How representations of women in the media affect the genders and does it produce a panoptic effect?
We see images from the media everyday and it is interesting how without being aware it can effect how individuals view themselves and their place in society. This essay will look at how patriarchal images within the media play a role in influencing women in and out of the spotlight and how they are manipulated to act in a certain way that is suggested through advertising, journalism and art. Theories of ‘The Gaze’ and ‘Panopticism’ will be explored and how the media can be linked with them. Supported by theorists such as Rosalind Coward and Michael Faucault.
The objectification of women is to deny the individual and to look at others as if they were objects. This has taken place through the medium of art for hundreds of years, mostly due to the undeniable male dominance in art production up until the 20th century, that still carries on today through the mechanisms of media. The entertainment industry is dominated by men, ‘While I don't wish to suggest there's an intrinsically male way of making images, there can be little doubt that the entertainment as we know it is crucially predicated on a masculine investigation of women, and circulation of women's images for men’ (R, Coward), all visual culture is aimed towards this, culture is gendered. Because of the high quota of male artists during the earlier period this led to art being created by men, for men, which led on to the artistic genre of ‘the nude’, this is often not a natural depiction of the female form but a male fantasy. Art historians who are, conveniently for the artists, also men, celebrate how beautiful this genre is within their writing, conveying their opinion that the female form is beautiful and more worthy of artistic study. Because of the critic’s high status and the way they are describing this style of art, the pornographic function is disguised and the male objectification is justified by removing the guilt and sleazy connotations, where it therefore retains the persona of class. As well as sexually objectifying the women ‘the nude’ genre and the ideas behind ‘the gaze’ are fundamentally about power and the power dynamic between the genders. Through this portrayal of women as a passive and docile sex object, society has come to believe and at times insist that these are the traits of a female form. Therefore allowing males to retain the control and power over them and take advantage of the notion that women are subservience to the male. Another female persona created by the male artists through their work is that of vanity, women are commonly posed looking into a mirror and are mocked by the male audience. Even though men construct this vision and it is a tactic used so that the model can’t return their gaze, as it is being reflected back at her, this allows men to feel more at ease and comfortable looking. An example of this is Hans Memling’s ‘Vanity’ (image 1), where the woman stands nude with exaggerated curves and long flowing hair. She is also gazing into the mirror, which legitimises the male looking at her in this way as it reinforces that women are objects to be viewed. Her eyes are also reflected back at herself, this makes her eye line averted from the viewer and does not question or challenge their gaze. Instead she looks away in a passive manner accepting the gaze of the male, which strongly supports Berger’s statement that ‘Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at,’ (Berger, 1990).
This idea of ‘the gaze’ has continued into the modern society, through the medium of advertising. Previously artworks would have only been accessible to the upper classes due to fine arts high status, but now with the development of media it is available to be seen by the masses and therefore has the potential to affect a higher proportion of the population. Modern advertising has taken a slightly different approach to ‘the gaze’, women no longer avert their eyes in a docile manner but challenge the look of the audience.
One particular theorist that has written about ‘The Gaze’ in great detail is Rosalind Coward. Many of her notes can be used to describe how this type of advertising affects the female audience? From the constant stream of imagery that is visible on a daily basis and the back up of images from hundreds of years previous, women can feel trapped within this ideal. This theory is described by R. Coward ‘Women's experience of sexuality rarely strays far from ideologies and feelings about self-image. There's a preoccupation with the visual image - of self and others - and a concomitant anxiety about how these images measure up to a socially prescribed ideal’ (R, Coward). Because of how women have been portrayed for hundreds of years they now believe this is how they should act and they are constantly comparing themselves to each other and the images that they see in the media. But it can be argued ‘it’s unlikely that the media has a direct and straightforward affect on its audiences. It’s unsatisfactory to just assume that people somehow copy or borrow their identities from the media,’ (D, Gauntlett). Although this ideal image has been taken so seriously because of how visually dominated our society is, everywhere you look imagery full of hidden meanings and messages screams back at you. People have become so reliant on looking that it has affected the relationships we have with other people, ‘In this society, looking has become a crucial aspect of sexual relations, not because of any natural impulse, but because it is one of the ways in which domination and subordination are expressed’ (R, Coward). Appearances are important in our culture not only as a natural reaction but also as a form of domination. Many images in the media play on this idea of male dominance over women like this Dolce & Gabbana advertising campaign (image 2), which plays strongly on the stereotypical idea of male dominance. The female’s lying down position within the image and her physical restrained interaction with the male gives the impression of submission and the thrust of her hips gives no thought that she is resisting, but looks as if she is in fact willing to give herself sexually. Although, it could be said that this form of passive, sexual behaviour is no longer a conscious thought, but something that has been programmed into her personality and that she is acting in a way that is expected of her. As she stares away vacantly, the men within the image gaze at her intently, ‘The relations involved in looking enmesh with coercive beliefs about the appropriate sexual behaviour for men and women’ (R, Coward), by constantly viewing imagery like this genders are forced into dominant and submissive roles. This area of industry is still strongly male dominated, so images like this will continue to be created as they provide a constant reminder of male dominance, ‘The saturation of society with images of women has nothing to do with men's natural appreciation of objective beauty, their aesthetic appreciation, and everything to do with and obsessive recording and use of women's images in ways which make men comfortable’ (R, Coward). It allows men to retain their power and gives them a heightened belief of their own status over women, “Clearly this comfort is connected with feeling secure or powerful. And women are bound to this power precisely because visual impressions have been elevated to the position of holding the key to our psychic well-being, our social success, and indeed to whether or not we will be loved” (R, Coward). Made to make men feel confident but to make women feel anxious to conform, bringing the fantasy to life because the women feel they need to act this way to be accepted.
It can also be considered that does this style of imagery help the male gender and their quest for power or hinder them? The anxiety it creates for women is very clear but it is in fact a joint anxiety that can be shared for both, even if it is for different reasons. ‘Men defend their scrutiny of women in terms of the aesthetic appeal of women. But this so-called aesthetic appreciation of women is nothing less than a decided preference for a 'distanced' view of the female body’ (R, Coward), this is an easy defense, but it makes real women become unobtainable. As this role of being a viewer gives them total control and power, ‘Voyeurism is a way of taking sexual pleasure by looking at rather than being close to a particular object of desire, like a Peeping Tom and Peeping Tom's can always stay in control’ (R, Coward). It can seem quite confusing why men would prefer this fantasy relationship, but it could seem that men have become so comfortable with viewing women with an uninterrupted gaze via imagery and therefore find it more preferable and manageable than the real thing. ‘Perhaps this sex-at-a-distance is the only complete secure relation which men can have with women. Perhaps other forms of contact are too unsettling’ (R, Coward), this shows the insecurity men can feel within a real relationship. The images within the media portray males as the dominant and powerful gender and it could be said that men feel under pressure to live up to this macho ideal? Scenes from advertisements are plastered across billboards and magazines across the world, usually with the male’s strong physique and posture over a woman, which is a constant reminder of their authority. A perverted voyeurism of sex has been created and with men so used to seeing rather than doing has it left a sense of disappointment within the real world? ‘Turning back the sheets on the twentieth-century bed, sexology found a spectacle of incompetent fumbling and rampant discontent with 'doing it'’ (R, Coward), this unobtainable idea can make both genders feel discontent.
An advertisement that can be applied to the theories of Coward is the 1999 ad by Wonderbra (image 3). The model looks straight at the camera, without averting her eyes and has an assertive and active pose, a long shot from meek and mild persona of before. This image appeals to women as it reflects an assertive femininity and gives a sense of the power they could achieve. By the model stating that she ‘can’t cook’ it allows the female audience to believe that it isn't essential to be a domestic goddess and that they can be successful without these skills. Although, this advertisement also appeals to men as the semi-naked women is displaying herself to them. It could be said that with the inability to cook, the women is disappointing the man and therefore compensates with sex. This brings the female form back round to an object of use to the man, which implies the illusion of women’s independence. Although the idea of femininity has changed dramatically over the years to more of a stereotype of women from the past and what they could be, rather than has to be, ‘Modern women are not generally very bothered about fitting their identity with the idea of ‘femininity’… It is not typically a core value for women today. Instead being ‘feminine’ is just one of the performances that women can choose to employ in everyday life – perhaps for pleasure or to achieve a particular goal,’ (D, Gauntlett). This suggests that maybe women have power within their femininity to control others around them to get what they want. Although, it could be argued that this style of advertising helps the normalisation of nudity on the streets, which allows other companies to act similarly. In addition, it takes the shock factor away from the subject and after repeat exposure the audience learns to accept this as the norm, leading the female gender to believe this is how they should look and act and indicates to the male that this behaviour is what they should expect.
If we take the media to be an institution it is easy to apply the factors of the Panopticon onto it. Paparazzi hounds and scything articles written about them constantly pound women within the media. Within this industry journalists have been placed as the institutional experts so society believes what they say, which has given them total power. This has led them to be able to manipulate the public’s interest, which can either make or break a celebrity, therefore leaving the ‘stars’ unable to put a foot wrong in fear of rejection from the press. This can force celebrities into acting and looking in a certain way in order to be in favour with the magazines and newspapers writing about them, which could help to further their career. With the help of the paparazzi, journalists have become an ‘omnipresent and omniscient power’ (M, Foucault), with all seeing capabilities similar to that of the Panopticon guards. Turning celebrities into ‘docile bodies’ by training them to look and act in a certain way and because of the strong male direction of the media this usually leads women to portray the docile and beautiful ‘object’ of ‘the gaze.’ As an extreme example of this we could take celebrity glamour models, who appear as a caricature of female sexuality. Their aim is to appeal to men and to be presented as a sex object. Often being associated with being stupid and vain, which leads to being mocked by the press for their actions. Another example is the new Internet phenomenon, Valeria Lukyanova (image 4), more commonly known as the ‘Human Barbie’. She is the object of many men’s affections due to her miniscule waist and porcelain doll like features. It has been questioned whether her looks are all natural or whether she has gone through cosmetic surgery to fulfill this idea of beauty. It could be said that she changed herself in order to gain the attention of the media that her natural appearance wouldn't have generated. Furthermore in all of her pictures she is seen with a vacant stare that play on the male’s fantasy of a docile and unthreatening female. Maybe this is why she has become more popular with the male gender than the standard glamour model, as her gaze does not challenge the viewer that makes the audience looking at her unthreatened and more accepting of her because of her submissive nature. Although, one similarity that these women share is that they are all on display on the world’s stage, ‘so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualised and constantly visible,’ (M, Foucault). They are constantly visible for scrutiny through the Internet and print mechanisms. Similar to that of inmates of The Panopticon they are constantly visible and therefore constantly detectable, being in the light is not necessarily being protected, ‘Visibility is a trap,’ (M, Foucault). With this threat of detection from the media and paparazzi mixed with the uncertainty of whether they are being watched at any given time creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are ‘Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so,’ (M, Foucault), with this fear of being uncovered celebrities must constantly play out their role of the ‘perfect’ image. It can also be said that journalists use the branding technique of the panoptic mind set, ‘the assignment to each individual of his 'true' name, his 'true' place, his true 'body'...’ (M, Foucault), with this individualization it makes the people much easier to control, locate and discipline, ‘The crowd, a compact mass, a locus of multiple exchanges, individualities merging together, a collective effect, is abolished and replaced by a collection of separated individualities,’ (M, Foucault).
So how have these two theories of ‘the gaze’ and ‘panopticism’ come together to influence the mindset of today’s society? In the case of women both celebrities and the general public are affected by anxiety. The public look at these published images of celebrities and are taken in by their seemingly perfect looks and lifestyles and it is transferred to them that this is what they need to be like in order to be successful. The critiques of these ‘stars’ are also available to be viewed as warnings of how not behave and how your life can crash around you after some poor choices. On the other hand it affects the celebrity in a different way, they may already have this ‘successful’ life but in order to keep it they must not be caught out acting out of turn. With this threat in their minds they act within the interests of the media. In both of these instances the women are being controlled and manipulated, but it could be said that this source of control has changed. ‘Where women's behaviour was previously controlled directly by state, family or church, control of women is now also effected through the scrutiny of women by visual ideals,’ (R, Coward). Historically men have controlled women, whether that is their father, husband or priest and if they stepped out of line they would be punished. Although, now they are being controlled by images of other women in circulation, a more mental constraint. This movement forward reflects the movement of social control exactly, from the physical control of the houses of correction to the mental techniques used within The Panopticon.
This constant scrutiny of women has led to a boom in the beauty industry, ‘As the unconscious hallucination grows ever more influential and persuasive because of what is now conscious market manipulation; powerful industries – the $33-billion-a-year diet industry, the $20-billion cosmetics industry, the $300-million cosmetic surgery industry and the $7-billion pornography industry – have arisen from the capital made out of unconscious anxieties, and are in turn able, through their influence on mass culture, to use, stimulate and reinforce the hallucination in a rising economic spiral,’ (N, Wolfe). Female vanity could be suggested for these big business industries Freud suggested that women are ‘more narcissistic’ with self-obsessed qualities. However R, Coward contradicts this with ‘Advertisements, health and beauty advice, fashion tips are effective precisely because somewhere, perhaps even subconsciously, an anxiety, rather than a pleasurable identification, is awakened. We take an interest, yes. But these images do not give back a glow of self-love... The faces that look back imply a criticism.’ (R, Coward). This implies a pressure upon women to be perfect, they are not innately vein but are pushed into being so. These advertisements play on contemporary anxieties such as diets, bulimia, hair colour, flawless skin etc. The suggest to women that in order to have a happy life they must stick to a beauty regime that could dictate their time, they must by these products in order to have a happy life.
To conclude, it is quite clear that the media has an undoubted influence over society. Forcing pre-concepted ideas onto the male and female viewer. Journalists and advertisements are constantly manipulating the public into the ‘correct’ way to act and behave. This has been around for so many centuries now that it is unlikely that these notions will ever change.