Race, Gender, Class:
How some of society’s most controversial issues are examined in the media
Editor’s Note: The Reporters Inc. is pleased to present exclusive excerpts from a new compilation of readings that examine present-day matters of race, gender and class in the media. Told from rhetorical, social, scientific, critical and cultural perspectives, we’re including pieces that explore everything from body image, sex trafficking and economic inequality to cultural stereotypes about women as propagated on the reality TV dating show, The Bachelor. University of Illinois at Chicago Associate Professor Rebecca Lind edited Race/Gender/Class/Media: Considering Diversity Across Audiences, Content, and Producers and she starts us off with this introduction.
Laying a Foundation for Studying Race, Gender, Class, and the Media
By Rebecca Ann Lind (Editor)
Rebecca Ann Lind (PhD, University of Minnesota) is associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the department of communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research interests include race, gender, class and media; new media studies; media ethics; journalism; and audiences.
From Sesame Street, Schoolhouse Rock and Dora the Explorer to fake news, filter bubbles and sexting, ours is a mediated society. Much of what we know about, care about, and think is important is based on what we see in the media. The media provide information, entertainment, escape, and relaxation and even help us make small talk. The media can help save lives, and—unfortunately—can cause harm.
The average American household has the television set on about eight hours a day. Worldwide, the average internet user is on social media more than five hours per day. Compare that to our involvement with other social institutions. How much time have we spent in the classroom in our entire lives? With a faith community? How does that compare to your time spent with media? How can the media not affect us in some way?
A primary assumption underlying media research is that the media do matter—what we see, read, and hear affect us in some way. Different types of scholars, however, approach the matter of media effects differently. Social scientists try to model their research on the natural sciences and strive to maintain objectivity. They often employ experimental or survey methodologies testing for precise and narrowly defined media effects (such as how people’s opinions change as a result of media exposure, how people’s perceptions of others or about the world in general are affected by what they see/hear/read, or whether people behave more aggressively after being exposed to violent media content).
Critical/cultural researchers, on the other hand, reject not only the desirability of maintaining an objective, value-neutral position but also the very possibility of doing so. Human beings, they argue, cannot distance ourselves from our social world; indeed, only by immersing ourselves in its practices can we understand them. A subjective interpretation is thus not just desired but required to learn how the media affect the world in which we live. These are fundamentally different assumptions from those held by most social scientists. The types of media effects that critical/cultural researchers investigate are different, too. They’re much more broadly defined and often address the cumulative effects of a lifetime of exposure to media content—content that typically represents a limited range of viewpoints, ideas, and images. Ultimately, the media help maintain a status quo in which certain groups in our society routinely have access to power and privilege whereas others do not. Because the types of questions critical/cultural scholars ask are often different from those posed by social scientists, these scholars tend to prefer qualitative methodologies such as rhetorical or textual analysis, interviews, and ethnographic techniques. In addition, critical/cultural scholars extend their involvement with their research to include the ultimate goal of making the world a better place. If we can identify the ways in which our social structures function to oppress certain groups, then we can try to do something to make things more equitable.
This book, Race/Gender/Class/Media: Considering Diversity Across Audiences, Content, and Producers, contains work by both social scientists and critical/cultural scholars, although the latter group dominates.
Race, Gender, and Class Matter
Like it or not, we do categorize people on the basis of race/ethnicity, gender, and social class. Our perceptions of our own and others’ identities color all our interactions; they affect our expectations of others, our expectations of ourselves, and others’ expectations of us.
According to J.F. Healey and E. O’Brien, we make snap judgments about people (and things). We live in a complex social world, and we simply don’t have time to ruminate about all the fine points of everything and everyone we encounter. So we categorize people and groups, often on the basis of nothing more than the visible more-or-less permanent physical markers of race and gender. Furthermore, the classifications we make affect our behavior toward others.
Why do the markers of race and gender stand out, rather than other attributes? Why are these the characteristics by which we categorize others? Because this is how we’ve been socialized. We could classify people according to length of hair, height, or even the size of their feet, but we don’t. Ultimately, we rely on these characteristics because we have been taught to do so: prejudice “is the normal result of typical socialization in families, communities, and societies that are, to some degree, racist.”
It’s the same with gender—we’ve been socialized into a gender-conscious society that is also stratified (divided in a hierarchical fashion, with some social groups having more of the goods/services valued by society than others) along the lines of gender.
When our generalizations become overly simplistic, when we ignore evidence that they are incorrect, or when they become exaggerated, they have become more than mere generalizations; they’ve become stereotypes. Stereotypes reflect our (erroneous) beliefs that the few traits we stress are the most important, and that they apply to all members of the group. They deny the presence and the importance of individual characteristics. Stereotypes are an important component of prejudice, which Healey and O’Brien defined as “the tendency of an individual to think about other groups in negative ways, to attach negative emotions to those groups, and to prejudge individuals on the basis of their group membership.” Notice the two dimensions of this definition—prejudice has both a cognitive and an emotional element. Stereotypes are at the heart of the cognitive aspect of prejudice. Prejudice can lead to discrimination, although it doesn’t need to, because even a highly prejudiced person can refrain from acting on her or his negative cognitive or emotional response to certain social groups. Discrimination occurs when people are treated unequally just because they belong to a certain group. People can be treated differently for many different reasons, but any time unequal treatment is based on group membership (even the perception of group membership) the behavior is discriminatory. Stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination reflect racism, sexism, or classism (although these concepts go much deeper than that and are defined differently by different people), depending on whether the stereotypes are rooted in race/ethnicity or gender.
Of the 53 readings from Race/Gender/Class/Media: Considering Diversity Across Audiences, Content, and Producers, we’ve included excerpts from seven of them here with The Reporters Inc. Jean Kilbourne addresses the representation of women in advertising. She argues that women and girls are “cut down to size” in a variety of ways, having significant ramifications for our society. Christopher Campbell’s piece broadly considers media created by or for the Millennial generation, considering (among other things) Beyonce’s Formation video and Amy Schumer’s parody thereof. Jennifer Kramer looks at how The Bachelor perpetuates an image of catty women who will go to great lengths to beat other women to win their man. Alina Oxendine reports on a multi-method study looking first at how online news sources frame income inequality, and then whether the types of frames typically found in such stories affect American’s views of inequality. Anne Johnston and Barbara Friedman analyze media coverage of sex trafficking, revealing how the media’s use of romance or what they call “boyfriending-in” narratives perpetuate stereotypes and the stigmatization of trafficking victims. Judy Isaksen finds that the leading yoga magazine, Yoga Journal, presents a narrowly-defined image of yoga practitioners as youthful, White, slender, toned, and female. Finally, Jennifer Stevens Aubrey and Larissa Terán survey adolescent girls to see whether selfie activities are related to their self-objectification, appearance anxiety, and body-esteem.
“The More You Subtract, the More You Add”: Cutting Girls Down to Size in Advertising
By Jean Kilbourne
Jean Kilbourne (EdD, Boston University) is internationally recognized for her pioneering activist work on alcohol and tobacco advertising and the image of women in advertising. She is the creator of the award-winning film series Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women and the author of Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel and So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids. In 2015, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. www.jeankilbourne.com
“The more you subtract, the more you add,” says an ad that ran in several women’s and teen magazines in 1997. It’s a statement about minimalism in fashion — but the fact that the model is very young and very thin reinforces another message: that girls should diminish themselves, be less than they are.
This does refer to her body, but the loss, the subtraction, and the cutting down to size also refer to her sense of herself, her sexuality, her need for authentic connection, and her longing for power and freedom. I don’t think the creators of this ad had all this in mind. And it wouldn’t be important at all were there not so many other ads that reinforce this message and did it not coincide with the current cultural crisis for adolescent girls.
When a girl enters adolescence, she faces a series of losses—loss of self-confidence, of a sense of efficacy and ambition, and of her “voice,” the sense of being a unique and powerful self that she had in childhood. Girls who were active, confident, feisty often become hesitant, insecure, self-doubting. Their self-esteem plummets.
Even girls who are raised in loving homes by supportive parents grow up in a culture—both reflected and reinforced by advertising—that urges girls to adopt a false self, to become “feminine,” which means to be nice and kind and sweet, to compete with other girls for the attention of boys, and to value romantic relationships with boys above all else. Girls are put into a terrible double bind. They are supposed to repress their power, their anger, their exuberance and be simply “nice,” although they also eventually must compete with men in the business world and be successful. They must be overtly sexy and attractive but essentially passive and virginal. How can we resist these destructive messages and images? The first step, as always, is to become as conscious of them as possible.
Regardless of advertisers’ intent, what messages are girls getting? Primarily girls are told by advertisers that what is most important about them is their perfume, their clothing, their bodies, their beauty. Girls of all ages get the message that they must be flawlessly beautiful and, above all, they must be thin.
Adolescent girls are especially vulnerable to the obsession with thinness, in part because of ominous peer pressure. Adolescence is a time of self-consciousness and terror of shame and humiliation. Boys are shamed for being too small, weak, soft, sensitive. And girls are shamed for being too sexual, loud, boisterous, big (in any sense of the word). Ads deliberately create and intensify anxiety about weight because it is profitable. But they also reflect cultural concerns and conflicts about women’s power. Real freedom for women would change the very basis of our male-dominated society.
“We cut Judy down to size,” says an ad for a health club. The obsession with thinness is most deeply about cutting girls and women down to size. Besides the obsession with thinness, other messages “cut girls down to size” more subtly. In ad after ad girls are urged to be “barely there”—beautiful but silent.
“Make a statement without saying a word,” says an ad for perfume. An Italian ad features a very thin young woman in an elegant coat. The copy says, “This woman is silent. This coat talks.” Girls, seeing these images of women, are encouraged to be silent, mysterious, not to talk too much or too loudly. In many ways, they are told “the more you subtract, the more you add.”
As Erving Goffman pointed out in Gender Advertisements, we can learn about the disparate power of males and females simply through the body language and poses of advertising. Women are generally subservient to men in ads, both through size and position.
Girls are often shown as playful clowns, perpetuating the attitude that girls and women are childish and cannot be taken seriously, whereas even very young boys are portrayed as secure, powerful, and serious. People in control of their lives stand upright, alert, and ready to meet the world. Females often appear off-balance, insecure, and weak. We cover our faces with our hair or our hands. And, no matter what happens, we keep on smiling. “Just smiling the bothers away,” as one ad says.
Advertisers offer solutions for young people’s insecurities and anxieties: a cigarette symbolizes independence; designer jeans or sneakers convey status; the right perfume or beer resolves doubts about femininity or masculinity. Because so many anxieties have to do with sexuality and intimacy, the concept of sexuality is probably most deeply affected.
“You can learn more about anatomy after school,” says an ad for jeans, which manages to trivialize sex, relationships, and education all in one sentence. Further, the emphasis for girls and women is always on being desirable, not on experiencing desire. Girls who want to be sexually active instead of simply being the objects of male desire are given only one model to follow. Advertisers can’t seem to conceive of a kind of power that isn’t manipulative and exploitive or a way that women can be actively sexual without being like traditional men.
Mostly, girls are not supposed to have sexual agency. They are supposed to be passive, swept away, overpowered. “See where it takes you,” says a perfume ad featuring a couple passionately embracing. “Unleash your fantasies,” says another. “A force of nature.” This contributes to the strange and damaging concept of the “good girl” as one who is swept away, unprepared for sex, versus the “bad girl” as one who plans for sex, uses contraception, and is generally responsible.
There are few healthy alternatives for girls who want to rebel against restrictive gender roles and stereotypes. What they are offered is a superficial toughness, an “attitude,” exemplified by smoking, drinking, and engaging in casual sex—all harmful behaviors.
Of course, we don’t take these ads literally. But we do take them in—each is another grain of sand in a slowly accumulating and vast sand pile. We are offered only one escape route—buy something. Of course, we can’t attain empowerment, enlightenment, love, through products. On one level, we know this. Still, we keep buying and hoping.
Some ads offer products as a way to rebel, to be a real individual. “Live outside the lines,” says a clothing ad featuring a young woman walking out of a men’s room. But even if women seem really angry and rebellious, the final message remains the same. “Today, I indulge my dark side,” says an ad featuring a fierce young woman tearing at what seems to be a net. “Got a problem with that?” The product promising to free this girl from the net that imprisons her? Black nail polish.
Nail polish. But how could it be otherwise? In advertising, the solution to any problem has to be a product. Transformation is thus inevitably shallow and moronic.
This relentless trivialization of her hopes and dreams, her expectations for herself, cuts to the quick of a young girl’s soul. Just as she is entering womanhood, eager to spread her wings, to become more sexual, more empowered, more independent—the culture moves in to cut her down to size.
Black nail polish isn’t going to help.
“Trust me, I am not a racist.”: Whiteness, Media and Millennials
By Christopher P. Campbell
Christopher P. Campbell (PhD, University of Southern Mississippi) is professor in the school of mass communication and journalism at the University of Southern Mississippi. He is the author of Race, Myth and the News, the editor of The Routledge Companion to Media and Race, and the co-editor of Race and News: Critical Perspectives.
If nothing else, the election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States made the irreverent skit-comedy program Saturday Night Live relevant again. When SNL’s first program after Trump’s election featured the popular African-American comic Dave Chapelle, it attracted its largest audience of the season. After Chapelle’s monologue Chapelle intimated that White progressives had underestimated the appeal that Trump’s thinly veiled racism had for many White Americans, the first sketch hammered home the point. Chapelle and popular African-American comedian, Chris Rock, attend an election-night party with some White Millennials prepared to celebrate Hillary Clinton’s victory. As the night wears on, and Trump’s election become apparent, Chapelle and Rock feign surprise as the other party-goers are shocked that somebody such as Trump could actually have won the election. “Oh my God,” one said, “I think America is racist.”
The skit’s keen insight into progressive White America’s failure to grasp the role of contemporary racism in the election was a telling analysis and showed pop culture’s potential to address America’s racial divide. But the message was lost in the flood of Millennial media messages reflecting the post-racial mythology of previous generations. In this essay, I discuss media created by and for the Millennial generation and argue that post-racial Whiteness will continue to haunt media texts and delay yet another generation of Americans from a more sophisticated understanding of contemporary racism.
Millennials, Race and Media Two Formations
A useful tool in examining contemporary racism is critical race theory (CRT), which positions the notion of Whiteness (and White privilege) at the center of discussions about race. CRT argues that racism functions institutionally, and M. Mahoney explained in Critical white studies: looking behind the mirror that “part of white privilege is not seeing all we (white people) have and all we do, and not seeing how what we do appears to those defined as other”
As K. LeDuff observed in The Routledge companion to media and race, “Today it seems that many of the old challenges that society faced in pre-civil rights America are coming back to haunt us with a new and different twist.” Although White supremacist ideology is easy to find in media targeting young adults, it is even more disturbing that White Millennials whose politics are otherwise progressive still seem tone deaf when it comes to issues of race. Comedian-actress Amy Schumer, avowed feminist and Hillary-supporter, has faced scathing criticism for her blind spot regarding race. In defending herself on social media, she made a comment that sounds like it could have come from Donald Trump: “Trust me. I am not a racist.”
Schumer’s curious examination of race continued when she produced a parody of Beyonce’s video Formation. Beyonce’s version, released the weekend before her performance at the 2016 Super Bowl halftime show, “sent shockwaves of glee through social media,” according to an article in The Washington Post. The glory of the song “is in its sheer blackness,” as the Post’s J. Guo observed: “There is a feeling that Beyonce has written a song specifically for black ears, finally.” She sings about embracing her Negro and Creole heritage, her nose, and hair. The images in the video are politically pro-Black, described by The New York Times as a “high-level, visually striking Black Lives Matter allegory.”
In accepting the 2017 Grammy for Best Urban Contemporary album, Beyonce said: “My intention for the film and album was to create a body of work that will give a voice to our pain, our struggles, our darkness and our history…It’s important for me to show images to my children that reflect their beauty.”
In Schumer’s curious rendition of the video, she and White actress Goldie Hawn imitate the dance moves and mouth lines about “my Negro nose” and having a Negro-Creole heritage. This is a kind of post-modern blackface; the stars’ Whiteness allows them the privilege of ridiculing even the most popular African-American performer at the moment she most overtly embraces her Blackness. Like clueless White frat boys who don minstrel-era blackface at Halloween, Schumer hides behind her ignorance, telling us that the video was a “tribute” with only good intentions. In her defense, Schumer conflates support for feminism with support for racial progress, a theme she seems to adopt each time she is criticized for her racist material.
That attitude – that because she is a politically aware feminist (and a comedian, so it’s just jokes) she gets a pass on her racially offensive material – is precisely how Whiteness functions for many progressive Millennials. K. Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the importance of understanding how sexism and racism intersect. Schumer and other White progressives seem not to understand that real progress requires overcoming the White privilege which allows them to embrace some social issues and ignore (or compound) others.
The Historical Persistence of Racism
Perhaps we should not be surprised that Whiteness – a kind of post-racial racism – persists in Millennial media. In 2016, Achara, Blackwell and Sen advanced a theory of historical persistence to explain how racist attitudes are transmitted across generations. They argued that racial threat – irrational fears about African Americans and other minority groups – does not drive White racial attitudes. Rather, “historical institutions like slavery are significant in shaping American culture and politics, even if they no longer exist.”
The notion of historical persistence, then, may explain why White Millennial media, including the work of the most politically progressive comics, may not be able to contribute to a helpful dialogue about contemporary American racism. As J. Bouie explained in 2014, “Millennials have grown up in a world where we talk about race without racism—or don’t talk about it at all—and where ‘skin color’ is the explanation for racial inequality, as if ghettos are ghettos because they are black, and not because they were created.” He noted the irony: “A generation that hates racism but chooses colorblindness is a generation that, through its neglect, comes to perpetuate it.”
At the conclusion of the Chapelle-Rock Saturday Night Live skit about Trump’s election, one of the White party-goers comments, “This is the most shameful thing America has ever done.” The two Black comedians laugh, sharing knowing smiles. This is not even close to America’s most shameful moment, especially if you consider the history of racism in America.
It’s Okay That We Back-Stab Each Other: Cultural Myths That Fuel the Battling Female in The Bachelor
By Jennifer S. Kramer
Jennifer S. Kramer is associate professor of communication at The College of St. Benedict & St. John’s University. Her research focuses on stigmatizing communication fat women experience from their medical providers. She also studies chronic pain communication and intercultural health communication.
The Cinderella fairy tale depicts a beautiful young woman forced to be a slave for her stepfamily after her father dies. A prince searches for a wife by hosting a ball, which Cinderella attends through the magic of her fairy godmother. The magic disappears at midnight, and Cinderella loses a glass slipper which eventually leads the prince to her. He delivers her from slavery into a happily ever after. The long-running unscripted dating show The Bachelor is regularly touted as a Cinderella story.
The women competing for the bachelor’s heart claim the opportunity to meet the bachelor is like being in a fairy tale and that they really do believe this is a viable way to find the perfect husband. For example, in the first episodes the women refer to the bachelor Prince Charming and themselves as Cinderella.
Why the Myths Work so Well
We need to be critical of the dating reality television genre because it “works at the level of feeling rather than cognitive content,” according to M. Kayka, and viewers are enthralled by watching the performance of love because love is too difficult to describe. Viewers suspend disbelief because they feel a sense of intimacy with the contestants. The hook of feeling intimacy sneaks in cultural messages, because reality television “circulates informal ‘guidelines for living’ that we are all (at times) called upon to learn from and follow. These are not abstract ideologies imposed from above, but. . . practical techniques for reflecting on, managing, and improving. . . our personal lives with the resources available to us,” according to L. Ouellette and J Hay.
Reality television reinforces many of the taken-for-granted ideological discourses found within popular cultural myths such as Cinderella. The ideological discourse for women is based upon economic social power relationships which, according to C. Cupaiuolo, work to keep women in submissive roles and therefore, dating reality television “drive[s] home the notion that no emotional, professional or political accomplishment can be possibly compared with the twin vocations of beauty and marriage (according to Ms. Magazine).
- Tannenbaum explained that the socialized role of being feminine forces women into a double bind because women need to demonstrate independence, yet they still need a man to be complete. Mingling the myth of Cinderella with its supporting myths has thus created an ideological discourse: “Being competitive, catty, and cunning are part of the stereotype of femininity.” We have come to expect and desire depictions of women who back-stab each other in their quest to win the bachelor’s love.
Possibility of Success (through) Valuing Challenges
According to C.U. Larson, the possibility of success myth explains that “through hard work, ethics, and future orientation, [one] will succeed and succeed very well.” The myth of valuing challenges saves Cinderella because she perseveres.
The future orientation of the challenge to win the bachelor’s heart is stressed repeatedly by the contestants. In the early episodes of each season, the women confess how ready they are for this challenge and what they bring to the competition to overcome the other women. For example, Olivia (fighting for season 21 bachelor Nick’s affection) tells the camera she is not there to make friends, she is aggressive, and she will not disappear into the background.
Woman’s Woman Myth
Larson described the woman’s woman as “soft spoken, kind, and nurturing. She may work, but she is also the perfect wife and mother, and is immaculately groomed. However, she is also vain, rarely has meaningful thoughts, and never wastes time on serious things.” By depicting women as physical objects, we rarely see them as powerful. According to T.L. Russ and L. Tannenbaum, women have seen each other as competition and so have become adept at quickly sizing up their female competition. In season 21, Corinne is the center of the women’s fury due to her flaunting her sexuality with bachelor Nick, including taking topless photos with him as well as straddling him in a drawn-out sexual maneuver in a bouncy house on the lawn. The women’s nurturer capabilities are also up for evaluation as the women regularly tell the bachelor they are there for him and understand how difficult this process is for him.
The Bachelor women’s stake in being seen as desirable, acceptable women is constantly in question throughout the show, fostering whirlwinds of insults. Comments made behind each other’s back criticize one another’s adequacy for the bachelor, decency as a woman, and even their human decency.
Yet woman who are assertive when seeking the bachelor’s attention are criticized by the others for not demonstrating woman’s woman characteristics. Although women are just as aggressive as men, they are more likely to express this in an indirect, manner. The Bachelor highlights the plight of women in the woman’s woman double bind. They are supposed to allow the bachelor to make his choice, but the cultural myth of the woman’s woman forces them to compete. They need to hide their aggression so as to still be seen as feminine and to avoid negative consequences.
And the Back Stabbing Continues…
It’s easy to resort to following cultural plotlines in our lives when faced with difficult situations such as looking for love. And The Bachelor serves them up for us on a silver platter laden with a rose. Perpetuating the cultural myths of Cinderella, the possibility of success, valuing challenges, and being a woman’s woman has helped put women in a double bind, as women “can be successful [only] as long as [they] stay ‘feminine’ (i.e., powerless enough not to be truly threatening).… Powerful women are seen by many people (women as well as men) as inherently destructive and dangerous. Some, like J. Kilbourne, argue that it is men’s awareness of just how powerful women can be that has created the attempts to keep women small.” Because the women are all dating the same man, they are forced to spend more time with one another than with the bachelor, and they fight one another in the manner in which they’ve been socialized—by stabbing one another in the back.
The Income Gap in Online News: Analyzing the Prevalence and Influence of Partisan Slant
By Alina Renee Oxendine
Alina Renee Oxendine (PhD, University of Minnesota) is associate professor in the department of political science at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN. Her research and teaching interests include American politics, political psychology, public opinion, race, class and gender.
Compared to other advanced democracies, the United States has exceptionally high-income inequality, with wealth accumulating at the top. Why aren’t middle class and poor Americans more supportive of policies and candidates that challenge inequality? In this study I analyze how national online news outlets cover the issue of economic inequality, and test whether the framing of a news story influences perceptions of income inequality and its solutions.
Media Content Analysis: Do Left and Right Differ?
I analyzed news stories about income inequality in right- and left-leaning online news sources from 2015-2017. Right-leaning sources were less likely to cover the issue (average eight articles per source). About 40% of these stories mentioned government intervention, 90% of which framed it negatively. Left-leaning sources provided more extensive coverage (average 20 articles per source) and were about twice as likely (75%) to mention government intervention. Of these stories, 85% depicted government involvement positively.
Survey Experiment: Does Partisan Slant Matter?
After showing that conservative and liberal media frame stories about income inequality differently, I analyzed the influence of partisan frames using a pretest-posttest survey experiment. Respondents answered pretest questions, read a news article (one of four versions), and answered posttest questions. The questions assessed concern about the income divide, support for government intervention to reduce inequality, and perceptions of whether inequality has increased.
The news articles represented three experimental conditions and a control condition. The neutral frame (condition 1) presented facts about the 2017 Republican tax bill, noting connections between tax policy and income inequality. The liberal frame (condition 2) was the same but added statements blaming inequality on “corporate corruption” and suggesting that “government should try to solve the problem by increasing, not reducing, taxes on the wealthy.” The conservative frame (condition 3) blamed the inequality on “government and Washington corruption” and said the solution is to “provide deep tax cuts to corporations and wealthy business owners to pump the economy.” Finally, the control condition story discussed the flu season, mentioning neither the tax bill nor income inequality.
A group of 400 MTurk workers completed the survey in December 2017. Respondents resided in 47 states, reported ages from 18 to 80, and represented a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and education levels. The gender distribution was roughly equivalent. About 78% were White/Caucasian and 12% Black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, or some other race.
The Baseline Survey: Americans are Concerned
About 80% of respondents thought inequality is “much larger” or “somewhat larger” than 20 years ago; 80% are “very concerned” or “moderately concerned” about “the way income is distributed in the United States.” Still, only 68% agree it is “government’s responsibility to reduce income differences between the rich and poor.”
Linear regression can show which demographic and political characteristics are associated with attitudes about inequality. Using pre-test survey data and three different linear regression models, I analyzed “concern about inequality,” “perception that inequality has grown over time,” and “support for government intervention to reduce inequality.” First, I tested for a relationship between a dependent variable (respondents’ concern about inequality) and several independent variables (political party, ideology, age, gender, race, income and education). In this model [F(7, 401) = 26.16, p < .001, Adjusted R2 = .25], the most influential variables were political ideology (conservatives were less concerned, β = .31, p < .01), political party (Republicans were less concerned, β = .082, p < .05), and income (richer people were less concerned, β = .045, p< .05). Race, gender, age, and education were not statistically significant. I found similar results with “perception that inequality has grown over time” [F(7, 403)=6.00, p<.001, Adjusted R2 = .073] and “support for government intervention to reduce inequality” [F(7, 402)=41.08, p<.001, Adjusted R2 = .35]. In the second and third models, party, ideology and income were again the strongest predictors of attitudes about inequality.
The Experimental Manipulation: Partisan Slant Does Matter
Initial results did not suggest that the different versions of the news articles influenced perceptions of income inequality. However, a closer look revealed interesting interactions between the experimental conditions and gender, race, education, and ideology. Overall, as described below, White, male, well-educated and highly partisan respondents were least affected by variations in the stories.
A two-way ANOVA analyzing “perception that inequality is growing over time” revealed an interaction between gender and the article conditions [F(3, 405) = 2.69, p < .05, η² = .02]. Women in the liberal, conservative, and neutral experimental conditions were more likely than women in the control group to increase support for the belief that inequality has grown. For men, reactions to the experimental and control conditions were essentially unchanged. There is also an interaction between race and news article conditions [F(16, 386) = 2.22, p < .01, η² = .016]. Non-Whites exhibited greater change after the experimental conditions than after the control condition. For Whites, the average change was about the same. Thus, race and gender may contribute to people’s receptiveness to information about inequality and how much such information might influence public opinion.
I expected partisan news stories to influence support for government intervention. This was evident in political moderates and people without college degrees. A two-way ANOVA analyzing “support for government intervention” reveals an interaction between partisan news frames and education [F(1, 198) = 2.52, p < .10, η² = .011]. Among respondents without college degrees, stories with a liberal slant increased support for government intervention, whereas stories with a conservative slant decreased such support. Thus, increased education might make people less vulnerable to framing effects; for people without college degrees, partisan slant may influence what they believe should be done about income inequality.
Political moderates may be vulnerable to framing effects, too. A two-way ANOVA evaluating “support for government intervention” reveals an interaction between partisan news frames and political ideology [F(1, 197) = 3.12, p < .10, η² = .016]. The results suggest that political moderates reading stories with a liberal slant became more supportive of government intervention, whereas moderates reading stories with a conservative slant became less supportive. Therefore, political moderates and people without college degrees may be more vulnerable to partisan slant in news stories about income inequality.
Media Reinforce Beliefs About Inequality
My findings suggest that news stories about inequality can elevate recognition of the problem. If people are exposed to accurate information about increased stratification, they may become more aware and concerned. But media may not be able to revolutionize how we think about the income gap. The experimental conditions exerted some influence on certain groups, but were not widely powerful.
Also, my content analysis of news stories revealed that conservative and liberal outlets framed inequality differently, especially when discussing the role of government. Conservative sources described government as part of the problem; liberal sources portrayed government as part of the solution. Given the clear left-right divide in how news covers the income gap, media are likely to perpetuate the close connection that already exists between people’s ideological leanings and how they view inequality.
Boyfriends and Romeo Pimps: Narratives of Romance in News Coverage of Sex Trafficking
By Anne Johnston & Barbara Friedman
Anne Johnston (left) (PhD, University of Oklahoma) is the Parker Distinguished Professor in the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and an adjunct faculty member in the women’s and gender studies department. Her research and teaching focus on gender and media, gendered violence, and news coverage of sex trafficking. She is the co-director of The Irina Project, a research and training program, and web-based resource focused on the ethical and accurate portrayal of sex trafficking.
Barbara Friedman (right) (PhD, University of Missouri) is associate professor in the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and an adjunct faculty member in the department of women’s and gender studies. Her research focuses on gender, race, and class in contemporary and historical media. She co-directs The Irina Project, which analyzes media representations of sex trafficking and advocates for the responsible and accurate reporting of the issue.
An important function of media coverage of sex trafficking—the commercial sexual exploitation of an individual by force, fraud, or coercion—is to explain how trafficking occurs. Many victims are groomed by traffickers who present themselves as romantic suitors, giving rise to the motif of the Romeo pimp. These romance tropes are particularly problematic because they obscure the harmful and coercive nature of trafficking and may stigmatize victims as either agents of their abuse or passive victims needing rescue.
News Narratives and Cultural Scripts
Although social issues are complex, their mediated representations are usually simplified. Journalists often draw on familiar cultural narratives to help audiences understand the issue, particularly with an unfamiliar topic.
In this study we use narrative analysis to explore the use of romance tropes in news stories about sex trafficking survivors. What do these “boyfriending-in” narratives tell us about how young women become trafficked? Do the stories share cultural scripts with reporting on other forms of gendered violence? To answer these questions, we analyzed a sample of 203 print and broadcast media over a 12-year period, from 2005 to 2017.
Romance as Power in Sex Trafficking Stories
Some stories described the trafficker-victim dyad as a “complicated relationship” in which the victim had been offered love by a trafficker presenting himself as empathetic and interested, gradually persuading her to engage in prostitution. One author described a girl who “ran away from home at 14 into the arms of a pimp” (emphasis added). Although the writer’s narrative flair may be well-intentioned, this story intertwines trafficking with romance, implicitly blaming victims for seeking out abusers. Indeed, power was the main theme in the stories we analyzed. As a narrative theme, power was evidenced by references to physical violence, threatened violence, or deception inflicted to ensure victims’ compliance. Subtler demonstrations of power showed up in descriptions of traffickers as “master manipulators” who could “act like boyfriends” and evade authorities. The money made by traffickers—who typically keep what their victims earn—signaled another kind of power.
In contrast, young women were usually characterized as lacking power. In story after story, they were unable to see through a trafficker’s ruse, unable to recognize or run from danger even once a so-called boyfriend’s behavior turned coercive or violent.
Victims did make some choices, according to news stories, but they were disastrous ones leading them deeper into trafficking rather than empowering them to escape: running away from home to join a trafficker, or “cling[ing] to the idea” that a trafficker’s love was sincere. The narrative proposition here is that the girl willingly engaged in prostitution on behalf of someone who had intentionally deceived her, when in fact, by context and by law she was a victim of trafficking at his hands. In these cases, the narrative suggests the women, through their own deliberate and destructive choices, put themselves in harm’s way.
Shared Narratives with Other Forms of Gendered Violence
Whereas news coverage about sex trafficking tends to treat it as a crime distinct from other forms of sexual violence, the stories about boyfriending-in to sex trafficking shared cultural scripts with stories about other forms of gendered violence. Some stories explicitly connected sex trafficking to other forms of exploitation such as rape or domestic violence.
Generally, studies have shown that media coverage of sexual assault and domestic violence blames victims for their abuse, especially when their actions violate cultural scripts about getting and staying away from abusers. In addition to coverage suggesting that bad choices were to blame for young women being trafficked, multiple news stories described women who stayed with or returned to violent traffickers.
Although it is useful to view social problems through the experiences of affected individuals, the tendency to adopt what N. Berns calls “the ‘victim’s problem’ story line” may leave unexamined alternative frames of responsibility, such as those related to institutional, structural, or cultural issues. In fact, Berns found that the narrative of individual consequences and responsibility did not create sympathy for the victim/survivor. This may be particularly so when stories report the victim stayed in an intimate relationship with a Romeo pimp after he began to traffic her. This undermines her claims as a victim of trafficking, according to S.E.H. Moore, akin to how news coverage of non-stranger or acquaintance rape uses presumed consensual intimacy between individuals to challenge claims of victimhood. Such presumptions encourage victim-blaming. Why would trafficking victims “long to return to their boyfriends,” as one source claimed? The audience is usually left to guess.
Additional doubt is cast on the victim’s status when stories report on the victim’s prior sexual relationship with the trafficker, the victim’s refusal to help bring the trafficker to justice; or on the victim’s behavior either in continuing to put herself in harm’s way or in running back to her trafficker. News coverage that includes this type of information, as well as quotes from victims talking about their relationship with the trafficker or from law enforcement describing the connection between the victims and traffickers, serves to place responsibility for the abuse and violence on the victims.
Love, Power, and Violence in Stories of Sex Trafficking
Media coverage of the boyfriending-in narrative presents the relationship between the victim and the trafficker in ways that perpetuate stereotypes and stigmatization about trafficking victims. First, news coverage of the relationship privileged the trafficker’s power and ability to control the victim, and often failed to consider that a victim’s inability to escape an abusive situation might result from inadequate social and institutional support.
Second, news coverage of the trafficker-victim relationship shared scripts with coverage of other forms of gendered violence. As with other news stories of gendered violence focusing on a prior relationship, we see a pattern of “degendering the problem and gendering the blame,” according to Berns, in which victims are blamed for the violence against them.
We do not believe news organizations deliberately blame victims for their abuse, nor that media knowingly perpetuate gendered notions about masculine power and feminine victimhood. Rather, we argue these are the unintended consequences when news narratives repeat cultural scripts, and when they fail to recognize that romance is the modus operandi of certain traffickers, not a narrative hook for reporting about sexual violence.
Disrupting the Thin, Sexy Stretch of Whiteness: Representations of Yoga Practices
By Judy L. Isaksen
Judy L. Isaksen (PhD, University of South Florida) is professor of media & popular culture studies and women’s & gender studies at High Point University in North Carolina. She teaches and researches at the intersection of critical/cultural theory, media studies, and race, gender identity, and sexual orientation.
Since the 1990s, yoga has exploded in the US; according to a 2016 study by Yoga Journal (YJ), 37 million North Americans practice yoga today, of whom 72% are women. This seemingly good news, however, is troublesome in that we have shifted an ancient metaphysical practice to focus on exercise and weight loss. We have erased yoga’s history as a philosophy, a spiritual way of being, and a set of practices rooted in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, and reinvented it in our own media-driven image.
Media Representations Matter: The Internalizing Power of Yoga Journal
YJ began in 1975 as a labor of love by the California Yoga Teachers Association, to explore the practice’s history, philosophy, and physiology. Forty-plus years later, the magazine is remarkably different; YJ calls itself the “world’s largest and most influential yoga brand.”
Pirkko Markula analyzed YJ’s 224 covers from the first issue through 2010 and called 1999 the year the magazine covers changed entirely. Early covers featured artwork or photography of brown men (gurus and swami). Yoga was not depicted as a physical practice; rather, the covers highlighted a variety of cultures, philosophies, and religions, with Indian culture and alternative healing arts a common focus. But in 1999 YJ jarringly switched to the creation of an American yoga brand, veering from a full-spectrum cultural experience to the individual practitioner. That individual was represented by the body—a slim, toned, youthful, White, female body performing a complex asana that demanded exceptional strength and flexibility.
Slender White women who enjoy yoga are not the problem; what is troubling are YJ’s one-dimensional representations which perpetuate dominant ideologies. Picking up in 2011 where Markula’s study left off, I explore how YJ’s representations feed into our expectations of normativity—body image, sexualization, and Whiteness.
Body Image and Shaming
Our sense of who we are within our own body is largely constructed by our media encounters, according to S. Grogan, and the visual images in YJ overwhelmingly present beautifully toned bodies. These can prompt us prioritize our outward appearance over our internal spiritual and physical yogic experience. We may begin to police ourselves and perceive ourselves not as human subjects, but as objects—objects who struggle to look like the unattainable images on the pages—and leave us feeling shame.
The possibility for experiencing body shame also sneaks into articles. Jean Weiss began “Love your curves” with a promising inclusive tone that “yoga isn’t about achieving the perfect body—it’s for everybody.” Sadly, the very next sentence signals a full-on normalization of body shaming. This is not an article about loving our curves, but a guide for disguising our curves. The article promises to “celebrate” the diversity of bodies, but instead reinscribes the very problematic beauty ideals it claims to resist.
YJ’s body image messaging ties in with another concern: the sexualizing of women’s bodies for commercial gain. Sultry images of half-naked women with long tresses are the norm, particularly in ads, but the magazine crossed the line with the ToeSox® “The Body as Temple” campaign. Size-4 yoga teacher Kathryn Budig was featured in various advanced asanas wearing only a pair of ToeSox. These naked black-and-white images sparked criticism from yogis, feminists, and activists, including Judith Lasater, one of the magazine’s founders, who criticized YJ for being “just another voice of the status quo” rather than aspiring to the “higher values of yoga.” The naked ad campaign has run its course, but concerns about the sexualization of yoga continue. The line between the liberated artistic body and the hypersexualized commodified body is dangerously blurry. In our patriarchal culture where women’s bodies are always physically vulnerable, presumably sexually available, and open to harassment and assault, YJ need not exacerbate the problems.
Race and Religion
In our culture, R. Shome asserts that Whiteness has been historically constructed as a social location of power; Whiteness is typically unmarked, uninterrogated, and invisible. When Whiteness merges with media images, the messaging of quiet racial domination prevails, something certainly demonstrated in YJ. On the covers from 1999-2010 Murkula judged five women to be Indian, five who appear Asian, and one Black; the rest—a whopping 97—were White. Such representations continued from 2011-2017: of the 65 issues, 55 feature White models. An analysis in Media Psychology Review found that from 2007 to 2014, 69% of YJ article graphics and 71% of YJ advertisements were White.
Beyond the magazine’s veiled message of White privilege, such representations have been called colonizing and imperialist by the Hindu American Foundation, which launched the Take Back Yoga campaign in 2008. YJ repeatedly normalizes the White yoga body as an unracialized body with an unracialized identity, one completely severed from its Hindu roots.
The Ultimate Inversion Pose?
From 1999 through May 2017, YJ seemed blind to its exclusionary missteps. But in June 2017, Editor Carin Gorrell announced a sudden “mission” change: “to expand the conversation and include a more diverse group of yogis.” Gorrell expressed her “ultimate wish” to make yoga available to all, “regardless of gender, race, size, ability, or socioeconomic status.” And indeed, the June cover beholds a beautiful, slightly thicker, Black woman in vrksasana (tree) pose. Inside we meet the cover model, Chelsea Roberts, who has a PhD in education and takes an intersectional approach to teaching yoga in marginalized communities; Dan Nevins who lost his legs in Iraqi combat and teaches yoga to veterans; Anna Guest-Jelley, a much curvier White woman who serves people of every shape and size; and Teo Drake who identifies as a queer-identified transman and opens up spiritual spaces for queer and transgender people. Remarkably, within a few pages, YJgave voice to nearly every possible identity of difference. Is this the future of YJ?
As of this writing, it’s too early to judge. The commitment to diversity appears more evident on the inside pages than the covers. The “Practice Well” columns demonstrating poses and sequences offer splashes of color and diversity.
So, has YJ flipped the script? Are the efforts genuine? How much will the dictates of profit prevent YJ from committing to its newly stated philosophical mission? The magazine made an intentional decision in 1999 to turn its emphasis from the cultural experience to the branded individual body experience. Perhaps with some critical distance and time, we can look back at 2017 as the year YJ took another intentional turn, but hopefully this time, the images will look familiar to a whole host of different kinds of people.
Body Image and Adolescent Girls’ Selfie Posting, Editing, and Investment
By Jennifer Stevens Aubrey & Larissa Terán
Jennifer Stevens Aubrey (left) (PhD, University of Michigan) is associate professor in the department of communication at the University of Arizona. With an emphasis on gender and adolescent development, her research focuses on media effects on emotional, mental, and physical health in young people, centering on issues related to sexuality and body image.
Larissa Terán (right) (MA, University of Nevada, Las Vegas) is a Ph.D student in the department of communication at the University of Arizona. Her research interests focus on media effects and the portrayal of sex, gender, and sexual assault; and celebrity influence and scandal.
Some people argue that selfies are tools of empowerment that allow users to control how they are seen by others. But selfies can also encourage people to view themselves as objects to be looked at by others, a tendency called self-objectification in a 1997 Psychology of Women Quarterly piece. This matters for adolescent girls’ mental and behavioral health because self-objectification is related to several consequences that put girls and women at risk for eating disorders, depression, and sexual dysfunction (as explored in a 2015 International Journal of Eating Disorders examination). Thus, one could think of self-objectification as a gateway to the dark side of adolescence, representing some of the most prevalent health concerns adolescents, especially girls, face.
It is clear that engaging with digital and social media is consequential for adolescent girls. Across multiple media platforms, girls are constantly reminded that their appearance is paramount and that they should make sexiness a priority, according to L.M. Ward and J.S. Aubrey. But, are selfies a tool of empowerment or detriment to adolescents’ experiences?
For our study, we took inspiration from objectification theory, and examined the relationships between selfie activities and adolescent girls’ subjective evaluations of their appearance. We distinguished between three types of selfie activities: frequency of selfie posting, editing selfies, and one’s investment in selfies, and posed three research questions.
- Are selfie activities related to adolescent girls’ self-objectification?
- Are selfie activities related to adolescent girls’ appearance anxiety?
- Are selfie activities related to adolescent girls’ body esteem?
We addressed these questions using an online survey of adolescent girls, recruited through a private survey firm. The final sample consisted of 278 adolescent girls ages 14-17 (64.4% White/European American, 10.4% Black/African American, 8.3% Latina, 16.7% other).
Findings: It’s a Matter of How Adolescents Approach Selfies
To answer our research questions, we conducted multiple regression analyses. This allowed us to test the relationship between the selfie behaviors and the self-image variables, while controlling for other variables that might affect body image (BMI, age, race, frequency of social media use, and imaginary audience beliefs).
Below, we present the results of three regression models, one for each body image variable. In the models, we report whether a control variable and each of the selfie behaviors are statistically significant (i.e., is not due to statistical chance). The index of the relationship is represented by a Beta (β) coefficient, which can be negative (i.e., one variable is related to a decrease in the other) or positive (i.e., one variable is related to an increase in the other). A β near 0 means that there is no relationship between the variables; a β of around .10 is a small relationship, .30 is medium, and .50 is strong.
Overall, the model for RQ1 explained a statistically significant amount of variance in self-objectification, F(8, 206) = 16.28, p < .001, Adjusted R2 = .37. The only control variable associated with self-objectification was imaginary audience beliefs (β = .43, p < .001). Of the selfie variables, selfie editing (β = .21, p = .001) and selfie investment (β = .13, p = .039) were associated with self-objectification, but selfie frequency was not (β = .05, p = .510).
The model for RQ2 explained a significant amount of variance in appearance anxiety, F(8, 206) = 17.10, p < .001, Adjusted R2 = .39. In this model, adolescents’ BMI (β = .19, p = .001) and imaginary audience beliefs (β = .34, p < .001)were positively associated with appearance anxiety. Similarly, selfie editing (β = .28, p < .001) and selfie investment (β = .22, p < .001) were positively predicted appearance anxiety, but selfie frequency was not (β = -.13, p = .089).
The model for RQ3 explained a significant amount of variance in positive appearance evaluation, F(8, 206) = 6.02, p<.001, Adjusted R2 = .17. Of the control variables, only BMI was statistically significant, negatively predicting positive appearance evaluation (β = -.35, p < .001). Selfie investment negatively predicted positive appearance evaluation (β = -.24, p = .001). Neither selfie editing (β = -.06, p = .444) nor selfie posting (β = .11, p = .224) was related to positive appearance evaluation.
Taking Stock of Selfies
Our results challenge the notion that selfies are tools of self-empowerment, at least in terms of body image, with the caveat that adolescent girls’ approach to selfies matters. Frequency of posting selfies was unrelated to adolescents’ body image outcomes. Rather, two patterns of findings reveal that the investment in selfies and editing of selfies do have disempowering potential. First, selfie investment was associated with all three body image variables, in the disempowering directions. Selfie investment was positively related to self-objectification and appearance anxiety, and negatively related to positive appearance evaluation. Second, selfie editing was positively related to self-objectification and appearance anxiety. Thus, selfie investment and editing acknowledge that one’s appearance is scrutinized by social media audiences. Girls who apply these self-scrutinizing activities to their selfies are more likely to experience negative body image.
It makes sense that girls who self-objectify would take more pains to ensure their selfies are appealing. The results further suggested that girls who edit their selfies feel anxious about their appearance. If one were fearful of others’ appearance evaluations, making the photos more appealing would be a reasonable response. Girls who are preoccupied with how they look tend to become more vigilant and critical about their appearance, far from the empowerment that some would like to believe.
Finally, to test whether selfie activities were related to an empowering dimension of body image, we examined participants’ positive appearance evaluation. The results showed that fastidiously choosing the perfect photo was associated with less positive appearance evaluation. Posting selfies is not a harmful activity in and of itself. Selfies can be a fun way to document and share experiences. However, peer approval and attention in the form of likes, follows, and comments, can be intoxicating, especially in adolescence when imaginary audience ideation ramps up. For girls socialized to prioritize their appearance over most other characteristics, selfies can quickly turn into a platform of self-objectification. Obsessing about selfies and engaging self-scrutiny through selfie manipulation are practices that should be discouraged. It’s not the frequency of posting selfies, but rather an appearance-obsessive approach to doing so, that can backfire on adolescent girls’ body-image.
If you’re interested in these readings in their entirety, check out Race/Gender/Class/Media: Considering Diversity Across Audiences, Content, and Producers, now in its fourth edition. Written primarily as a text for college students, but of interest to anyone who wants to think more about important issues of diversity in media and society, the book contains 53 readings by a wide variety of authors representing different academic disciplines. Additional pieces in the book include:
- “Race, Hierarchy, and Hyenaphobia in The Lion King” by Naomi Rockler Gladen
- “She’s a 10, He’s a 2: Playboy Cartoons and a Culture of Male Entitlement” by Pamela Hill Nettleton
- “Black Criminality 2.0: The Persistence of Stereotypes in the 21st Century” by Travis L. Dixon
- “Re-meme-bering, Romanticizing and Reframing the Obamas Online” by Francesca Sobande
- “Fashioning the Ummah: A Thoroughly Modern Muslim Movement” by Sabah Firoz Uddin
- “Somebody is bound to call you out”: Young Latinos’ Digital Media Use and Political Participation” by Vanessa de Macedo Higgins Joyce, Issa Galvan & Jené Shepherd
- “Arguing over Images: Native American Mascots and Race” by C. Richard King
- “Is Siri a Little Bit Racist? Recognizing and Confronting Algorithmic Bias in Emerging Media” by Michael L. Austin
- “Never about my work, never about my motivations”: Exploring Online Experiences of Women Journalists of Color” by Gina M. Chen & Paromita Pain
- “Eminem’s Love the Way You Lie and the Normalization of Men’s Violence Against Women” by Rachel Alicia Griffin & Joshua D. Phillips
- “Exploring Gay/Straight Relationships on Local Television News” by The Reporters Inc.’s Executive Director Mark Saxenmeyer
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