In Feminist Perspectives on the Media, author Liesbet van Zoonen discusses three general trends of feminism: liberal, radical, and socialist – and how the increasingly blurred lines between activism and academic critique are jeopardizing the relevance of feminist media studies.
Liberal feminism attributes “irrational prejudice and stereotypes about the supposedly natural role of women as wives and mothers” (27), to women’s unequal place in society. The solution offered by liberal feminists is that women should enter male-dominated fields and acquire power, and media can support the shift by minimizing, if not eliminating, sexist language and portraying men and women in more non-traditional roles. This, “we can do it all” mentality has resulted in the Superwoman stereotype, which of course, few, if any, women can achieve and sustain.
Radical feminism credits the subordinate position of women to patriarchy, “men’s innately wicked inclination to dominate women” (28). The radical perspective on media is that it will
operate to the benefit of patriarchy because mass media is owned and produced by men. This ideology is problematic as well because hierarchy, regardless of sex or gender, is human nature. “Power differences, difference of opinion and interests appear to exist among women also, and are not a male preserve” (28).
Socialist feminism differentiates from both radical and liberal currents in that it does not only consider gender, but class and economic conditions as well to account for women’s position in society. The overall concern is the way media portrays women and femininity, and how gender roles and stereotypes are perpetuated.
Although there are flaws and contradictions in each feminist theory, they all share an important and fundamental perspective that media are the, “main instruments in conveying respectively stereotypical, patriarchal and hegemonic values about women and femininity. They serve as mechanisms of social control” (31).
Rosalind Gill adds to the discussion her critique on postfeminism, in the article Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility. Gill tells us that a crucial element of postfeminism is the shift from unassuming sexual object, to active participant. “It represents a shift in the way that power operates: from an external, male judging gaze to a self-policing, narcissistic gaze. It can be argued that this represents a higher or deeper form of exploitation than objectification – one in which the objectifying male gaze is internalized to form a new disciplinary regime” (139).
“The sexually liberated modern woman turns out to resemble – what do you know! – the pneumatic, take-me-now-big-boy f**k-puppet of male fantasy after all.” – Janice Turner
The media targets young girls, baiting them with provocative clothing such as super-short shorts and cropped tops; branding notebooks, backpacks and clothing with the Playboy bunny symbol encourages girls to grow up quickly and socializes them into putting an unrealistic and age-inappropriate value on their bodies and appearance. However adult women are subjected to ‘girlification’ which promotes young girls as the desirable sexual icons. It’s one big mind game, and women are not in a position to win.
Gill also addresses the postfeminist sensibilities of individualism and ‘pleasing oneself’ that has become prominent in Western media culture. She gives the examples of the increase of women choosing to wax off their pubic hair (Brazilian wax) to, “reinstate a prepubescent version of their genitalia” and the surge in young women, even teenagers, getting breast augmentation; all in the name of using beauty as a tool to make them ‘feel good’ – but are we not right back to the girlification, fuck-puppets and internalized male gaze? “The body is presented simultaneously as women’s source of power and as always unruly, requiring constant monitoring, surveillance, discipline and remodeling (and consumer spending) in order to conform to ever-narrower judgments of female attractiveness. Indeed, surveillance of women’s bodies constitutes perhaps the largest type of media content across al genres and media forms. Women’s bodies are evaluated, scrutinized and dissected by women as well as men, and are always at risk of ‘failing’” (137).
“Scant attention is paid to the pressures that might lead a teenager to decide that major surgery will solve her problems, and even less to the commercial interests that are underpinning this staggering trend” – Rosalind Gill