In today’s North American culture, to be the ‘other’ is to be non-white, working-class, and non-male. Subtle, built-in preferences for the familiar status quo are nearly invisible to the very people who benefit from them, thereby fueling the cycle of racial, gender, and class discrimination under a veneer of blissful ignorance. One of the most pervasive institutions in American culture is the media, which plays a large role in reflecting and molding popular culture and stereotypes. Whether it is race, gender or class, the media acts as an aggregating agent by creating simplistic categorizations combined with the tendency to ignore certain groups. Another sphere of influence in U.S. culture that overlaps with the media is the institution of sports. While the sports industry as an institution specifically highlights the masculine ideal, race and class differences are also highlighted and manipulated, often with the help of the media.
The institution of the media is inextricably linked to popular culture. It acts as a "transmission of culture" according to Professor Hulbert (lecture March 2004), by molding our stereotypes and controlling how we see reality depicted: "Popular culture abounds with books and magazines that compile idealized depictions of relations between women and men" (West and Zimmerman 1987, 135). With gender alone, the media constantly is displaying the physical and emotional attributes of the ideal man and woman, and the ideal relationship between them. Through advertising, music videos (Denski and Sholle 1992), movies, the radio, and situational comedies on television (Press 1991), gender is constructed and dichotomized without even acknowledging what is being done. How this affects the behavior of individuals is harder to grasp, as shown in the article "A Way Outa No Way" by Becky Thompson:
Although all of the women I interviewed were manipulated and hurt by [the culture-of-thinness model] at some point in their lives, it is not the primary source of their problems... this influence occurred in concert with other oppressions (168).
While the media’s transmission of this ‘culture of thinness
’ may not be the primary factor in the proliferation of eating disorders
amongst women of all races and classes, differentiating stereotypes
and classifications of the sexes definitely impacts one’s ‘gendered
’ behavior. For example, in "Barbie
Girls versus Sea Monsters," Messner summarizes a finding by Jordan and Cowan (1995, 178): "they observe that the boys [in a kindergarten class] seem commonly to adapt story lines that they have seen on television. Popular culture- film, video
, computer games, television and comic books
" (Messner 2000, 97). This gendered play-time ritual of boys being warriors and girls playing house
is reinforced by much of the media, although things are slowly beginning to change with the presence of female warriors
becoming more culturally acceptable
, although their attractiveness as a woman
is strongly asserted.
Andrea Press provides an interesting look into situational comedies that revolve around married couples from the pre-feminist past to current post-feminism. In Women Watching Television
, Press compares and contrasts the interactions between husband and wife in I Love Lucy
and in The Honeymooners
after clarifying that "popular television images represent certain social groups
, and institutions
systematically... in a manner that often reflects the position of these groups within our society’s hierarchical power structure" (27). However, she then goes on to examine the portrayal of the working-class and non-white woman in the media, and notes that several things are omitted. Any sort of conflict between work, home and marital roles is rarely if ever brought up for both the working-class Roseanne
and for the professional African-American wife of The Cosby Show
, Clair (44). In a sense then, while Press is careful to note that television reflects "a desire to simplify terrains of ideological confusion and contradictions within our society" (28) and is not a realistic reflection of society, the impact of these shows on the perpetuation of an idealized ‘feminine’ role in and outside of the home is not clearly delineated, nor easy to measure. Further research that might be done in this area will be discussed toward the end. Finally, the popular culture
that is packaged in the media is one factor in the dichotomization and aggregation of gender, class and racial differences. While it is perhaps the most far-reaching institution, the physical structure of organizations and groups, as well as the actual interactions of people in society must also be analyzed alongside the culture that is transmitted via the media (Messner 2000, 99).
While situational comedies
seem to attract a more female audience, the media also transmits strong cultural messages to males through televised basketball games, the Superbowl
, and other sporting events. Advertisers use well-known athletes to sell everything from cars to sport drinks, and this is often geared towards men. According to Hulbert (March 3, 2004), "through the lens of the media, these idealized bodies [of athletes] are naturalized, portraying the dominant ideal of masculinity."
The institution of sport has been extensively studied by Messner, and in "Barbie Girls versus Sea Monsters" (2000), he cites himself (1992) when referring to the difference between gender within school and gender within sports:
In contrast to the "rational/professional" masculinity constructed in schools, the institution of sport historically constructs hegemonic masculinity as bodily superiority over femininity and non-athletic masculinities. Here, warrior narratives are allowed to publicly thrive- indeed, are openly celebrated… the gender regime of sport is experienced as a place where masculine styles and values of physicality, aggression, and competition are enforced and celebrated by mostly male coaches (97).
In other words, the dominant, idealized form of masculinity acts as a divisive line separating "the men from the boys," or "the boys from the sissies
." This dichotomization
of gender would imply that anything short of the dominant masculinity is no longer masculine, and therefore non-male
. In "Doing Gender," Goffman asserts that organized sports act as an
institutionalized framework for the expression of manliness. There, those qualities that ought "properly" to be associated with masculinity, such as endurance, strength, and competitive spirit, are celebrated by all parties concerned- participants, who may be seen to demonstrate such traits, and spectators, who applaud their demonstrations from the safety of the sidelines (qtd. in West and Zimmerman 1987: 138).
Therefore, men who do not share these physical or emotional traits are marginalized, thereby encouraging conformity or alienation (perhaps in the form of homophobic taunting from other men
In addition, class and racial differences are also perpetuated by the institution of sports, though to a lesser degree than gender. Messner conducted a study of male athletes from various economic statuses, and found that those with both a non-white race and a lower economic status tended to see sports as their only hope for future respect and status, though both high and low status men tended to use sports as a badge of masculinity
(Hulbert, February 30, 2004). The combination of race and class on the importance of sports in the lives of men demonstrates the aggregating
effect of sports, with young African-American men often assumed to be physically capable of running fast, jumping high
, and desiring to be involved in sports, whereas Anglo-American men are expected to act rationally by pursuing higher education
and a job with good pay and security
. Whether this has become a self-fulfilling prophecy
or is simply a categorization placed on individuals, this pattern is not particularly hopeful for the men who place their future on becoming a professional athlete, as statistics show that few reach that goal.
Further Research Ideas
Within the institution of the media, it would be quite interesting to conduct a study of women and how they self-identify with women in the media. An open-ended question of what woman in the media they most identify with would show what criteria women most often use to find common ground with characters in the media, such as their job, physical appearance (with race playing a role as well as physical ‘beauty’), relationships, and personality. This might demonstrate the impact of the media on women and their perception of themselves and of reality. Also, in the institution of sports, it would be interesting to study female athletes and how they feel about femininity and sex appeal both as individual non-professional athletes and as well-known professionals who are often used to market brand names.
**A note to you, gentle readers: perhaps the assertions in this w/u are not new to you. But sometimes the obvious needs to be stated, especially when there are those who might happen upon these ideas for the first time here. So no, I am not implying that everythingians are sexist, racist, classist internet geeks who need my help. But thanks for the continuing input.
Denski, Stan and David Sholle. "Metal Men and Glamour Boys: Gender Performances in
Heavy Metal." Ed. Steve Craig.
Goffman, Erving. "The Arrangement Between the Sexes."
Hulbert, Melanie. Class lectures. Sociology 380. George Fox University.
February 30-March 5, 2004.
Jordan, Ellen, and Angela Cowen. "Warrior narratives in the kindergarten classroom: Renegotiating the social contract?"
Messner, Michael. "Barbie Girls versus Sea Monsters: Children Constructing Gender."
---. 1992. "Power at play: Sports and the problem of masculinity."
Press, Andrea. "Women Watching Television: Gender, Class, and Generation in the American Television Experience."
Thompson, Becky. "A Way Outa No Way." Reconstructing Gender: A Multicultural Anthology. Ed. Estelle Disch.
West, Candace, and Don Zimmerman. "Doing Gender."