Cover Page

Gender and the Media

Rosalind Gill



This book has taken hundreds of years to write. Well, perhaps I exaggerate a tad, but it has certainly taken much longer than it should have done. In the manner of many first books it has been through drafts and re-drafts and radical rewritings in the pursuit of some illusory (or certainly elusive) perfection. Now that I’ve finished the final, imperfect version two feelings dominate: first there is puzzlement – is that it? Why on earth did it take me so long?; and secondly there is relief – relief that finally I will be able to respond to all those friendly and kindly meant inquiries about how the book is going with a conclusive ‘it’s done’. In short, I’ll be able to go to parties again!

One of the consequences of taking so long to write a book is that the acknowledgements page reads a bit like a list of ‘everyone who knows me’. First, I would like to thank all the people who have assisted me directly with research for this book – whether tracking down adverts, searching for newspaper articles, or sharing ideas about chick lit or lad mags. Special thanks to Elena Herdieckerhoff, Kamy Naficy, Karin Heisecke, Jennie Middleton, Rachel Lille, Samantha Reay, Jessica Pring Ellis, Matt Torney, Deborah Finding, Naureen Khan and Danielle Bikhazi for their invaluable contributions, both practical and intellectual.

Several people read all or parts of the manuscript in draft form and I would like to express my gratitude for their incisive and insightful comments. Special appreciation to the wonderful women in my writing group (Rachel Falmagne, Lesley Hoggart, Ann Phoenix, Bruna Seu and Merl Storr) who not only made constructive criticism such a positive experience, but also offered a different vision of academic labour and a pleasurable intellectual ‘home’ in the cafes and bars of Bloomsbury. Angela McRobbie read and commented on the entire manuscript and I’m grateful for her feedback and encouragement, as well as the example of her own work which I have found consistently thoughtful and inspiring. Sylvia Chant’s sheer energy and joie de vivre has made her a pleasure to know and I’m grateful for her unstinting enthusiasm for this project, and for fitting in comments on chapters while flying between Costa Rica, Mexico, Gambia and the Philippines.

Thanks also to Sadie Wearing, Dee Amy-Chinn, Christina Scharff, Paul Stenner and Dimitris Papadopoulos for helpful comments on sections of this book.

In addition to those generous people who have read and commented on parts of the book, my acknowledgements would not be complete without an expression of gratitude to a number of other people who have helped, supported and inspired me in my academic career so far. Despite its insularity, intellectual work is always a collective project and it would be impossible to thank everyone who has sparked new ideas or provoked me to think differently. But I would like to mention the following people for particular appreciation: Michael Billig, Margaret Wetherell, Stuart Hall, Jonathan Potter, Steve Woolgar and Valerie Walkerdine. Thank you.

The LSE has been a stimulating environment in which to work, and I have benefited from its excellent library, as well as from the many outstanding international scholars who provide a feast of lectures and seminars every day of the week. I’m grateful to the exceptionally interesting and talented students who have taken my Masters course in Gender and Media – many of them media practitioners themselves, and all of them set to make a positive difference in the world. I’ve been fortunate to have wonderful colleagues in the LSE’s Gender Institute, and in the Sociology department at Goldsmiths where I worked previously. I would like to highlight Clare Hemmings, Diane Perrons, Karen Throsby, Elisabeth Kelan and Caroline Ramozonoglu for intellectual nourishment and supportive collegiality.

Polity Press has been fabulous, and I would like to thank Gill Motley and Andrea Drugan for being a real pleasure to work with, and for good-humouredly tolerating more delays than a British train service, as I went for the unofficial award of ‘most postponed manuscript in the history of academic publishing’. Thanks also, Andrea, for embracing the ‘crazy’ fridge idea – instead of having me committed!

Two other people deserve special mention for their absolutely crucial but invisible contributions to this project. Gabrielle Bikhazi’s consistently wonderful, loving care for Katarina over the past three years has freed up many of the hours I’ve spent working on this book. Gaby – you are a very special person and I hope you know how appreciated you are. The other ‘behind the scenes’ support has come from Hazel Johnstone, departmental manager of the Gender Institute and organizer-extraordinaire. Thank you, Hazel, for help and kindnesses that are literally too numerous to mention.

Finally, I would like to thank my dear friends, my adopted ‘family’ in London (and Nottingham). To Andy Pratt, Bruna Seu, Wilma Mangabeira, Paulo Wrobel, Ann Phoenix, Chris Phipps, Sylvia Chant and Veronica Forwood: thank you for everything – your love of life, generosity of spirit, sense of humour, for being there during all the bad times as well as the good, and for all the wonderful conversations, delicious food and red wine we have shared – and will, I hope, continue to share.

This book is dedicated to my mother, Janet Gill, and to the memory of my father, Michael Gill. Their love, care, humanity and passion for social justice has been a shining light throughout my life. It is also dedicated to Thomas and Katarina, with love.


THIS is a book about the representation of gender in the media in contemporary Western societies. It is written against the backdrop of phenomenally rapid change: changes in gender relations; transformations in media technologies, regulatory frameworks, content, ownership and control, and globalization; and theoretical ‘revolutions’ in the approaches used to make sense of gender representations. Gender and the Media aims to freeze the frame, press the pause button, or hit the refresh key to explore how the media today construct femininity, masculinity and gender relations, and to think about the kinds of theoretical concepts and cultural politics that might be needed to engage with these changes.

The book is born out of an interest in the extraordinary contradictoriness of constructions of gender in today’s media: confident expressions of ‘girl power’ sit alongside reports of ‘epidemic’ levels of anorexia and body dysmorphia; graphic tabloid reports of rape are placed cheek by jowl with adverts for lap-dancing clubs and telephone sex lines; lad magazines declare the ‘sex war’ over, while reinstating beauty contests and championing new, ironic modes of sexism; and there are regular moral panics about the impact on men of the new, idealized male body imagery, while the re-sexualization of women’s bodies in public space goes virtually unremarked upon. Everywhere, it seems, feminist ideas have become a kind of common sense, yet feminism has never been more bitterly repudiated.

Some commentators see in this evidence of a powerful backlash against feminism (Faludi 1992). Germaine Greer (1999), for instance, argues that today’s popular culture is significantly less feminist than that of thirty years ago, and Imelda Whelehan suggests that we have entered an era of ‘retro-sexism’ in which representations of women, ‘from the banal to the downright offensive’ are being ‘defensively reinvented against cultural changes in women’s lives’ (2000: 11). By contrast, others regard the media as increasingly influenced by feminism, or, indeed, as becoming feminist. David Gauntlett argues ‘the traditional view of a woman as a housewife or low status worker has been kick-boxed out of the picture by the feisty, successful “girl power” icons’ (2002: 247). The media, he argues, offer popular feminism which is like ‘a radio-friendly remix of a multilayered song, with the most exciting bits sampled and some of the dense stuff left out’ (2002: 252). Meanwhile, Angela McRobbie points to the ‘enormous energy in the way in which sexual politics now bursts across our television screens … From Newsnight to Oprah … [F]emale independence has entered into contemporary common sense’ (1999: 126).

It seems to me that both these arguments are true. On the one hand feminist ideas are increasingly taken for granted across a range of media and genres, vibrant girlzines spring up all over the world, and the Web is home to an enormous diversity of feminist ideas ranging from support over breast cancer to ‘babes against the bomb’. But on the other, boring and predictable patterns of sexism persist – such as the continued invisibility of older women on television, or the depressingly narrow range of depictions of black women – and newer representational practices are often far from hopeful – for example, the rise of ‘porno chic’, the growth of unabashed ‘laddism’, and the vitriolic attacks in press and magazines on women who fail to live up to increasingly narrow normative requirements of feminine appearance. It is precisely the contradictoriness of contemporary representations of gender in the media that makes the field so difficult and challenging.

Added to this picture of paradox and complexity, there is another issue: like the media, gender relations and feminist ideas are themselves changing and in flux. There is no stable, unchanging feminist perspective from which to make a cool appraisal of contemporary gender in the media. Rather, feminist ideas are constantly transforming in response to different critiques, to new or previously excluded constituencies, to younger generations, to new theoretical ideas, and to the experience of various kinds of struggle. There is no single feminism, but instead many, diverse feminisms. If media representations of gender have changed, then so too have the feminist ideas used to understand and critique them. And, likewise, gender relations are constantly changing. Indeed, we are often told that Western democracies are experiencing nothing short of a ‘genderquake’, so profound are the current transformations.

Gender and the Media is an attempt to make sense of this picture of flux and transformation. The book has three main aims. First, it seeks to provide an analysis of the contemporary representations of gender in the media in Western societies, in all their messy contradictoriness. Its particular focus is upon how media constructions of gender have changed in recent years in response to feminist critiques and wider social transformations, and, to that end, it looks in detail at five types of media where different kinds of change can be seen very clearly: news, advertising, talk shows, magazines and contemporary screen and paperback romances. In relation to each it is concerned not only with the representation of women, but also with constructions of masculinity, and how contemporary gender relations are depicted. How should we make sense of the increasing presence of eroticized images of the male body across the media landscape? What are we to make of the shift from discourses of romance to those of sex and celebrity in young women’s magazines? Are talk shows like Oprah and Ricki redrawing the boundaries between the public and the private? What impact, if any, has the increasing number of female journalists had on ‘news’? What kinds of constructions of heterosexual relationships are to be found in ‘chick lit’ and ‘lad lit’ and how different are these from traditional romances? These are just some of the questions asked.

Secondly, this book is concerned with the theoretical tools available for analysing media representations. It aims to interrogate some of the key terms that have been used to study gender in media texts, since scholars and activists first engaged with media representations of gender. Gender and the Media both acknowledges its debt to the vibrant and heterogeneous feminist media scholarship since the 1970s, and also seeks to question the relevance of some central concepts to critique in today’s mediated world. For example, how useful is the notion of ‘objectification’ in a mediascape in which far from being presented as passive objects women are increasingly depicted as active, desiring sexual subjects? What does it mean to talk about the ‘feminization’ of an area (e.g. news)? Are the notions of ‘backlash’, ‘retro-sexism’ and ‘postfeminism’ helpful for making sense of contemporary media representations? How should the pervasive irony and playfulness of today’s media be understood?

Thirdly, Gender and the Media is interested in cultural politics. It seeks to raise questions about what forms of political or cultural intervention are appropriate and effective to challenge particular constructions of gender, in a postmodern age in which critiques are routinely reflexively incorporated into media products and in which much sexism comes in an ironic guise which rebuffs easy protest: ‘that is not a sexist image’, we are told, ‘it is a hilarious, knowing send-up of an old-fashioned “dumb blonde” stereotypes’! Whilst an earlier generation of feminist media activists put stickers or daubed graffiti on advertising images deemed to insult or trivialize women, today, as often as not, advertisers already orientate to potential critique within the adverts themselves – whether from feminists or simply from media-savvy and ‘sign fatigued’ consumers, weary of the relentless bombardment by consumer images. How, in this context, might people concerned or angry about media representations of men or women, lesbians or gays, mount an effective political critique? What kind of feminist cultural politics is appropriate for the new media age? I cannot claim exhaustively to answer these questions here, but by providing an analysis of contemporary media representations and pointing to some of the new ways in which gender is figured I hope to draw attention to the ways in which older critical languages may fail to engage with gender in the media today, and to point to spaces where a new cultural politics might be developed.

These three themes – constructions of gender, the theoretical tools for analysing gender in the media, and feminist cultural politics – are what animate this book. Above all, the book deals with what is new and distinctive about representations of gender today compared with earlier eras, what concepts are needed for making sense of this, and what kinds of cultural intervention might constitute effective engagements in the contemporary media landscape.

The book opens with a review of the central themes and concerns of research about gender and the media. Chapter 1 charts different theoretical and political investments in feminist studies of media texts, and examines the turn to audience studies. Although this book is limited to examining constructions of gender in the media, and does not report on audience research, the notion that texts are polysemic and can be interpreted in multiple ways is central to the analyses presented here. The implications of the shift away from textual determinism or hypodermic conceptions of meaning cannot be overestimated. The chapter also discusses how feminist perspectives have changed as a consequence of critiques by black and Third World women, and the impact of post-structuralism and postmodernism. The final part of the chapter considers some of the central debates about the representation of gender in the media.

The second chapter is more methodological in focus and examines the key approaches that have been used to analyse gender in media texts, for example content analysis, semiotics and discourse analysis, discussing their strengths and weaknesses. It also introduces ideas from postmodernism, postcolonial studies and queer theory, as they have been used in media studies. Together the first two chapters form a foundation for the remainder of the book, which is concerned with looking in detail at five broad areas.

Chapter 3, Advertising and Postfeminism, both reviews earlier studies of gender in advertisements and provides a new analysis of how advertising is changing. Several themes of postfeminist advertising are discussed, including the prevalence of gender reversals and revenge ads, the development of images of empowered, (hetero) sexually active young women, and the growth of ‘queer chic’ in advertising.

Chapter 4 looks at news and gender. Set against the context of journalism’s transformation from a public service to a market-led product, the chapter examines the rise of ‘infotainment’ or ‘newszak’ and considers the gender dimensions of this shift. What makes something newsworthy? How are women represented in the news? Is news being dumbed down? And what is meant by the ‘feminization’ of journalism? A detailed case study of the reporting of sexual violence provides an opportunity for evaluating the continuities as well as changes in news about gender.

Television talk shows are the subject of chapter 5. The chapter distinguishes between audience discussion programmes, the therapeutic genre and ‘trash’ or confrontation talk shows, and considers whether talk shows constitute a new ‘public sphere’ which today eclipses political institutions as a site of significant public debate. Notions of the talk show as the new ‘confessional’ are also discussed and the chapter examines whether talk shows might be empowering for marginalized groups by giving voice to people not usually heard on mainstream TV and allowing the articulation of anti-normative messages.

Chapter 6 focuses on magazines. It describes some of the shifts in recent years in magazines aimed at girls and women, in particular the adoption of a feminist register, the emphasis upon celebrity, and the promotion of the sexualized body as the key site of femininity. It also examines in detail the rise of the ‘lad magazines’ since the mid-1990s and asks how this should be understood – as a response to feminism, a reaction against ‘de-sexualized’ new man scripts or a distinctive new classed and racialized articulation of masculinity.

The last of the substantive chapters considers the genre of romance, which has shown remarkable resilience and staying power in the face of significant social structural shifts and ongoing transformations of intimacy. Focusing on Bridget Jones’s Diary and the rise of ‘chick lit’ the chapter examines constructions of gender, ‘race’ and sexuality and asks in what ways contemporary popular depictions of heterosexual love are different from earlier romances. These texts are interesting because they are structured both by conventional formulas and by an engagement with feminism. Do they offer new versions of heterosexual partnerships? How different are their constructions of femininity and masculinity compared with Harlequin or Mills & Boon novels? Why and in what way have singleness and the body become such preoccupations? The chapter concludes with a discussion of two popular TV shows – Ally McBeal and Sex and the City – to put forward an argument about a new postfeminist sensibility.

This argument is developed in the conclusion, which draws together the strands of the book and attempts to provide an assessment of some of the ways in which the representation of gender in the media is changing – partly in response to feminism. The concluding chapter also returns to questions about cultural politics, and, in the light of the arguments provided in the book, asks what kinds of intervention are needed today to engage with and challenge representations of gender in the media in order to produce gender relations that are more equal, open, generous and hopeful.