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Feminist Analysis of Gender in American Television Essay (Critical Writing)

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Abstract

The feminist movement has evidently been the driving force behind the struggle for gender equality in society. Different types of feminism no doubt espouse specific phenomena of social power and structures. To this end, feminist media scholars are no exception and their viewpoint of the patriarchy concept is a reflection of the prevalent gendered stereotypes relative to mainstream media trends. This paper explores these trends with reference to classical and contemporary media texts of American television.

Introduction

Feminism is a concept that is ultimately intertwined with the trends and developments of the mainstream media. Ott & Mack defined feminism as “a political project focused on deconstructing sexist oppression present in our everyday norms and experiences” (2010, p. 178). Indeed, society has been riddled with sexual and gender-based stereotypes that deliberately condemn women to inferiority while elevating the patriarchal dominance of men. Ott & Mack categorically warned that “when these stereotypical representations become commonly accepted in the media, the result is often social oppression and disempowerment of individuals within the stereotyped group” (2010, p.180). It is for this reason that this analysis critically evaluates the gender and sexuality function as a convention of American television from the viewpoint of feminist media scholars. The analysis is guided by the hypothesis that the media plays a role in the propagation of antagonistic sexual and gender-based stereotypes.

The Nexus between Stereotypes and Television Media Texts

A critical investigation of the gender and sexuality function as a convention of American television reveals a convergent relationship between gendered stereotypes and the influence of media texts. The perspective of feminist media scholars projects the understanding of “media texts as products of sexist social systems” (Ott & Mack, 2010, p. 178). Sexuality and gender-based stereotypes transcend the economic and socio-cultural spheres. In the economic sphere, for example, women experience unwarranted discrimination in employment opportunities (Mehra & Gammage, 1999). Social stigmas predominantly escalate the discrimination of women within family and religious circles. Confucian cultures, for example, tend to relegate women into subordinate roles to those of men (Hofstede, 1991). Some conservative Islamic societies prescribe the Hijab as the appropriate dressing code for women while others bar women from driving automobiles. Catholicism, on the other hand, forbids the ordaining of women into the priesthood (Paulson, 2009).

Interestingly, these trends have been integrally pronounced in media texts of the mainstream media including American television. The influence of media texts can be identified through a comparative analysis of classical and contemporary American television episodes. This paper analyses a classical comedy titled “The Honeymooners ‘Brother Ralph’ – Part 1/3” and a contemporary, mainstream American situation comedy titled “Modern Men – Series 1, Episode 5.”

For starters, the entire role structure of the “Brother Ralph” comedy is a manifestation of the active and public male dominance versus the passive and private female subordination. The gendered role bias is underlined by the fact that Ralph plays the starring role while his wife Alice merely plays a supportive role in the comedy (Brother Ralph).To this end, the underlying gendered stereotype that was articulated by the role structure of the text effectively portrayed Ralph as the active and domineering public figure but condemned Alice to a mere obedient partner, albeit, from a position of disadvantage. This effectively postulated the active/passive and public/private binary relationships between the male and the female (Ott & Mack, 2010). Unlike the classical comedy, the role structure of the Modern Men contemporary American comedy sees three men entrust their love lives to a female life coach who takes up a major responsibility in their lives. This effectively demystifies the perception of women as being incapable of taking leading roles in the public domain.

The public/private binary is pronounced by Alice’s blatant lie that she was Ralph’s sister in her bid to secure employment. In fact, just as the title “Brother Ralph” suggests, Alice’s lie formed the central theme of the comedy. She did not want to disclose to Ed Norton that she was Ralph’s wife because she would be rejected on the basis of employers’ gendered stereotype that married women are commercially unproductive due to their commitment to their homes and families. This gendered stereotype primarily condemns women to the private domain of the family caregiving role as it demonstrates that employers prefer to hire men in the public domains. In Modern Men, Estondel plays a leading role in the comedy, sometimes providing patronage to Tim, Doug, and Kyle in their lines as close friends and single men.

The logical/emotional binary of gendered stereotypes was echoed by Alice’s pensively expressed concerns about the future when Ralph broke the news that he had lost his job. She laid out her hands begging and asking Ralph “what are we gonna do, what we are gonna live on…?” Ralph, on his part, simply responded “let us not get panicking, let us face this thing intelligently. We will find out about the money we owe and the money we have…” (Brother Ralph). He went on to compute the figures of their financial status while Alice stood behind his chair watching passively. This portrayed Ralph as having an objective and stable logical (masculine) orientation as opposed to Alice’s subjective and unstable emotional (feminine) orientation. In contrast, the Modern Men demonstrates the logical prowess of the female by way of Estondel providing life coaching to Tim, Doug, and Kyle. This dismantled the gendered stereotype of women being perceived as entirely emotional and incapable of logic.

The sexual subject/sexual object binary was exposed by Norton’s flattery remarks to Ralph when joked about going out with Alice. This demonstrated that Norton perceived Alice as a sexual object rather than a subject. On the contrary, when Norton’s overturned a suggested sewer job offer to Ralph after he was scared of the room by Ralph, he grudgingly countered, “I take back my offer to you about the job in the sewer. Besides, you wouldn’t even fit through the manhole” (Brother Ralph). This demonstrated Norton’s impression of Ralph as a sexual subject, effectively positioning Ralph and Alice in the opposite ends of the sexual subject and sexual object binary continuum. The situation in Modern Men was the exact opposite. Estondel actually stood out as an independent figure that provided mentorship to three men who regarded her as a sexual subject rather than a sexual object.

The additional gender stereotypes not listed in the chapter include decisive/indecisive and aggressive/inert. For example, speaking of the aggressive/inert gendered stereotype in the “Brother Ralph” classical comedy, Norton ironically tells Ralph to smile when at a time when Ralph has lost his job. This seemed to propagate the gendered stereotype that men must demonstrate courage and aggressiveness even in the face of adversity. These additional gendered stereotypes are related to the other four gendered stereotypes mentioned in the chapter by way of favoring the patriarchal ascendancy of men over women.

Gender reversal was best exemplified by Alice’s taking up work when Ralph was temporarily fired. This meant that Ralph was a stay-at-home husband by virtue of being jobless while Alice assumed the breadwinner role by going to work. Ralph further portrayed gender reversals through jealousy that he exhibited when he suspected that Norton was interested in Alice yet he was her boss. After scaring Norton off out the room, he portrayed jealousy when he yelled “somewhere inside this room there was a stray cat waiting for this man.” In the realms of gendered stereotypes, however, jealousy is a tag that is associated with women. In the Modern Men American contemporary comedy, Tim, Doug, and Kyle played reversed roles as they frequently turned to Estondel for emotional support.

Conclusion

The stereotypical patterns that were inherent in the analysis of the two media texts were sure evidence of the overarching functionality of the American television media in the articulation and purveyance of gendered biases. Nonetheless, the transformations evident in the contemporary media text relative to the classical media text demonstrated that organized feminism has been effective in redefining the fundamental foundations of the patriarchy concept. Walby rightly stated that “it is this focus on the importance of women’s collective agency, as a political movement, which gives place to women’s agency in the creation of new structures of gender relations, new forms of patriarchy” (1996, p. 3). Indeed, the feminism movement is credited for having influenced the enduring transformation of the contemporary media and society where women are increasingly being appreciated as capable and worthwhile partners rather than inconsequential subordinates.

References

Hofstede, G. (1991). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. London: McGraw-Hill.

Karlval. (2011). “The Honeymooners “Brother Ralph” – Part 1/3.” 2012. Web.

Nauert, R., PhD. & Grohol, J. M. (2008). “Reversal of Gender Roles.” Web.

Mehra, R., & Gammage, S. (1999). Trend, Countertrends, and Gap in Women’s Employment. World Development. Great Britain.

Ott, B. L., & Mack, R.L. (2010). Critical Media Studies: An Introduction. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

Paulson, M. (2009).”Catholic Mag: let’s Discuss married Priests.” Web.

Sokoloff, M. (2012). Modern Men (S1, EP 5). Web.

Walby, S. (1996). “Key Concepts in Feminist Theory.” Feminist Research Center in Aalborg, 33, 1-18. Aalborg: Aalborg University.

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