Media and the Construction of Reality

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    Jan 07, 2013
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The term ``media`` may include any communication system by which people are informed, educated or entertained. The media have evolved from simple methods of production, distribution and communication to their present sophisticated technologies. Their growth and variety have greatly improved information dispersal, news ability and entertainment opportunities. Their influence is very powerful and people from all over the world obtain their daily news from the media. But the media provoke debates about what is socially and morally permissible in their content and methods. The question of media`s role, influence and power is controversial and debatable. Critics argue that the media have become too powerful and influential and that their freedom should be limited. The media are accused of distorted journalism, partiality, invasion of privacy, manipulating events, irresponsibility and of actively trying to shape public opinion by setting particular agenda.

The media have the supremacy to influence millions of people through innumerable formats.  They are present everywhere in our daily lives. Sometimes we make the judgments about places, events or people that are based on our own direct impressions. However, for most of the knowledge, we rely on the media. In fact, the media show the world to us. But, the media show only some aspects of the world, deliberately ignoring the rest. The media choose what can be shown and what must be discarded. Today, the media are so powerful that they can make or break images of groups of people or an image of a person. Public recognition is not available for a lot of individuals and groups because of the media. The media have their widely recognized power to demonstrate and praise ``socially acceptable`` individuals or  groups of people. On the other hand, they are allowed to ridicule or ignore many persons without any reason. The media are very influential during the process of acquiring public approval.  Media texts do not describe ``reality``. On the contrary, they create dominant definitions which seem to be unavoidable, undeniable and sensible. Because of that, media images hide the goals of powerful groups in every society. A primary way in which the media distort reality is in underrepresentation of women.

During the last century, media stereotyping of men and women was obvious. Males were traditionally expected to show aggressiveness and toughness, and females were expected to be passive and nurturing. Women were seen as homemakers and men were seen as professional, successful and independent. Men and women were expected to live by guidelines consisting of media generated ideas and ways of living life. From the moment they were born and wrapped in a pink or blue blanket, they were constantly bombarded with the socialization into their gender by many sources. One of the main sources is the media. To understand gender, it is necessary to understand the distinction between sex and gender. Many authors point out that ``sex is culturally constructed biological characteristics and gender is an ongoing cultural process that constructs differences between women and men``. (Creedon, 1994:3).  Gender lines are drawn very early, and exclusions for women continue throughout adulthood.

In our modern society, the media still create and reinforce gender stereotypes which reflect on everyone`s life.  For example, the British music press prefers to focus on male bands, following the same old secure and reliable paths to success. The music press belittles female musicians and writes mostly about their looks. A number of music magazines which are devoted only to female artists have been created recently. But these magazines have an inclination to focus on little-known alternative artists and they have small distribution. That`s why they are no menace to male domination in British music press. The second example can be found in women`s magazines. These magazines use the vision of toughness in order to sell clothes like jeans, leather trousers and leather jackets. But these magazines are not promoting the idea that it is appropriate for women to be tough. On the contrary, they frequently emphasize that women can be tough and tender at the same time.

These magazines show how the media make new images for women, yet preserving traditional roles. The majority of popular women`s magazines still demonstrate honor and respect for femininity. They downgrade toughness because it threatens the basis upon which they are created. Magazines play a key role in promoting pleasing others as a primary focus of women`s lives. They emphasize pleasing others, especially men, as central to being a woman, and the message is fortified with thinly veiled warning that if a woman fails to look good and please, her man might leave.  Another instance is a degrading image of lesbians in soap operas and movies. They are not described as sensual or amorous and any kind of physical contact with their partner is either excluded or shown in a very shy way. Unlike heterosexuals, they are not irritated, they do not request help and they constantly support others. Their faces often have a sad expression, which suggests that their sexuality has brought about many problems and that they have to suffer the consequences.

This suggests that sex-appropriate behavior is rewarded, learnt and retained, but sex-inappropriate behaviors are punished. One more illustration of gender stereotyping can be found in advertising that became an unavoidable part of our lives. The media use its power in advertising and portray images that will reflect on everyone`s life at some point. We can see a picture of an attractive woman who is standing in ``sexy`` position, and who, the advertisers say, has lost a lot of weight.  These body images can contribute to wide range of eating disorders. Advertisements also suggest that women have to make more of an effort to look more attractive for men. They reinforce this by taking pictures of women who are slim and good-looking to sell products. So, in a way women are used as objects to help businesses` finance. Advertisements exploit women`s sexuality as well. Women often appear lustful and shameless in ads. In some advertisements, they appear passive and childish. Such ads are sending a message that such characteristics are attractive for men.

On the other hand, men receive the message and think that such qualities are desirable in women.  Advertisements often portray very young and beautiful women. That can result in ageism, especially among women, who may think that images of unavailable youth are ideals to aim for. Advertisers saw that women`s opinions have changed radically. That`s why they occasionally allow women to be heroines in some ads. But many authors point out that allowing women rare triumphs ``may have begun to blur gender differences, but reversing femininity value as a malleable sign is not readily accomplished``. (Carter and Steiner, 2004: 65). Generally speaking, advertisers support the media and they exert powerful influence on what is presented.

Media images of women as sex objects, devoted homemakers and mothers create and expand markets for a wide range of products. To live up to these images, women have to buy cosmetics and other personal care products, diet aids, food, household cleaners, utensils and appliances, clothes and toys for children, and so on. While the majority of media communication may not be pornographic, it does echo in somewhat muted forms the predominant themes of pornography: sex, violence, and male domination of women.   Perhaps the most obvious examples of portrayals of women as sex objects and men as sexual aggressors occur in music videos as shown on MTV and many other stations.

Typically, females are shown dancing provocatively and revealing clothes as they try to gain men`s attention. Frequently, men are seen coercing women into sexual activities or physically abusing them. These media images carry to extremes long-standing cultural views of masculinity as aggressive and femininity as passive. Advertising in magazines also communicates the message that women are sexual objects. While men are seldom pictured nude or even partially unclothed, women habitually are. The media have also created two images of women: good women and bad ones. Good women are pretty, amiable, and focused on home, family and caring for others. Bad women are hard, cold, aggressive, sure of themselves and strong. The media bias in favor of women who are traditionally feminine, and who are not too able, too powerful, or too confident.

The rule seems to be that a woman may be strong and successful if she also exemplifies traditional stereotypes of femininity (beauty, passivity and an identity linked to one or more men).  Another permanent theme in the media is that women are caregivers and men are providers. When the media portray women who work outside of the home, their career lives typically receive little or no attention. Although these characters have titles such as lawyers or doctors, they are shown predominantly in their roles as homemakers, mothers and wives. We see them involved in carrying conversation and doing things for others, all of which never seem to conflict with their professional responsibilities.

This has the potential to cultivate unrealistic expectations of being ``superwoman`` who does it all without her getting a hair out of place or being late to a conference. On the other hand, males are seldom shown doing housework or caring for others. This perpetuates a negative stereotype of men as uncaring and uninvolved in family life. The requirements of youth and beauty in women even influence news shows, where female newscasters are expected to be younger, more physically attractive and less outspoken than males. Girls and women are dramatically underrepresented in prime-time television. Besides, the lack of women in the media is paralleled by the scarcity of women in charge of the media. If more women had positions of authority at executive levels, the media would offer more positive portrayals of women. 

But nowadays, the media still indicate that women`s role is at home and that men`s role is outside it. These roles are reinforced by the media. They emphasize men`s independent activities and, in fact, define news almost entirely as stories about and by men. Stories about men focus on work and on their achievements. Meanwhile,  few stories about women almost invariably focus on their roles as wives, mothers and homemakers. Even stories about women who are in the news because of their achievements and professional activities typically dwell on marriage, family life and other aspects of women`s traditional role.  

 Fortunately, the media are changing slowly and gradually. Advocates of women`s rights also pursued their goals through the media. For instance, daytime talk shows invite ordinary, working-class women to be their guests and to speak about their problems. Contemporary soap operas have images and plots that are adequately open and adequately connected with women`s interests and they can help creating symbols of defiance. They can also find new ways of reconsidering the public role representations of women and men as well. The masculinity has changed a lot too.  There is no longer any definite general agreement as to what a new man represents. Nevertheless, it is obvious that a new man differs a lot from his father. The media have influenced young men, their beliefs, attitudes, and the values they have on themselves and others. Nowadays, we have a dominant belief that women are becoming more superior and that men are going through a crisis of masculinity. However many experts emphasize that:

Countless numbers of men still act dominant and ``hard``, deny their emotions, resort to violence as a means of self-expression, and seek to validate their masculinity in the public world of work rather than the private world of family and relationships. Moreover, such performances not only often go uncriticised, they are in fact lauded by many, both women and other men. (Carter and Steiner, 2004: 29).

The media are able to exert pressure on both women and men to act in a certain way, conforming to particular stereotypes.  On the other hand, the media can also play an important role in bringing to international attention the groups of women who are severely degraded. For instance, the media supported public involvement of helping Afghani women`s groups. People all over the world tried to contribute to changes of social status of Afghani women.  It is evident that the media still create gender stereotypes. Maybe gender discrimination will never go away. However, it is not as severe as it once was and it is reducing at a slow rate. Women are still seen in society as emotionally, physically and mentally weaker than men. But, communication initiatives aimed at changing attitudes and behaviors have increasingly been used since the 1970s.

Such initiatives – including television and radio shows, theatre, informational sessions, pamphlets and magazine – promote the healthy development of women`s social, emotional and physical well-being. Everyone in the media must lead efforts to promote balanced and positive images of women. People must work towards re-shaping global media landscape, so that it describes genuine women`s identities, values and aspirations. For example, the content of women`s programmes on radio, television or newspaper articles should project various roles of women. Concentrating on women must not be limited to women`s programmes. Women`s problems have to become essential part of all programmes shown on TV. Women should be presented in positive roles in media to create changes of women`s images.

Women in media should try to prevent women`s images as the inferior sex. Women studies centres have to supervise the mass media images of women. Various campaigns against outrageous behavior towards women must be organized all over the world. Efforts should be made to include the message of equality with general programmes aimed at mixed audiences. Women must be portrayed natural, realistic and emancipated in the advertisements. Advertising code should be followed strictly. There should be more movies about women`s issues and problems. All things considered, media representation of women is changing gradually. Group educational activities also have the potential to contribute to changes in attitudes on gender relations. The involvement in projects of key community leaders such as teachers, cultural custodians and government officials is also important for greater impact and sustainable change.


  1. Carter, Cynthia and Steiner, Linda. (2004). Critical Readings: Media and Gender. Maidenhead: Open University Press.  
  2. Creedon, Pamela. (1994). Women, Media and Sport. California: Sage Publication. Ltd

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