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Media Influence on Gender Inequality
Rachele S. Weintraub
Mercer County Community College

In the Golden Age of technology, people come in contact with media constantly
throughout their daily lives. Being perpetually bombarded with messages,the media has a
powerful influence on their thoughts as individuals and as a global society. The messages sent
out are in the interest of the large conglomerates who control them. What are these messages
and who is sending them out?
“Sexism is the subordination of one sex, usually female, based on the assumed
superiority of [another] sex” (Kendall, 2004, p. 76). This oppression is usually shown as
marginalizing and objectifying women so men can retain social power, privilege, and
opportunity. When looking at society, there is no doubt oppression present, predominantly
committed by the cis-gendered white male. These men who hold power, subsequently control
the largest means of communication i.e. the media. A perceptive look at television shows,
children's toys, and advertisements reveals an underlying theme portrayed by those in power:
women are believed to be less competent, preoccupied with trivialities, deceitful, and
promiscuous. The media also dictates how the ideal woman is supposed to look. Through
digitally enhanced women in adverts, and the use of exceedingly thin actors, an unattainable
mold of the ideal woman is manufactured, and for average women who do not fit into this
mold, pressure is created for them to adjust their appearance accordingly. This blatant control
of women by the media is internalized by society thus perpetuated into further generations.
Especially now when the average kid is plugged in for half their waking hours, what is relayed
by the media must be analyzed by a precise critical eye. Sociology offers several theoretical
levels of analysis to discuss potential causes and solutions to social problems such as this. By
cross-sectioning issues on gender inequality and issues in the media with these perspectives,
the media's influence on sexism becomes tangible.
Conflict theory maintains that people are in a constant battle for power and resources.
Looking at media's influence on gender inequality through this lens, the prevalence of
continued gender bias is explained. Conflict theorists argue that a leading problem in the
media is the convergence of ownership (Kendall, 2004, p. 318). When a small group of people
have control over publishing and broadcasting companies, the products of which will have
partiality in favor of those groups. Conflict theorists also argue that gender inequality is a
result from male control of production means and deliberate oppression of women through
social institutions. They contend that men, as opposed to women, often hold positions of elite
power (Kendall, 2004, p. 95). Therefore, it is in the interest of elite men to portray women in
the media in a marginalized manner in order to sustain societal control.
In mainstream media, stereotyping is a standard way of characterizing people.
Leading women characters are often seen as overwhelmed by their responsibilities compared
to their male counterparts. When female characters are in positions of power, they frequently
engage in deceitful, irresponsible behavior (Kendall, 2004, p. 328). In the recent show,
Breaking Bad, the leading female character involves herself in an adulterous affair. Even
though her husband is a clandestine drug lord, he is doing it in the name of his family and his
actions are glorified. Public reception of the wife is that she is cruel and immoral and the
husband is a hero.
Children's toys also perpetuate gender stereotyping. When walking through a toy store,
superhero action figures, chemistry sets, engineering sets, firefighting and police costumes are
found in the boys' section. These toys are educational tools to enforce the mental and physical
capabilities children possess. Toys that target girls are focused on physical appearance and
keeping domestic proclivities, not necessarily mind challenging activities (Starr, 2012). This is
seen through the myriad make-over kits, disproportionate Barbies™, kitchen sets, and dolls
that mock infancy. When a product comes out with two versions: one for boys and one for
girls, often the girl version is made less complicated and painted pink. This teaches children
that boys are intellectually resourceful and society encourages them to further develop their
thinking skills; whereas for girls, vanity is the main focus and not expected or encouraged to
think critically. The patriarchal fight for control is instilled in society at a young age.
Symbolic Interactionists view society as the sum of the interactions of individuals and
groups and tend to focus on social constructs (Kendall, 2004, p. 14). The most recent theory
for explaining the relationship between people and the media is called the audience reactions
approach, which argues that people use their own cultural understandings to interpret the
media (Kendall, 2004, p. 329). However, when this pertains to gender bias, that cultural
understanding is female inferiority. When people watch gender bias media and understand it
in context to their own still-gender biased culture, it only fortifies that belief. The most
prominent controlling interaction between females and the media is the ideal standard of
beauty. Women in media are almost always skinny, white, able bodied, cis-gendered, and
young. Therefore, only a limited demographic is represented in the largest form of
communication, isolating those women who do not fall under these categories. Not only do
most women fail to meet these standards, even the women in the media who represent the
standard fail to meet these themselves. In every advertisement, poster, billboard, magazine
cover, the model is photoshopped expertly and extensively. In the article “Pixel Perfect”, Lisa
Collins (2008) reveals how the act of photoshopping celebrities has turned into an art that the
media does not do without. The hours spent on revising women's figure only shows that
today's idea of beauty is so manufactured and commercialized, few can attain it without
extreme dedication. And to what end? If Uma Thurman had sagging skin, it would not make
her any more or any less of an actor.
Media's stress on being thin is translated on to the general population.
In 1995, a television channel started broadcasting in Fiji. It showed imported
U.S. shows, such as Friends. By 1998, a mere three years later, 11.9 percent of
Fijian adolescent girls were over the toilet bowl with bulimia, where previously
none existed (Orbach, 2011, p. 388).
Orbach (2011) argued that the female body is used for control, profit and transformation
through media's pressure on women to reshape themselves. She argued that the Fijian girls
did not feel an immediate pressure to mimic the 'ideal physique', but rather, associated it with
modernity and took interest in it. This point is stressed because it provides an alternative
explanation for the disproved social learning theory, “the assumption that people are likely to
act out the behavior they see in role models and media sources” (Kendall, 2004, p. 329).
There is a strong relationship between developing 'norms' and visual images portrayed in the
According to Kendall (2004), functional theorists “assume society is a stable, orderly
system composed of a number of inter-related parts, each of which performs a function that
contributes to the overall stability of society”( Kendall, 2004, p. 9). They focus on the manifest
and latent functions and dysfunctions of social institutions. The manifest function of media,
through this perspective, serves as a means of communicating local and global news, passing
on cultural traditions, and entertainment (Kendall, 2004, p. 330). Functional theorists believe
that although differing gender roles exist, gender inequality does not inevitably. They hold
that gender roles are based in the nature of genders and the division of labor follows suit.
According to this theory, men are more task oriented while women are better fit for emotional
tasks. This would lead men to high managerial positions, professions based in science, and
law, and women in nurturing positions such as nurses, teachers, and homemakers (Kendall,
2004, p. 94). Functional theory states that parts of society performs a function that
contributes to a larger picture. When men do the work and women raise the children, this
makes for a functioning society.
Considering the two institutions in the functionalist perspective, the media is a means
of passing on the cultural traditions of the aforementioned gender roles. According to this
perspective, there is no social conflict in this situation. However, what the functionalist theory
does not address is gender discrimination or the differed values society places on tasks
allotted to men and women. Even if functionalist gender roles are soundly in place,
statistically, women are still paid less, more often sexually harassed, and have fewer
opportunities available to them compared to men (Kendall, 2004, p. 94). Society also places
higher value on instrumental tasks, which men are more apt for as per functionalists, and the
media communicates these inherently immoral gender values and roles. By denying the
existence of a social problem, the problem not only continues but worsens because it silences,
dismisses voices of the oppressed trying to be heard.
A dysfunction of the media functionalists recognize is the over-emphasis on media and
how this diminishes the amount of time people spend in face-to-face interactions. Because the
internet allows a person to be isolated but still have, potentially anonymous and therefore
without consequence, human interaction, boundaries can sometimes blur. The Huffington
Post (2012) reported on a recent controversy that occurred on the social media site, Facebook,
where Zoo Weekly posted an image of a woman digitally split in two at the torso with a
caption asking which half, top or bottom, men would prefer. “... some of the comments,
[included] "Right cause two holes are better than one" and "left cause it can still make me
sandwich"” (Huffington Post, 2012). Although the internet does not cause the behavior that
objectifies women, it allows the behavior to be seen in a large, global community. Even though
functionalists do not recognize gender inequality, the issues can still be analyzed in regards to
the media.
An aspect of feminism that must be discussed is the inclusion of trans* people, handi-
capable people, and people of color. Feminism is moot if all subsequent groups are not
represented. Although these groups are not definitively denoted in the displayed arguments, it
should be assumed that they are included.
The most important perspective to consider when examining the issue of media's
influence on gender inequality is the conflict theory and the symbolic interaction theory.
Inequality is based in the struggle for power, which defines the conflict theory. It defines the
root of the problem therefore; a causal solution can be developed more clearly. Symbolic
interaction theory is also important to consider because it takes an in-depth look at how and
why the victims are being affected. It can humanize the issue and draw more empathy or
sympathy which is critical when trying to solve social problems.
There are no tangible solutions to control the media because it is wrong to censor free
speech by any means, even if the message is false, offensive, or oppressive. People maintain
the right to express themselves, not entirely without consequence but without government
interference. However, what can be controlled is the balance of what is being publicized.
As a conflict theorist solution, women should gain high positions in publishing and
broadcasting companies. These positions would be achieved by a quota system that could be
extended to represent other minorities as well as women. When females are proportionally
represented in these companies, there is an equal opportunity for women to be accurately and
fairly represented in the companies' products. Shows and movies would be created with
female characters portrayed as equally as competent as their male counterparts. The
characters would not be perceived as threatening or 'bitchy.' The influx of positive portrayals
of women in the media may normalize this view and have a constructive sway on societal
treatment of women.
This solution operates at the mid-level because it effects management of large
corporations and subsequently, the people exposed to their products. Because 51% of
America's population is comprised of women, it is in the interest of the country's majority to
advocate this solution. Everyone has a mother, wife, daughter, sister or a friend that is a girl
that they care for and respect. Consequently, it should be in the interest of the entire country's
population to accurately represent women in the largest means of communication and
entertainment. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Men with vested interest in maintaining the
status quo so as to not deter their ample opportunities and dominance over half the
population, will be opposed to the inclusion of women.
Solving the media's influence on gender roles through a symbolic interactionist
perspective, can be achieved on a micro-level. On a micro-level, the power is held by the voice
of the people. One way to solve the issue, instead of symptomatic relief, is to educate boys at a
young age on proper conduct. It is a parental obligation to teach boys that women are not
objects or for their use or control. If this were effective, gender inequality would not exist. In
the same way children are taught about puberty in schools, a workshop should be held, most
likely in the second or third grade about gender inequality in terms comprehensible to that a
child. They would be taught about the ideas of equality regardless of gender, race, or sexual
orientation and of radical self-love. Another way to solve the issue is through the exposure of
diverse body types, trans* identities, people of color, sexual orientation and handi-capable
people. Television is making progress in the right direction in this regard with shows like
Modern Family and Glee, however it is not enough yet. This exposure can be achieved by
people lobbying media companies for the inclusion of these minority groups.
The degree in which these solution would disrupt society is marginal compared to the
amount of constructive change it would create. A generation of socially savvy and well
exposed people is the basis for social revolution. Shows are already displaying diversity and
schools already teach children about their bodies. There is no disincentive to take an another
step in encouraging the youth about acceptance of themselves and others.
As functionalist theory maintains that gender inequality is not an existing problem in
society, there is no offered solution. Although, with the same media source being used to
oppress women, women can shout back. Social media sites, blogs, and forums are being used
to raise awareness of social injustices. The benefit of the internet is one can talk to a wide
range of people, understand from the mouths of minorities how they are being marginalized,
have unlimited resources on the topic and ask questions to better educate themselves of their
ignorance. All of this while at a safe location in case an argument arises so no physical harm
can be done.
The media, as it stands, is predominately controlled by men. The messages sent out by
the media in regards to women, is of incompetence, underhandedness, and promiscuity. An
impossible standard of appearance for women is also set forth by mass media. Outdated
gender roles and the idea that it is acceptable to objectify women are also continued through
media. Accurate representation of all women, speaking out against discriminatory portrayals
of women and education can combat the negative content of which society is exposed.

Works Cited
Collins, Lisa. "Pixel Perfect." The New Yorker, May 12, 2008.
(November 30, 2012.) Facebook Removes 'Woman Cut In Half'. The Huffington Post.
Retrieved from
demeaning-photo- woman-cut-in-half-boobs-or-butt_n_2218629.html.
Kendall, Diana. Social Problems in a Diverse Society. 2004. 6
edition. New York: Pearson.
Orbach, Susie. “Losing Bodies.” Social Research. Summer 2011, Vol. 78 Issue 2, p387-394. 8p
Starr, Denise. How Toys Teach Children Stereotypical Gender Roles: A Look Inside a Local
Toy Store. 2012. North Carolina State University. Retrieved from