Gender Representation in Media: Women in the Media

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Table of Contents

  • Objective:
  • Introduction:
  • Relationship Between Media Text, Audience and Representation:
  • Literature Review:
  • Methodology:
  • Case Study:
  • Language: 
  • Observation and Conclusion:


In the first half of the essay I will highlight the importance of studying representation of identities in media and the influence of media in enforcing or challenging the hierarchies of social power. I will draw focus on femininity and feminist movement. My research question is whether and how has the feminist movement affected the representation of women. I will answer it citing a case study and draw my conclusions.


Media, short for mass media, can be divided into factual media, entertainment media, as McCullagh (2002) defines it as ‘fictional material’. Why is the study of representation in media necessary? According to Carah and Louw (2015), Media is a process of creating and giving meaning to reality and exchanging it. Our perception and opinion of reality depends on our “social interactions and cultural practices” and media is one such social interaction. The views of reality handed via media representation influence how we think about it. Taking this point further, the impact and probability of penetration of views, perception of reality does not really depend on the moral compass or accuracy, but on the economic, cultural, institutional resources of the group. Hence, to learn and understand how media influences the meaning associated to an identity by an individual and society, their treatment it becomes mandatory to study media representation.

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Relationship Between Media Text, Audience and Representation:

Carah and Louw point out that achieving the desired effects of representation is never guaranteed and is beyond control. The contextual meaning with which the media text was produced could remain the same or change when decoded by an individual leading to three situations: a) Dominant representation: The receiver and sender of the message confer to same hegemonic view. b) Negotiated representation: The receiver of messages acknowledges the legitimacy of message but alters and adapts it to suit their ‘local conditions and social relations’. c) Oppositional representation: The encoder fully understands the context of the message but rejects conforming to it entirely. Hall (1980 cited in Carah and Louw 2015) According to Shawn Moores (2000), the consumers of radio and TV tend to exercise a level of interpretative agency. She explains an example by Giddens (1991: 20) wherein after watching something on marriage, divorce and family, the viewer incorporates it into decisions by taking into consideration ‘what is going on’ in this sphere of social action.

Literature Review:

Femininity: The four waves of feminist movement, with roots in USA and eventually spreading globally, strived to change the representation of women in media. One can observe that each movement addressed and fought issues pertaining their times. The first wave began in 19th century and ran its course in early 20th century. It dealt with legal issues of right to vote, inclusion in politics, business and legal rights for women in marriage. An American National Woman’s Party succeeded in bringing in the 19th Amendment in 1920 which led to the liberation of women from the shackles of household and recognised as them citizens equal of men. However, it was criticised for exclusivity by Asian and Black women who were left out from the scope of the Amendment. Tara Anand (2018). An emergence of feminist periodicals was seen to report the issues of women, by women. Grace Gleeve (2013). The second wave belonged to the 1960’s through 1980’s. According to Rosalind Gill, the women of this era focused on media as they were subjected to misrepresentations of womanhood and gender in radio, TV, film and in news, magazines, etc. In the 1960’s college educated feminists criticised the ‘Blind spot’ in society implying invisibility of women in the man’s world. The women in journalism and media fought against the lack of opportunities in the workforce. They argued the lack of participation of women in the media had a profound effect on their representation. And other women focused on the demeaning and trivial representation in media. The media analyses carried by researchers gave wind to the feminist movement and produced call to action- demands by feminists for a positive imagery of women and increase in participation in society. In the 1980’s, a post-structural angle challenged the ‘construction of reality and gender by media’ and directed including diversity, identity, subjectivity and desire in femininity studies. The second wave was criticised again for bring exclusive, false universalism and depicting the problems of white, elite, married women. Rosalind Gill (2007). In late 1980’s the second wave came to an end with the feminist sex wars. Third-wave feminism began in the early 1990s with the of motive of addressing the failures of second-wave initiatives. It aimed to challenge and modify the upper-middle-class-white-women definitions of femininity. The feminist movement reached a more global level and recognizes the need to handle the ideologies of women of different colour, background, traditions was addressed in this wave. Its strength of diversity became its element for criticism. The efforts to create a one-fits-all agenda was critiqued to be difficult and unwanted. Brunell, Burkett (2019).

The beginning of the fourth wave is debatable, but it began finding its roots with the advent of social media. The feminists in this era use the social media, e.g., twitter, Facebook, blogs, online campaigns as their call-out platforms. The #MeToo movement, the December 2012 gangrape in India, Women’s March, are a few milestones till recent date. Brunell, Burkett (2019). After discussing the objectives of the Feminist movement, we will study if and the kind of changes it has brought in representation of women in media.


We will examine the case studies of a 1941 Kotex advertisement and the website and campaign of Bodyform of recent times. We will focus on the imagery of women, nature of language and the afterthoughts of these advertisements. They are relevant to my research question because the products are extremely women-centric, both the brands are mainstream and widely advertised.

Case Study:

The first case study is an American print, 1941 Kotex sanitary napkins advertisement. McNeill (2019).


The title is ‘Why was I born a woman?’. It raises questions of women ever regret being born women? It asks ‘period burdened’ women to compare themselves with other ever smiling girls, uses ageist phrases like not being too old to learn and asks girls to use Kotex to a smile on lips and song in heart.


A black and white image of a sad, complexed woman, struggling with playing cards is seen in one corner. She is wearing a frock with blue vertical stripes. The dress and the blue overall stripes give an impression of her feeling heavy, melancholy. In another black and white picture, a man and woman enjoy joyful time on stairs. The man lays down casually on the stairs and the women seated up right but relaxed, looking gayly towards him. The difference here is the woman’s socks and bow are coloured blue, much like the colour of Kotex packaging, and the man is offering blue flowers to her, implying that a woman is eligible to receive man’s feelings of love if she uses Kotex that makes her a gay, cheerful doll.


The advertisement is extremely offensive towards woman, sexist and ageist. It makes menstruation sound like a burden that Kotex helps overcome. And demeans the pain, process and feelings of menstruation that women should shrug, ignore and feel the exact opposite by being confident and carefree. For second case study, we will focus on the website and campaign of Bodyform, a manufacturer of a range of women’s intimate products.

The tagline of the organisation is ‘live fearless’. It has two campaigns: PureSensitive and #BloodNormal. The former promotes intimate products for vagina by drawing attention and freely talking about the issues related to female genitals. There is a three-minute video on the home page of the website that reads ‘Viva la Vulva’. The #BloodNormal campaign brings awareness about periods among school going girls and boys. They have an online advertisement video showing red period blood on sanitary napkins. Bodyform (2017)


The PureSensitive video uses phrases like praise you like so red, so fine, I’m glad you are mine towards the female genitalia. There are women talking casually about embracing the female body just the way it is born, without any judgements. The whole video promotes body-positivity, free discussion about female intimate care. They have a blog, too which explores topics unspoken of and not discussed on public platforms, e.g, how to avoid sore labia. In the #BloodNormal advert video, in a first among many cases, period blood was shown red as opposed to the usual blue. Towards the end it says how periods are normal and showing them (in red) should be, too.


The campaign video show various objects, resembling a vagina, reciting the background score. The colour of these objects is not limited to white but all possible ways the female body can look like. Women of different race, colour, age, profession are seen comfortably resonating with the message of the video. In the advert, the first image is of RED fluid being poured on a sanitary napkin to show its absorbent quality. A black boy is seeing buying napkins, a girl lying comfortably on an inflatable sanitary napkin in a pool.


Both the videos in no way show shame, disgust the act of menstruation. Both call for embracing it and the female body with much pride and ease. It involves men, too and tries to remove the social stigma towards periods.

Observation and Conclusion:

The 1940s advert ingrains most of the critiques of the second wave, e.g. issues like misrepresentation of women due to absence of women in the media industry, stereotyping. And the adverts of recent times showcase the positive results of all the waves. The advert engages in addressing body-positivity, diversity, excluding stereotyping, inclusion of women in the industry. This means that we can see a change in the representation of women in media from the two case studies. The representation of women in recent times is moving towards empowerment, openness, inclusiveness, freedom. A report by Council of Europe has stated that some progress has been made in changing the representation of women. There has been production of diverse imagery of women, gender sensitive approaches, gender equality, equal pay, quota are taken at helm. But the report also says that there is still more room for improvement. Issues like hyper-sexualisation, objectification, gender bias still must be addressed in complete essence. Council of Europe (2013). 

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