A Decade in Review: How the Portrayal of Women in Media Has Changed

woman power

While stereotyping in brands are less of a thing now, the media still has a long way to go when it comes to the representation of women on screen and in print. 

It all boils down to one thing: women are underrepresented in film. Racial minorities are underrepresented in film. White men are vastly overrepresented in film. How do these facts affect audiences so demographically different from what is portrayed onscreen?

The short and long answer to that is exposure in the media. According to a 2002 study published in Science, by high school graduation, you will have on average spent more time watching television than in school classrooms. That was nearly two decades ago. With the emergence of streaming giants like Netflix and Hulu, it’s been found that American teens spend an average of 9 hours a day using media. Remove the time spent asleep and in the bathroom, and media occupies much more than half of a teen’s day. Then add to that advertising, which has become as ubiquitous as, well advertising. Thus, it’s no surprise that media such as advertising, television, and movies can substantially affect your health and well-being and change your life.

The topic of gender development has been widely debated since the dawn of time. Some of the most important aspects of people’s lives – i.e. the talents they cultivate, the world views they hold, the very way they carry themselves – can all be traced back to their foundational beliefs on gender. But rather than providing realistic representations in the media, men and women both tend to be depicted in a hyper-traditional manner, which maintains stereotypes of personality traits, capabilities, and aspirations that are not only outdated – but potentially harmful. 

Enormous progress has been made when it comes to TV, but it’s coming from a shallow base. Throughout the history of TV advertising, women have been defined in very narrow roles. That was partly indicative of the problem – women were firmly placed in the domestic sphere, talking animatedly about cleaning and housework. They’re often shown as the family nurturer, which is something that men weren’t allowed to be either. This is a problem for both genders. There have been some real strides in that recently, where ads show men in a much more nurturing rule – but it’s still not enough.

Never before in history has media played such a titular role in the socialisation of human beings and became such an integral and constant part of people’s everyday lives. It’s been graced with the power to transmit messages and images of the world, no longer simply acting as mirrors of it. They actively shape perceptions and ideas. Over the past 20 years, the media have become powerful and central actors in constructing and making sense of local and global social affairs. As institutions, they shape cultural and social attitudes, impact on politics and public policy, and even influence journalism.

Like a wise man once said, “With great power, comes great responsibility.” It’s a tricky balancing act to put oneself on, but it has the bandwidth to change society for good when harnessed right.

The early screening

Women brought a gendered analysis of the mass media to the global stage in the 1970s when a multipart critique was first presented at the 1976 Mexico City conference, which opened the U.N. Decade for Women. Much of the substance of that critique remains relevant today, nearly five decades later. However, women’s fight for equal representation in the media began much earlier than that.

The first time a woman questioned her exclusion from media was in the 18th century by women suffragists and women’s rights activists in Europe and North America. The early suffrage leaders needed the attention of the news media to carry their ideas and activities to the broader public, but male-run newspapers and magazines largely ignored the women activists. The ones that did, however, quickly depreciated their goals and intentions. Women who departed from the social norms of passivity and deference to male authority and the traditional roles of wife and mother were labelled as inappropriate, insane or misfits. 

When women demanded equality with men, the media depicted them either as curiosities or as loud, militant and aggressive. These same characterisations have continued into the early days of modern feminism. Not only were women’s issues being silenced by the mainstream media, but bias against women ran rampant in reporting their issues and leaders. Because of this hostile behaviour, many women took it upon themselves to establish their own magazines, newspapers and book publishing houses during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

The post-Civil War Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly aimed to make Victoria Woodhull the first woman president, while the Lily had a broad women’s rights agenda, and the Una championed the rights of immigrants and poor women. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony’s short-lived but influential newspaper the Revolution addressed a spectrum of issues related to women’s discrimination, including low wages of working women and the right to vote.

The emergence of the new era

When the late 20th century came, women from all over the world focused on enacting political and legal reforms to extend women’s equality and access to social institutions (all of which had been steadily discussed in media). This was a new era for women’s rights where women felt radicalised during independence movements, with colonial countries breaking away from their oppressive regimes. 

The legacy of that activism carried over into women’s media like Ms. magazine, founded by U.S. feminists in the early 1970s; Manushi, an Indian feminist journal founded in the mid-1970s; and Isis International Bulletin, published first in Rome, then later in Manila.

During this time, feminist leaders established their own publishing houses, motivated by the enduring problems of exclusion and misogynistic representation in mainstream media. Women’s organisations like the South African group Gender Links have assumed dual missions of establishing their own journals, like Gender and Media Diversity Journal, and undertaking training for journalists to address persistent patriarchal messages in news, advertising, films, and television programs.

With this came an emerging concern for the new era: a lack of access to media professions. As a result, women were severely underrepresented in newsrooms, television and radio stations, film production and ownership of media outlets. It was argued that more women on the inside would help resolve many of women’s other problems with the media. This series of problems led to the shift in how women were portrayed on screen and in print. 

Women as peripheral characters

For so long, the role of women had been that of supporting characters to their male counterparts. But that’s not at all. An eye-opening study by the Institute of Gender revealed that advertisements feature twice as many male characters as female characters and male characters received twice as much screen time and spoke twice as often compared to female characters. The problem, then, wasn’t solely about representation anymore. It had moved away from being an isolated problem about merely showing women on the screen but on the manner of how they were being presented so brazenly and inauthentically. 

This is equally important because positive female role models in the media can help women become more ambitious and assertive and even help them leave abusive relationships. In a 2016 press release based on a survey of 4,300 women in nine countries (Brazil, China, India Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Russia, Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S.), over half of respondents (58%) related that female role models inspired them to be more ambitious or assertive with one-in-nine (one-in-four in Brazil) indicating that positive female role models had given them the courage to leave an abusive relationship. Not to mention unrealistic beauty standards often perpetuate the unhealthy relationship women have with their bodies and self-esteem.

So what now?

Women are among the largest consumers of film and television, so they represent a key demographic for this industry and the advertisers that support it. Women are “getting a foot in the door” in media and entertainment, and they are enthusiastic about seeking advancement—but that’s where favourable trends ebb and flow erratically. For an entry-level woman looking up, every rung on the career ladder will have fewer women in it. 

A woman graduating with a degree in mass communications or journalism, for instance, will walk across a stage where six out of every ten students are women. If she’s hired into the industry, her entry-level class will consist of five women in every ten hires. Further up the corporate ladder, at the transition from senior manager to vice president, one woman from this group, on average, will drop out of the pipeline. By the time these mass-communication or journalism professionals are poised to reach the C-suite, they will account for fewer than three of every ten executives—a point commonly referred to as the glass ceiling.

Women are clearly aware that the deck is stacked against them. Twenty-seven per cent of women surveyed in the media and entertainment industry say that gender has played a role in their missing out on a raise, promotion, or a chance to get ahead, as opposed to only 7 per cent of men. What’s more, 35 per cent of women reported that they expect their gender to make it harder to get a raise or promotion in the future as opposed to 15 per cent of men.

Given the nature of the media and the entertainment industry’s ability to influence culture at large through its production of film, video, and news publications, this industry must pay close attention to inclusion principles. Progress has been made, but more work needs to be done.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.