) and the ‘symbolic annihilation’ of women in the media

Soaps are texts that place women and their concerns at the heart of the narrative (Kuhn, 2008[1984]: 225)

Representing strong female characters and “dealing with issues from a point of view which is sympathetic to women” (Geraghty, 1991: 2)
Audiences and Soaps
“soap opera fanship networks have potential for providing a space for resistive discourse about gender role expectations” (Brown, 1994: xi).
Key thinker: Ien Ang
'Watching Dallas'
Audiences inscribe many and varied meanings
There is a long history of either absent or limited (objectified or in the private sphere) representations of women in popular culture
Representations of men in popular culture have been shifting over time
Feminist analysis highlights the poor representation awarded women, as well as examining the changing representations of men
Feminist research also shows us that audiences of popular culture make new meanings rather than simply accepting the dominant ones
Important to consider intersectionality, whiteness is privileged across genders.
- Hierarchy that rewards men that are presented as heterosexual, (usually) white, strong and physical

- Encourages men to occupy a dominant position in society
Their lives revolve around men and fashion
They are slim, white and wealthy
In the melodrama, audiences can find meanings that they can relate to their everyday lives
"In my real life I know a horror like JR, but he's just an ordinary builder"
1985: 43
It's not about escapism, but instead finding meanings
Gender is (re)constructed in popular culture
Key thinkers: Janice Radway (Reading the Romance, 1984)
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