While the focus for all kinds of feminism is on how and why media representations contribute to female inequality, different approaches produce different forms of explanation.
Liberal feminism generally focuses on how the mass media can be purged of sexist assumptions and representations, such that women in particular are neither stereotyped into a narrow range of roles nor represented in ways that disadvantage them in relation to men. Here, a combination of legal and social changes are the key to changing female representations; strong legal barriers to sexist representations coupled with moral changes in how we view male-female relationships and statuses are the means to ensuring the media represents gender in more-equitable and balanced ways.
Marxist feminism, drawing on its connections to Marxist economic analysis, focuses on the commodification of women under capitalism; the idea female bodies are represented as objects of desire; Gill (2003), for example, argues women are exploited by displays of naked female flesh because it represents them as consumer objects to be bought and sold by men. Commodification is also expressed in terms of how sexist stereotypes are used to sell a variety of consumer goods, from cars to newspapers.
For Gill commodification extends into newer areas, such as the use of female bodies as both ‘walking advertising spaces’ and as a means of making gender statements. She uses the example of T-shirts with the slogan ‘Fit chick unbelievable knockers’ to demonstrate the idea of both ‘sexualised self-presentation’ (women having the freedom to advertise their sexuality) and as an example of how women frequently collude in their own exploitation by representing themselves as one-dimensional sexual objects.
For radical feminists media representations are theorised in terms of objectification; women are represented in demeaning ways that suggest and cement their lower social status and worth compared to men. Media representations are an important dimension of patriarchal control and reflect how female lives and bodies are refracted through a male gaze that sees women as subordinate to men. Their representation through male eyes reflects male preoccupations and desires and reduces women to objects that exist for male gratification and service.
At its most obvious, the male gaze refers to areas such as pornography or the use of female bodies in advertising; less obviously, it refers to how images of women are presented from both the male perspective and for the gratification of a male audience – the viewer becomes a spectator (or voyeur in some cases), who looks, through male eyes, at women reduced to objects: a series of disconnected body parts.
Post-feminism takes a different approach by seeing both men and women represented in terms of traditional stereotypes and ways that challenge, confront and break stereotypical gender barriers – ideas that reflect both the heterogeneity of media and gender in contemporary societies. In this respect post-feminists emphasise the significance of changing social attitudes towards gender and its representation. Where gender categories have become more fragmented, it becomes more difficult to think in terms of “fixed genders” and static forms of representation; where some media feature conventional femininities, others represent women in a range of unconventional ways. However, the crucial argument for post-feminism is the extent to which men and women can seek-out the media that best reflects their self-perception. In other words, the focus here is less on how the mass media represents and determines gender identities and more on how individuals use the media to construct their own representations and sense of self.
Feminist arguments turn on both changes to traditional forms of overtly sexist representation and the meaning of these changes. Gill, for example, argues contemporary representations, while no-longer simply depicting women as ‘passive objects’ of the male gaze, are not ‘liberating’ but merely a more exploitative form of what Bordo (1993) calls a ‘new disciplinary regime’. Although media representations offer the ‘promise of power’ by suggesting women can choose whether or not to become ‘sex objects’, this promise is illusory since all forms of objectification are demeaning to women. Gauntlett (2002), however, argues the media can be a force for change rather than repression, with the gradual disappearance of traditional representations of women as housewives and sex-objects.
Greater media-literacy means audiences understand representations in an active way, rather than merely assume media messages are received uncritically and acted on mechanically. Gauntlett, for example, argues teenagers are able and willing to think critically and reflectively about the media they consume – to construct a variety of self-representations rather than to simply be passively constructed in the media’s image.