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British Politics and the Media – Feminist Theory

Feminists developed a wider theory of patriarchy.

Society was not only organised to promote a particular role for women and dictate how women look but also kept women away from centres of power in business, the professions, politics and so on.

More than this, areas such as politics were organised on a competitive and aggressive basis to reflect male values, as the battle between the two front benches in the House of Commons demonstrates.

Feminist values, by contrast involved empathy, cooperation and discussion to reach solutions. In the traditional media, a distinction was drawn between male orientated serious discussion of topics and women’s popular television such as soap operas.

Discussion of media theory since the end of second wave feminism has revolved around how far women have achieved positions of power but also whether feminist values have spread through society.

The 1980s

By the 1980s, constructivist ideas had entered feminist media theory.

Earlier discussion assumed direct effects so that women were socialised into accepting their role by the male orientated media output.

Studies by Dorothy Hobson of the British soap Crossroads (Crosroads: Drama of a Soap Opera, 1982), Janice Radway of romantic fiction (Reading the Romance, 1984) and Ien Ang of the American soap Dallas (Watching Dallas, 1985) argued that, although the basic nature of this outputs was patriarchal, women had many different ways of reacting to them and could construct a world in which they were in control and so exercise a collective fantasy that they could share.

Mary Ann Doane’s idea of the feminine screen performance being appreciated by a female audience as an unreal ‘masquerade’ is a similar idea (can be found in Feminist Film Theory, A Reader edited by Sue Thornham, 1999).

The 1990s

By the 1990s society had clearly changed.

Women were gradually becoming a significant proportion of those in key occupations in Britain and, although some areas such as Parliament and City boardrooms were slower than others and women’s pay remained lower, the idea of a women’s career was now accepted.

Nearly half the terrestrial TV workforce is now female, although men are still more likely to be owners of production companies and in top executive roles.

Feminist media theory began to discuss how significant these changes were. Feminism itself had tended to dissolve into different debates about the position of older women, working class women, black women and lesbian women so that an overall perspective was more difficult.

The idea of a post-feminist culture was suggested given a greater fluidity in gender relations and identity with, for example, images in the media of the metrosexual male to match those of women.

TV series such as Buffy, The Vampire Slayer and Xena, The Warrior Princess portrayed ‘powerful’ women and series such as Sex and the City portrayed women, generally single, who seemed to have freedom and choice, while teenage magazines promoted the idea of the ‘Girl Power’ of female pop groups (Susan Hopkins in Girl Heroes, 2002 explores these developments and sees them as positive).

The boundaries between documentary and fiction have dissolved with the news covering many themes of personal relationships though feminist writers have pointed to male media critics who have blamed women for the dumbing down of television content.

Third Wave Feminism

Although some writers see a continuous development in feminist ideas, there has ,since the early 1990s, been the idea of a third wave feminism. This sees second wave feminism as adopting a single definition of what feminism is whereas, adopting postmodern ideas, third wave feminism sees ‘male’, ‘female’, ’black’ or ‘lesbian’ are merely labels that can be used to express identity or changed to create new identities.

Although these views see variety in the media and especially the internet as an opportunity to find material for creating these new identities there is criticism that they merely plug into the commercialism of media outlets.

There are still critiques of media output such as Angela McRobbie’s of The Bridget Jones Diary film which concentrates on fear of ageing and weight gain as female concerns (Feminist Media Studies, Volume 4 No 3, 2004) or the studies of news programmes which still show most ‘experts’ and leading political commentators as still men (see the chapter by Lana Rakow and Kimberlie Kravich in the book edited by Paul Marris and Sue Thornham, Media Studies: a reader, 1996, or Myra Macdonald in News, Gender and Power by Cynthia Carter et al, 1998)

(Sue Thornham’s book, Women, Feminism and Media, 2007 gives a good summary of the development of ideas with chapters on key themes)