Gender Representations In Advertisements: Naysayers VS Critics

April 2nd, 2012 | Categories: Gender

Sometimes people become annoyed when a person criticizes the media for how groups, particularly racial, gender, and age groups are represented. Naysayers would argue that the critic is exaggerating, making much ado about nothing, and just being overly PC (“i.e., politically correct).” But one wonders whether they have ever taken a critical look at media messages about these groups.

Why not try now? Let’s engage in a small activity using gender as a case study.

Purchase two magazines at your local newsstand (subtext: support local business). All the better if these are gendered magazines like GQ or Glamour. Look at each full page advertisement in each magazine. Then ask yourself these questions:

1a) What stands out to you in the advertisements?
2a) What behaviors/objects do you see consistently across the ads?
3a) What characteristics would you attribute to the women in each ad? To the men?
4a) What are the similarities across the advertisements in the two magazines? What are the differences?

Pick one advertisement from each magazine that you think is representative of the types of advertisements in each. Because we are looking at representations of people, make sure there is at least one person as the focus of each ad.
1b) Who do you think is the audience being targeted by each advertisement?
2b) What is the text of each advertisement? I am not referring here to the typical meaning of text as typed words, but instead text I am referring to the “the actual words, pictures and/or
sounds in a media message
3b) What is the subtext of each advertisement? “The subtext is the hidden and underlying meaning of the message.”
4b) What values and opinions are being expressed by the advertisement? How, if at all, are these messages different depending on the magazine?

Now that you have completed this little activity, read what Goffman had to say about how women and men were represented in advertisements when he published in 1976, 36 years ago.

Goffman (1976) categorizes and provides examples of advertisements that demonstrate the polarization of men and women in the media. Goffman demonstrates how women are shown in advertisements as expressive. Women are shown to use touch in a caressing fashion regardless of whether it is self or other touch. Females are shown engaging in leisure activities, such as relaxing sipping drinks, or smiling having conversations.

In contrast, males are shown as engaging in instrumental activities. These males appear to use touch in a functional rather than expressive way. Furthermore, males engage in the activity of instructing while women or those younger than the male are instructed. Males are shown as serious and engaged at work.

Goffman discusses how advertisements reinforce gendered behavior by exaggerating cross gender behavior to make the viewer laugh. Advertisements show females performing stereotypical male work such as carpentry wearing workman’s clothes and so forth while the men engage in leisure pursuits. Other advertisements cross the gender roles by humorously having men doing housework.


In 36 years, have the images changed tremendously?

The reason people are critical of advertisements and their representations of racial, gendered, and age groups is because these are clear and, as Goffman’s study contrasted to your own activity results show, consistent messages being perpetuated by this form of media. There are two counterarguments used by naysayers, however, against such claims.

First, advertisers are surely and simply trying to sell a product and so marketing to a specific demographic, represented in a typical if not universal way is justifiable for a profit driven industry. There is no need to provide additional detail here about this argument when the argument is made in the comments of one of my previous blogs.

Second, and Goffman provides this counter-argument against the critical theorists himself, despite the ubiquity of these images, “nothing dictates that should we dig and poke behind these images we can expect to find anything there” (p. 8). Goffman is able to distinguish between the images that the media portrays of a gender polarized population and the ability of a population to be able to choose whether to embody these gendered behaviors. Goffman argues that gendered advertisements suggest “that there is an underlying reality to gender” (p. 8). Instead, “there is only a schedule for the portrayal of gender” (p. 8). By “schedule” Goffman means to say there is a time and place in which gendered portrayals of self are appropriate. Advertisements help to socialize people into knowing this schedule but people themselves have the free will to choose whether to engage or not in behaviors in a way consistent with this schedule.

Are the naysayers correct in arguing that those critical of advertisements exaggerate the importance of gendered advertisements?

Kruse, Weimer, and Wagner’s (1988) research on West-German magazines analyzed how men and women presented in print and what types of actions each are shown to engage in when talked about. While having limited generalizability to a discussion of gender polarization in American culture, their results are conveniently consistent with what has been discussed by Goffman and what as presumably found through your activity. In their research, the gender representations include that “men are expected to be strong, women to be fragile, men to be hard, women to be tender” (p. 245). The results of this research show that “at least in widely read magazine articles . . . women are characterized as seeking help . . . . Men are described as conquerors” (p. 254). Men are viewed as threatening, while women are seen as passive and defensive (p. 256). In terms of the expressiveness-instrumental poles, “women rather than men are presented as showing feelings of joy . . . but also negative feelings [of anger, hate, fear, disappointment, etc.]” (p. 260).

Kruse, et al. consider that media are an “ ‘external memory’ for social representations accessible to all members of a language community” (p. 260). These provide more than a repertoire of behavior as Goffman argued and, instead these authors argue that the representations “seem to cement traditional interaction patterns” (p. 261). For those who are critical of the way in which racial, gendered, and age groups are represented in advertisements, it is this cementing that is problematic. It is made still more so because it comes at the cost of supplanting images that would advance beyond these gendered representations.

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