Media and Collective Identity: Representation of Young Women Exemplar

Rob Miller | Tuesday September 02, 2014

Categories: A LevelAQA A LevelAQA A2OCR A LevelOCR A2AdminStaffroomExemplar MaterialsCollective IdentityRepresentation of WomenRepresentation of YouthKey Concepts,Representation & StereotypingHot Entries

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How far does the representation of a social group change over time?

It is important to remember exactly this – that representations change. This essay explores the representation of young women in the media and discusses notions of identity. In 2014, audiences could and should expect to see distinct moves away from old fashioned, traditionalpatriarchal culture and the embracing of a much more pluralistic understanding of gender representation but as David Gauntlett states: “identity is complicated, everyone’s got one”. Young women are sometimes empowered but often subject to stereotyping which I hope to illustrate using two primary media – Television and in Women’s Lifestyle Magazines but also cross referencing my points with other media.

Gender representation is affected by genre, cultural factors and in terms of media representations on audience and up to a point, audience expectations. Media producersencode dominant preferred meanings into texts but mainstream audiences that consume or decode mass media arguably have as much responsibility in terms of the representation of how women are represented – this means that meaning is put in but also taken out whether on television, looking at gender in advertising, sports journalism, gender in situation comedy, video games and one of my case studies, Women’s Lifestyle Magazines for example. Both producers and audiences dictate representations but using Stuart Hall as a framework, audiences also decode dominant and oppositional readings – in Hollyoaks, a long running British soap opera broadcast on E4 the programme is known for its sexualised narratives and young male and female characters who are framed for the female and male gaze; women are obsessed with their interpersonal relationships are seen to be so.Hollyoaks reflects an evolution in the soap opera genre to deliberately attract, and maintain young audiences through upbeat, hyper real stereotypical narratives, character and character representation – as such it is no surprise that it is broadcast on the youth channel E4.

Although the programme takes a contemporary approach focussing on 16-19 year olds, young women are still often victim to cultural stereotyping but not as much as the female victim narrative that is written into soap operas like Eastenders. Cindy Cunningham for example, was brought into the series in 1995 as the sexualised ‘vixen’ type character while Carmel Celine Marguerite Valentine is represented to this day as the classic ‘dumb blonde’ stereotype that historically audiences identify with and is one level an outmoded representation, unless you watch Made in Chelsea or ‘Towie’. Unusually for Hollyoaks, seen on one level as more progressive than other soap operas in terms of female representations Cindy’s dumb blonde status is punished by the scriptwriters, and for purposes of voyeuristic entertainment. Not satisfied with a storyline that involves a fake tan machine exploding in her face, her husband is killed off and she, over the duration of the soap evidences a range of hyper real storylines including attempted suicide, training to be a nun but falling for and kissing a priest, being arrested for assault and kissing more men on screen than potentially any character in any UK soap.

Hollyoaks uses narrative binary oppositions to determine character and in particular, the stereotype of the ‘good girl’ and the ‘bad girl’ – in an episode broadcast on 15th August, 2014, Nico searches for her father and is set apart and marginalised from the other characters as she was brought up in a care home, is an outsider and has no roots that can be traced. In comparison, Sandy is the classic matriarch played by Gillian Taylforth. As a mother to five sons however, she is seen to be reinforcing a patriarchal construct and this is anchored by her marriage to gangster Fraser Black. Here, Taylforth’s secondary persona is brought into play and narrative arcs are made (in terms of cultural capital) with her prior role in Eastenders married to east end gangster Phil Mitchell. Sandy takes female representation into a hegemonic, more historical framework by providing a recognisable stereotype audiences can identify with. Lindsay Butterfield on one level is a more pluralisticrepresentation of a young woman who is training to be s Doctor but who eventually subsumes to the sexualised, fertile stereotype and falls pregnant by one of Sandy’s sons, Joe Roscoe who has the classic ‘bad boy’ reputation and who once stood trial for murder. On this level Hollyoaks attempts to push boundaries but always ‘places’ gender back into a recognisable stereotype – Sandy, his mother and Lindsay rush to see Joe in hospital, offering him both maternal and sexual protection after being beaten up. Women in Hollyoaks are undoubtedly subservient to the men who are seen as reinforcing a traditional patriarchal construct. Even the title sequences reference men as the significant other as women are framed in provocative poses, heavy with make up, blowing kisses and often in close up.

The mise-en-scene is crucial to maintaining gender representation with sexualised clothing deliberately framing characters like Mercedes as sirens or critically, ‘slappers’ who make a point of sleeping around. It could be argued representation in Hollyoaks does nothing to promote young women positively as a social group and instead, reinforces cultural stereotypes of drinking, smoking and being sexually promiscuous – relationships and affairs with married men are so common in Hollyoaks’ narratives that it is almost normalised, in the same way Geordie Shore and Towie represent young women who are only interested in one thing, previously identified interpersonal relationships. The consequences of multiple relationships are evident for young women in Hollyoaks with pregnancy, and in particular teenage pregnancy a common occurrence (not theme as the programme only explores and exploits the narrative for voyeuristic and entertainment values). Fidelity is seen as rare inHollyoaks and is often disrupted by Todorovian narratives which end up in a form of resolution but always a new equilibrium. In the same way that tabloid broadcast news frequently runs news items about the moral panic of teenage pregnancies and statistics suggesting young women are a social group in which excessive drinking and smoking is on the increase, Hollyoaks does nothing to assuage this situation.

Genre conventions also dictate how social groups are represented with soaps tending to reinforce more traditional hegemonic stereotypes with television drama providing morepluralistic gender frameworks. In The Tunnel for example, French Detective Elise Wasserman drives around in a Porsche picking up men for casual sex thus subverting the gender stereotype and suggesting an almost post feminist status using Angela McRobbie’s framework borrowed from academic analysis of Women’s Lifestyle Magazines. Catherine Willows and Julie Finlay in CSI have a similar representation in that they are empowered, active but also sexualised for Mulvey’s still relevant male gaze theoryalthough ultimately they are beholding to DB Russell, the male patriarch (up to point) and night shift supervisor. Other crime dramas suggest again a more progressive representation with young women in positions of complete responsibility, pioneered by Prime Suspect in the 1990s. ITV’s Scott and Bailey is a prime example with both female characters not just challenging patriarchal dominance, but challenging the whole buddy cop genre template.

American female characters in television drama are often more progressive in terms of their representation but invariably also good looking and while both aspirational to female audiences, still sexually interesting for men. Times have changed however – while Cagney and Lacey in the 1980s on the surface had two strong, female Police Detectives they were also frequently seen in the washroom together (a cultural stereotype) with their domesticity, particular Mary Beth Cagney’s foregrounded. Now, actresses like Lucy Lui confidently take on the role of male characters in programmes like Elementary as ‘assistant’ to Holmes playing Dr Joan Watson. Her knowledge and intelligence is pivotal to solving the crime but again, as well know actress Lucy Lui she is often subject of the male gaze in the same way that ace pilot Melinda May is in Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – up to a point both, using Dyer’s framework are still legitimising the dominance of patriarchy. Two female characters in television drama who have resisted this sexualised stereotype and at the same time been pivotal to the narrative are Ellie Miller in Broadchurch and Sarah Linden in The Killing. Linden is stripped of make up and any dress code that would identify her as belonging to this stereotype. Her hair is scraped back, she is cold, moody and dangerous and also enigmatic which potentially is a ground-breaking representation for American television drama. Linden’s stern looks and fierce reputation is well respected while Ellie Miller’s role in Broadchurch is just as powerful but an entirely different representation – she is known to the locals and frequently during the show shows stereotypical emotions but controls DI Alec Hardy and is of fundamental importance to solving Danny’s murder. Her role is so important that it eclipses the role of Hardy played by David Tennant who was originally seen as being the central character as a result of his star marketing.

Young Women’s Lifestyle Magazines have been published for over 100 years – according to ABC figures, the readership and circulation of this media artefact has fallen but maintained a circulation strong enough to attract advertising revenue and maintain some form of market growth e.g. Grazia and Glamour are market leaders. There are enough audiences out there who enjoy the representations contained within the covers of this historical media form but they are split into a range of sub genres. A hybrid variant of gossip magazines have also borrowed from similar genre conventions and targeting younger women including Chat,RevealBellaTake a Break and Heat with the Weeklies and the Gossip magazines most criticised by Janice Winship and Marjorie Ferguson for reinforcing out-dated, hegemonic representations that fail to reference a more progressive, pluralistic society.

Most of the high production value, glossy monthlies like Grazia will run with a young stereotypically good looking, aspirational model on the front cover framed centrally in medium shotConsumerist ideology drives the ‘what women want’ narrative. The ‘how to look good for your man’ narratives are still apparent but not as fore-grounded as they used to be with career and career progression often seen as equally important. A direct mode of address anchors the representations and notions of inclusivity market to some audiences who feel they are aspiring towards a collective identity. The hegemonic notion of beauty is something the target audience share and understand – front covers and images are oftenpluralistic on the surface referencing the modern ambitious woman but also can be construed as voyeuristic in terms of female and male gaze.

Closer targets a young demographic but from a more working class background – narratives in the magazine reveal a stereotypically gendered fixation with celebrity which does not suggest a progressive representation while advertising copy and articles focus on other gendered obsessions including weight loss, fashion, make-up but also positioning young women in a domestic, family based environment. Celebrities like the Kardashians and Jordan often appear in the magazine pregnant or discussing motherhood and relationships instead of referencing their professional careers and using Goffman’s notion of ‘performance’, exist as a commodity for the reader. Audiences buy into the escapism and diversion these texts can offer with potentially the danger of passively buying into the aspirational cultural stereotypes represented. Restricted language code, a direct, personal mode of address and also challenging the audience to feel inadequate reinforce this possible reading. Along with RevealNowTake a Break and to a lesser extent Heat the sub genre of gossip magazines identified earlier provide a more traditional framework for representing gender with arguably the women’s lifestyle magazine responding more to changing female representation in the early part of the 21st century.

Across a range of media and a range of platforms representation of young women is a rich source of textual analysis - most representations of young women conform to some form of stereotype and are exaggerated or hyper real. The ideological reading of this form of stereotyping referencing Strauss’ binary oppositions is to subordinate certain social groups and in the case of the representation of femininity, underpin patriarchy. This can be seen from repeated female victim narratives in Eastenders as identified earlier to killing prostitutes in GTA V. Tessa Perkins would argue stereotypes use elements of truth but this can still lead to marginalisation where young women are seen to ‘fit in’ to a look or image which is rarely challenged. Many modern texts still promote traditional gender representations that hail a specific audience – the www.welovepopmag.co.uk home page offers a pink, orange and red colour palette targeting a young, female teenage target audience who are stereotypically into Pop Music, love Justin Bieber and play The Sims 3 but arguably www.zoella.co.uk suggests more empowering, pluralistic representations. Judith Butler once stated, “There is no original or primary gender a drag imitates, but gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original”.