picture of liesbet van zoonen

Liesbet van Zoonen

Feminist Perspectives in the Media

Focusing on the representation of women in the media, Liesbet van Zoonen outlined feminist discourse from the different liberal, radical and socialist perspectives. Her review of these critical frameworks is a great introduction to gender and power in the media.

Liberal Feminism

The media has always featured images of women performing the traditional roles of mother and wife. This representation, of course, reflected the dominant ideology that insisted women should remain in the domestic world while men go out to work.

In liberal feminist discourse, van Zoonen noted, the mass media was considered to be a socialising agent that communicated this message to “secure continuity, integration, order and the transmission of dominant values”. If young girls only saw women represented as housewives in the media, other aspirations might be diminished and they would grow up to mimic the behaviour of their role models. Albert Bandura called this learning process symbolic modelling.

girl watching television

Only by competing in male-dominated fields, such as the media industry, can women break free from these old stereotypes and acquire social and economic power. The media should support this change by “portraying more women and men in non-traditional roles and by using non-sexist language”.

However, van Zoonen referred to the rise of the superwoman stereotype in the media – an “independent and assertive career woman” who is also a “successful wife and mother” and is “still beautiful”. Van Zoonen was concerned this new representation was a distortion of reality because it was almost impossible to achieve in real life.

Radical Feminism

Completely rejecting traditional gender roles, radical feminists argued our social system was designed to let men “dominate and oppress all women”. If that power is challenged, men will use their physical strength to silence the opposition.

From this perspective, the media was controlled by “male owners and producers who will operate to the benefit of a patriarchal society”. For instance, linear narratives are used in television and film because they are an expression of masculine goal-orientated ideology. Although it is not confined to radical feminist discourse, you should consider the Bechdel test which attempts to quantify the narrow representation of women on the big screen. The impact of the male gaze, especially on constructed identity, is also worth reading.

Since the codes and conventions of mass media reinforced the patriarchal society, van Zoonen summarised, “women should create their own means of communication”. With advancements in audio-visual technology and new online platforms, producing media texts has never been easier. There are plenty of opportunities for radical feminists to deliver their own narratives where women are no longer reduced to bit-parts in the male protagonist’s story.

Socialist Feminism

Socialist feminism used the intersection of gender and social class to explain the imbalance of power between women and men. To achieve a more equal society, the labour market needed to be reformed to support everyone who wanted to work and raise children. More recently, Theresa May argued for an investigation into the gender pay gap and set up a task force to explore flexible working which would help parents further their careers while still having the time to support their young children. In fact, all employees now have the legal right to request flexible working.

Much of socialist feminist discourse viewed media institutions as “ideological instruments presenting the capitalist and patriarchal society as the natural order”. Socialist feminists also argued for a separate feminist output to exist alongside a modernised mainstream. Again, social media channels and new digital technologies offer a strong platform for feminist voices to be heard around the world.

Representation and Realism

Van Zoonen believed the narrow representation of women in the media was unrealistic:

Very few women are like the “femme fatale” of soap operas and mini series, and women’s desires consist of a lot more than the hearth and home of traditional women’s magazines.

Liesbet Van Zoonen

However, she acknowledged that a more realistic portrayal of women was problematic. Although gender stereotypes may not reflect women’s actual lives and experiences, they do have their “social counterparts” in the “real” world. Some women aspire to be housewives. Others may want to focus solely on their careers. If a woman wants to watch soap operas or read fashion magazines in her free time, it is her choice.

bell hooks, for example, argued mainstream feminism often ignored the wonderfully diverse experiences of women around the world. She wanted to see a “broader, more complex vision of womanhood”, especially “black womanhood”, portrayed in the cinema.

Arguing for more realistic images is always an argument for the representation of “your” version of reality.

Charlotte Brunsdon

The Passive Audience

Van Zoonen strongly criticised feminist models of communication which seemed to assume the audience was passive and would simply interpret a media text according to its preferred reading. Are women so easily brainwashed by patriarchal propaganda into thinking they have to follow to certain gender roles? If a girl is repeatedly exposed to the representation of a wife, is it inevitable that she will grow into that stereotype when she is older?

According to reception theories, such as Stuart Hall’s model of communication, we are an active audience who can decode messages according to our own individual framework of knowledge. Van Zoonen suggested feminist discourse should consider why women enjoy watching soap operas and reading glossy magazines, instead of dismissing their interests as a false consciousness.

Gender

Van Zoonen pointed out how radical and liberal feminist discourse often defined gender as binary because it was the “inevitable consequence of sex differences”. Femininity was “composed of emotionality, prudence, cooperation, a sense of community, compliance”. By contrast, masculinity was “rationality, efficiency, competition, individualism, ruthlessness.

Unsurprisingly, very few academics had questioned how gender roles were developed or reinforced in society. The stereotypes seemed “natural”. However, van Zoonen argued gender is a construct and its meaning will depend on the cultural and historical context. This obviously echoes Judith Butler’s idea that gender is a performance and we all play the part written for us by society.

Revision Task

Read through our guide to Liesbet van Zoonen’s “Feminist Perspectives on the Media” and look for the similarities and differences between liberal, radical and socialist feminist discourse. The following table might help to focus your efforts but you can add anything else you think is relevant.

PerspectiveLiberal FeminismRadical FeminismSocialist Feminism
Gender identities and roles   
Attitude towards men   
The impact of the media on gender   
How should the media change?   
Aims and objectives   

Comprehension Questions

Answer the following questions to test your understanding of Liesbet Van Zoonen’s summary of feminist debates:

  1. What is discourse? Look up the word if you are unsure of its meaning.
  2. Why is important women take some control over the mass media and its output?
  3. How has the media influenced gender roles? Try to use the terms enculturation and ideology in your answer.
  4. Why do radical and socialist feminists suggest alternative means of communication are needed to address the imbalance of power between men and women?
  5. What is the liberalist feminist solution to this patriarchal hegemony?
  6. From a socialist perspective, what factors might prevent the liberal feminist agenda from being successful?
  7. In terms of audience theory, what is van Zoonen’s criticism of the feminist models?

Further Study

Try to apply different aspects of feminist discourse to a range of historical and contemporary media texts. The representation of masculinity in Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” is a good place to start because the protagonist is actually a gladiator.

Brunsdon, Charlotte (1981): “Cross Roads: Notes on a Soap Opera”.
hooks, bell (1996) “Reel to Real: Race, class and sex at the movies”.
Van Zoonen, Liesbet (1996): “Feminist Perspectives on the Media”.

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