Feminism and/in Mass Media

Angharad Valdivia & Sarah Projansky. The Handbook of Gender and Communication. Editor: Bonnie J Dow & Julia T Wood. Sage Publications. 2006.

Feminist media scholarship is a rich and diverse body of work that has been discussed and organized in a variety of ways by previous scholars (e.g., Baehr & Gray, 1996; Carter & Steiner, 2004; Farrell, 1995; Florence & Reynolds, 1995; Gallagher, 1981, 2001, 2003; Johnson, 1995; Rakow & Wackwitz, 2004; Ross & Byerly, 2004; Tuchman, Daniels, & Benét, 1978; Valdivia, 1995; Van Zoonen, 1994); indeed, Van Zoonen (1994) characterizes this scholarship as having “enormous heterogeneity” (p. 2).

Our perspective in this chapter reflects the following three assumptions. First, as with all types of feminist studies, feminist media scholarship draws upon a broad range of diverse and sometimes contradicting methodological and theoretical paradigms, from the liberal feminist goals that characterize early positivist/quantitative studies of female representation on television to the more recently developed highly interpretive approaches exemplified by the psychoanalytic focus of feminist film studies and the poststructuralist and postcolonial emphases of much contemporary work on global media products. Second, feminist media scholarship addresses a staggering variety of media forms, including mass market books, popular music, newspapers and magazines, television (both news and entertainment), film (fictional, documentary, and experimental), advertising, radio, and new media, including the Internet and computer games. Third, feminist media scholarship is an explicitly political enterprise in a way that not all research on gender and communication is.

There is disagreement, however, as to the specific relationship between feminist academic work and feminist political activism. Gallagher (2003) asserts that “the defining characteristic of this body of work is its explicitly political dimension” (p. 19; see also Gallagher, 2001). Rakow and Wackwitz (2004) delineate what “feminist communication theory ought to be good for: to help us understand the conditions of our lives, to help us name our experiences and make them stories for the telling, to give strategies for achieving justice” (p. vii). Van Zoonen (1991) agrees that feminist media research contains “a reciprocal relation between theory, politics and activism, the commitment of feminist academics to have their work contribute to a larger feminist goal” (p. 34). After more than 30 years of dedicated research on feminism and the media, scholars agree that not all research on gender and the media is feminist and that a commitment to gender justice must be a standard that unites research identified as feminist. Moreover, efforts toward gender justice must be mindful of issues of diversity, such as race and ethnicity, class, sexuality, national origin, and ability (Doty, 1993; Dow & Condit, 2005; Fregoso, 2003; hooks, 1992; Nakamura, 2002; Shohat, 1998).

The large number of permutations resulting from these assumptions accounts for the diversity and unwieldiness of feminist media research. Thus, this chapter reflects particular emphases that we have chosen in order to make our task manageable. We attempt to do justice to major themes in the historical, theoretical, and methodological development of feminist media studies and to discuss research that treats specific forms of media, as well as to discuss dominant directions in recent feminist work on media. Although we note the contribution of quantitative studies to the development of feminist media research, our overwhelming emphasis is on work utilizing a critical, interpretive approach, as the majority of explicitly feminist contemporary work on media emerges from this perspective. Finally, some strains of feminist media research, including those treating gendered violence, sexuality, the intersections of race and gender in a U.S. context, and new media, receive less attention in this chapter because they are the primary focus of other chapters in the media section of the Handbook. We do, however, offer a particular emphasis on the global dimensions of feminist media study, as such a focus does not appear elsewhere in the media section of the Handbook, although it does surface in various ways in the “Gender and Communication in Intercultural and Global Contexts” section.

Historical Development of Feminist Media Studies

Within mainstream media studies in the United States, the history of feminist research is commonly traced to Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963). In that central text in the development of second-wave U.S. feminism, she foregrounded mass media as a site for struggle over the sign of woman. Looking at women’s magazines for an analysis of prewar and postwar representations, Friedan noted the historical contingency of these images and argued that femininity and gender roles were neither natural nor eternal. As such, she was a pioneer of feminist analysis of the media and in the political battle over feminism to be waged through the media.

We begin with this historical tale because it is so indicative of both the highlights and the omissions in much of the research and received history of feminist media studies. Located in the United States as we both are, it is no surprise that we trace our history to a U.S. author and publication. Nevertheless, we know that this type of early research and activism occurred in a variety of additional locations and contexts. First, one of the markers of oppression is the disappearing history of oppressed and/or marginalized groups. Feminist research and politics predate the 1960s, yet that history keeps getting lost and needs to be rescued. Rakow (1986) notes that “recovery” was one of four major strategies in a feminist approach to the study of popular culture. This is especially important for oppressed peoples, for whom the loss of memory is a root of oppression (Gunn Allen, 2004). Second, if global research has not been circulated, the imperial routes of publication, not its quality, are to blame. The rich debates held throughout the United Nations International Decade for Women (1975-85), which culminated in a conference held in China and in Gallagher’s groundbreaking Unequal Opportunities (1981), demonstrated the broad interest in and need for such global and comparative research. Feminist scholars in Latin America produced highly influential work, such as Santa Cruz and Erazo’s Compropolitan (1980), a scathing critique of the transnational marketing of Cosmopolitan in particular and of commodified sexuality in general. In North America, Tuchman, Daniels, and Benét (1978) produced an early collection whose relevance extends until today. Feminist media research can be found throughout the world, in many languages, even if we as U.S. scholars are usually more familiar with the Anglocentric material of the U.S.-U.K.-Australian triangle, South Africa being an occasional inclusion. In fact many recent collections that claim global reach have been criticized precisely because their Anglo-American lines belie an international perspective (Cere, 2005).

Early attempts at feminist media research were, like all research, products of their time. Located in 1960s and 1970s liberal feminist politics, these attempts, including Friedan’s, sought to document gender discrimination and to propose a politics to remedy it. In the United States the positivist social scientific climate inflected the exploration of cognitive, attitudinal, and behavioral components of sex roles and their representation in mass media (Busby, 1975; Tedesco, 1974). As Dow and Wood discuss in the introduction to the Handbook, during this period sex and biology, not gender and culture, were still the reigning concepts. Friedan’s intervention focused on mainstream U.S. media and came out of white middle-class gender politics and its focus on the oppression of middle-class housewives. Friedan was a privileged, educated, and well-connected professional whose contacts enabled the rapid distribution of her book and ideas. Concepts of race, ethnicity, class, ability, national origin, and sexuality were missing from her formulation but would soon be included in the debate from a number of positions. Yet it is difficult to locate precisely when and where such interventions from the margins were made, as the center is far better documented. In that respect, feminist media studies share much with other literatures.

Content/Textual Analysis Research

Throughout the 1970s in the United States, scholarship measuring frequency of coverage, especially “first woman to” projects along with cognitive effects and sex role socialization approaches, dominated the nascent area of feminist media studies and remained the dominant paradigms in the field of communication and media studies. Especially in content and representation analysis, “images of women” research implicitly or explicitly proposed a mimetic process of reflection. The extension of this scholarship implied that a change in images would lead to a change in women’s status and social change at large.

One major finding in content analysis was symbolic annihilation (Goffman, 1976; Tuchman, Daniels, & Benét, 1978): Women were underrepresented in the media and were likely to be trivialized, victimized, or ridiculed when they were represented. Symbolic annihilation was found across a broad range of media, from news coverage to general interest magazines. Women, however, were overrepresented in particular forms of media such as pornography and in particular genres within journalism such as the human interest section and, of course, fashion, society, and food pages. In television and film, melodramatic genres also overrepresented women. Advertising, which became a major focus of feminist research, was not surprisingly found to be a major site of gendered representation.

Building on earlier work by Goffman (1976), a number of scholars set about documenting advertising portrayals and their impact on children, while others began to try to make links between advertising and learning about sex roles, self-esteem, body image, and violence against children and women (Courtney, 1983; Courtney & Whipple, 1974; Kilbourne, 1979; Shields, 1996). Not all research, however, followed a social scientific model. Berger (1973), for example, provided a template for extending art history research into the study of advertisements. Similarly, Goffman’s decidedly qualitative approach was extended by Williamson (1978) and Coward (1985) in their critical studies. (For an exhaustive review of the gender and advertising literature, see Shields 1996.)

Although we now reinterpret that body of work as limited in theory and methodology, early content analytical scholarship yielded information and knowledge that has proven to be an enduring component of feminist media studies, documenting the low level of representation of women in media products as well as providing a sense of the dominant types of representation that did exist. Importantly, however, this work was undeniably focused on white, middle class gender politics, and research on working-class women and/or women of color was virtually nonexistent. As Dow explains in her introduction to the media section of the Handbook, and as is evident below in the sections focusing on feminist research on specific media, the early emphasis on content analysis has generally given way to an emphasis on critical/cultural approaches.

Production Research

One of the lessons learned from content analysis was that no direct correlation exists between content and the gender (or race) of those producing it. An increase in the number of women journalists or advertising personnel did not change gendered narratives (Ferguson, 1990; Rakow & Kranich, 1991). Scholars began to explore additional factors— for instance, how critical mass and degrees of agency in a media organization might generate changes. Another finding in the area of media production was the so-called glass ceiling, that invisible set of barriers that prevents women and minorities from moving up within an organization (Beasley & Gibbons, 1993; Beasley & Silver, 1977; Mills, 1988). In many media organizations, women could be found only in secretarial or janitorial positions! Feminist media scholars found that entry-level access did not translate into upward mobility regardless of education or experience. There were relative differences, however, as both journalism and advertising were pink-collar occupations (i.e., the majority of entry-level workers were women, resulting in a loss of skill, prestige, and real wages), as opposed to film production, where the glass ceiling was and remains much lower and impenetrable for most female workers. In women’s magazines, the bulk of the labor force is female, yet the pay scale differs drastically from general and male-oriented magazines, despite, in some cases, comparable circulation and more than comparable advertising content. Glass ceiling issues focused on hiring and promotion, especially for higher positions. The women of the New York Times, for example, formed a caucus and fought to have jobs posted and for open interview policies (Robertson, 1992). Production codes and conventions were also found to be gendered. For instance, reporters whose schedules matched 9 to 5 press conferences were less likely to cover after-hours events, yet this was the time when many women, people of color, and working-class people could meet (see Tuchman, 1978). Moreover, the normalization of the white middle-class male subject meant that coverage of women was presented in terms of its difference from normative masculinity.

Although early production research focused primarily on the role of women as media workers, particularly in journalism, more recent production studies by feminist scholars focus on the ways that feminist ideology is negotiated in the process of producing ostensibly progressive media products, such as television series featuring strong female characters (e.g., D’Acci, 1994), the programming offered on “women’s networks” such as Lifetime Television (e.g., Meehan & Byars, 2000), or women directors working in Hollywood (Lane, 2000).

Audience Research

Audience research is a more recent component of media studies that draws on a number of related paradigms to make interpretive, cultural, and individual contexts central in understanding meaning making. From the functionalist perspective still being used by media industries, the question is who is watching and for how long. In this administrative paradigm, women are central because marketing data demonstrate that they make most consumer decisions in most Western households. Thus it becomes important to understand them as members of the audience. Mass communication research developed uses and gratifications as a paradigm that at least sought to position the audience as making some decisions on a personal or cultural basis. Very little of this scholarship, however, considered gender as an important variable.

The turn to culture, through ethnographic and other qualitative approaches that have been much more often connected to issues of gender, has strongly influenced contemporary feminist research on the media. Certainly, many (e.g., Nightingale, 1996; Parameswaran, 2003) have warned about the “celebratory tenor of ethnographic projects, which have claimed that readers’/viewers’ interpretive creativity offers evidence of subversive political resistance in audiences’ everyday lives” (Parameswaran, 2003, p. 311). Valdivia (2000) has criticized the paradigm of pleasure as the only or the most foregrounded response to an interpretive effect of media content in much of the mainstream feminist reception literature. She has noted as well the need to study different segments of the audience without, for instance, assuming that all women of color will have similar interpretive strategies. The promise of this paradigm remains the possibility of making the politics of gender, race, and class serious and central aspects of feminist media studies.

Classics in this paradigm include Radway’s Reading the Romance (1984), Brundson’s work on soap opera (1982), Brown’s Soap Opera and Women’s Talk (1994), as well as Press’s Women Watching Television (1991). Radway’s focus on readers of romance novels opened the door to feminists exploring interpretive practices of women in a wide range of media. Press’s (1991) study added the variables of class and age to the developing paradigm (see also Heide, 1995), but it was not until Bobo (1988, 1995) explored different potential readings of the female African American audience in relation to The Color Purple that race became central to such studies. Brooks and Hébert discuss additional contemporary examples of reception analysis focusing on race and gender in their chapter in this volume.

Although this account foregrounds U.S. and British scholars, much earlier, Mattelart (1977, 1986) conducted reception analysis on soap opera interpretations in the politicized barrios of Allende’s Chile. Contemporary research extends this focus to Latinas (Rojas, 2004) as well as to the reception of South American telenovelas (Acosta-Alzuru, 2003a, 2003b; La Pastina, 2004). Parameswaran (2003) warns that global audience research must be careful not to rely on “regressive models of ‘native’ women’s identities and reversed binaries of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ [because that] only reproduces the epistemological legacies of colonial modernity” (p. 334) and fails to interrogate the “models and practices of global capitalism” (p. 316). Hegde focuses on such issues in her chapter in this volume. Postcolonial feminist scholarship on reception is a growing and noteworthy area in communication. Acosta-Alzuru (2005), among others, interrogates her own position as a native informant in her country of origin, and Hegde (1998), Parameswaran (1999, 2003, 2005), Shohat (1998), Shohat and Stam (1994), and Shome (1996, 2000) repeatedly interrogate transnational, global, and multicultural issues of reception and gender. Women and gender as/in the audience is a complex area: Hermes’ (2003) asserts that “its value for feminism has been to provide an empirical means to question established notions of femininity and masculinity, and to provide new theorizations of gender” (2003, p. 382; see also Hermes 2005).

Medium-Specific Research

In addition to taking up a methodological emphases such as content analysis, production studies, and audience reception, scholars have focused on medium-specific issues as well as on particular genres within those media. In what follows, we focus on journalism and the news, radio, film, television, and women’s magazines and advertising, generally highlighting noteworthy critical/ cultural scholarship about them and keeping in mind that the extent and emphases of scholarship in these areas differs significantly.

Journalism and the News

Feminist work on journalism and the news is seen as a crucial area of study because, philosophically and legally, the press has the burden and responsibility to provide knowledge and information that will lead to informed decision-making and the promise of democracy. Friedan’s loose content analysis of women’s magazines was followed by rigorous analyses of newspapers and news on women’s topics, women’s bylines, women in photographs, women as sources, women in the newsroom, gendered news narratives, and so on. Tuchman’s (1978) excellent work on the gendered aspect of news routines presaged Rakow and Kranich’s (1991) study of news as a gendered narrative. Feminist media research has influenced a symbolic change away from the labeling of women in the news as “wife or relative of,” decorative object, or “first woman to,” and led to some substantial coverage of domestic violence, rape, body politics, and political representation. In newsrooms such as at the New York Times, women, after both scholarship and lawsuits, have gained some mobility beyond the lower rung of beginning reporter. Both in print and especially in broadcasting, women journalists have sometimes broken through the glass ceiling as reporters and much less often also as editors or producers. The fact that journalism is now a pink-collar occupation makes still largely male editorships relevant as a topic for continuing feminist research and activism. Steiner (1998) explores “stories of quitting” to explain why some women journalists leave the newsroom. Clearly it remains an embattled workplace in terms of gender issues.

Contemporary critical/interpretive feminist studies of news coverage often appear outside the rubric of journalism studies perhaps because journalism journals prefer quantitative methodologies (Parameswaran, 2005). Nonetheless, excellent examples of contemporary feminist critical scholarship about news exist. For instance, the essays collected in Carter, Branston, and Allan (1998) treat representation, employment, and production issues related to gender and the news in the United States and Britain. Other scholars have offered critical analysis of news coverage of what are popularly perceived and presented as women’s issues, such as the 1991 Hill-Thomas hearings or women’s participation in electoral politics (Byerly, 1999; Lubiano, 1992; Parry-Giles, 2000; Steiner, 1999; Vavrus, 1998, 2002). Moreover, a growing body of research analyzes mainstream news coverage of feminism itself, much of it focusing on the visibility of the second wave of U.S. feminism in the 1970s. Although some of this scholarship is primarily about representational politics (Douglas, 1994; Dow, 1999, 2003, 2004, Poirot, 2004), some of it combines analysis of representation with the study of feminist media strategies and/or the study of production contexts (see, e.g., Barker-Plummer, 1995, 2002; Bradley, 2003).

Importantly, with very few exceptions (see, e.g., Meyers, 2004), commercial news coverage of women, women’s issues, and feminism overwhelmingly offers representations of white middle-class heterosexual women. Although scholars often note this bias, the available scholarship also tends to emphasize white middle-class heterosexual gender politics. Moreover, although scholars have produced a body of literature on the treatment of African Americans in the news, such research often does not explicitly foreground the intersections of race and gender (see, e.g., the essays in Means Coleman, 2002). Noteworthy studies do treat such intersections in news coverage of Latinas and Latinos, an especially important focus now that they are the most numerous minority in the United States. For example, Vargas (2000) argues that Latinos are marginalized and gendered in the news—rendered feminine and less valuable— Molina Guzmán (2005), in a case study of the Elián Gonzalez spectacle, finds that the coverage racialized and gendered the previously “exceptional ethnic” Cubans into a brown, feminine space.

Generally, critical work on journalism and the news deserves further development within feminist media studies, particularly with regard to the intersections of gender, race, and ethnicity. Another area that warrants further development is the study of self-identified feminist news media in their historical and contemporary forms. Few such studies exist, although exceptions include Farrell’s (1998) and Thom’s (1997) studies of Ms. magazine (see also Barker-Plummer, 2002; McCracken, 1993; McKinnon, 1995; Pearson, 1999).


Although radio is much less studied by Western feminists than either print or broadcast journalism, it remains the medium of choice and access in much of the world (for exceptions see Douglas, 2004; Hilmes, 1999). Roth, Nelson, and Davis (1995) provide a noteworthy example of research on Western radio, however, in their exploration of the takeover of a radio station by First Nation women in Canada who fought to secure rights and concessions from local governments using a radio station as the vehicle for resistance and change. The essay highlights the fact that pockets of third world resistance exist in first world countries and that some women in them use radio as a tool for empowerment. Generally, however, radio studies focus on non-Western women (Mitchell, 2004; Riaño, 1994; Thompson, Anfossi Gómez, & Suárez Soto, 2005). Radio research finds collective action in the creation and operation of programs and entire stations such as Costa Rica’s FIRE (Suárez Soto, 2000). From Centro Flora Tristan in Lima, Peru, to La Casa Morada in Santiago, Chile, radio is a major component throughout the world of a feminist media activism based on feminist research. Radio can be and has been used for health campaigns dealing specifically with women’s issues (see McKinley & Jensen, 2003) as well as for revolutionary and system-challenging programs, both established and pirate, as Downing (2001) documents. These efforts deserve further study.


Feminist film studies emerged in the academy in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a particularly unique moment for at least two reasons. First, academic feminist approaches to film grew out of, contributed to, and depended on the larger social movements for women’s rights taking place at the time. Many of the young feminist film scholars were activists and many of the women working in documentary and experimental film conceived of their filmmaking as part of a movement for equality. Thus, feminist film studies was deeply connected to social activism at the same time that it began to become prominent in scholarly contexts. While that was also true for feminist scholars working in other areas, a second aspect of this historical moment is relatively unique to film studies. At that time, film studies was not yet well established as an independent area. Unlike feminist scholarship in, for example, literary studies, sociology, psychology, and even communication studies— which emerged out of and in the context of well-established but also arguably patriarchal fields—feminist film studies took root nearly simultaneously with film studies as a field. As a result, film studies, nearly since its inception, has been deeply influenced by feminist thought. One could even argue that feminist scholarship—which was gaining ground in many academic fields at the time—helped bring legitimacy to film studies, rather than vice versa.

Early work in feminist film studies included two books published by nonacademic presses: Rosen’s Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies, and the American Dream (1973) and Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (1974). Both books offered a feminist perspective on the depiction of women in film over time, were written in an accessible style and meant for a lay audience, and both were reprinted by much larger mainstream presses within a year. In the academy, influential early work focused on questions of film history (Higashi, 1978), representation and semiotics (Cook & Johnston, 1988; Cowie, 2000), the political possibilities of feminist filmmaking (Johnston, 2000; Lesage, 1990), and what it would mean for understandings of representation and women’s voice to recover women filmmakers who had been ignored by film studies’ attention to the auteur (Cook, 1988; Johnston, 1988). These feminist scholars were engaging many of the questions that had been dominant in film studies: questions about Marxism, semiotics, representation, and authorship. However, they were also interested in the specifically political dimension of these theories—including the possibility of a “progressive text” that could be “read against the grain” to reveal ideology and contradiction and thereby to “make strange” gender ideologies (see, e.g., Gledhill, 1984)—and the possibility of activist filmmaking as a source of theoretical knowledge and as a vehicle for social change.

The most influential early feminist film scholarship by far was Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975). Mulvey argued that the psychoanalytical spectator that scholars such as Metz (2000) had been theorizing without any attention to gender difference was, in fact, a male spectator. Specifically, she used psychoanalytic theories as a “radical weapon” to point out that the cinematic gaze was organized through structures of fetishism, scopophilia, and castration anxiety, producing an active male gaze and passive female object-to-be-looked-at. Mulvey’s essay helped to encourage a great deal of psychoanalytic work in feminist film studies, much of it theorizing spectatorship. Doane (1982) responded to Mulvey in an essay in which she moved away from Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis to theorize a female gaze through the concept of the masquerade. Other challenges to Mulvey followed, including Gaines’s (1986) critique of both the maleness and whiteness of the way psychoanalysis had been used in scholarship.

Although psychoanalysis was a particularly dominant theoretical model in the late 1970s and early 1980s, by the mid-1980s and into the 1990s, scholars began asking about genre, in particular about reclaiming melodrama, a derided form of popular culture associated primarily with women spectators (e.g., Doane, 1987; Kaplan, 1990; López, 1994; Williams, 1990). Scholars also interrogated film’s relationship to popular culture more generally—e.g., fan magazines, advertising, and fashion—and asked how that relationship might more profitably illuminate how women engage with and are represented in film (Gaines, 1990; Hansen, 1986). Others addressed the intersection of race and gender in representation (e.g., Lesage, 1981; Tajima, 1989), as well as how filmmaking could be used to shift that history (e.g., Attille & Blackwood, 1986; Gibson-Hudson, 1994). Still others were concerned with the role of race in spectatorship and how a shift away from psychoanalysis and toward ethnography might offer a more nuanced understanding of black women’s experience as filmgoers (e.g., Bobo, 1988; hooks, 1992). Some scholars examined gender and representation, spectatorship, and filmmaking in global cinema, including Latin American, Chinese, and various European cinemas (e.g., Bruno & Nadotti, 1988; Flitterman-Lewis, 1990; Hershfield, 1996; Knight, 1992; Martin-Márquez, 1999; Zhang, 1996). Others focused on sexuality and lesbianism in spectatorship (e.g., Weiss, 1992), authorship (e.g., Mayne, 1994), and film production (e.g., Holmlund & Fuchs, 1997).

The 1980s and early 1990s marked a moment when feminist approaches became standard and when feminist scholars participated in opening up film studies more generally beyond the “high theory” of the 1970s. The 1980s also marked a moment of “taking stock,” when a series of veteran scholars paused to reflect on where feminist film studies had been and where it was going (e.g., de Lauretis, 1984; Gledhill, 1984; Kaplan, 1983, 1986; Kuhn, 1982, Mayne, 1985, 1990; Penley, 1989; more recently, see Mellencamp, 1995).

Since the 1990s, both film studies and feminist film studies have remained relatively eclectic, drawing on a variety of disciplinary approaches and building on work from the 1980s that turned to cultural context and audience and ethnography. Film as a category of analysis has become more contested, as scholars have looked to multimedia spectacles, the increasingly fluid boundaries between film and video, the growth of the Internet, and the place of film in that mediated context and in the larger context of globalization. Additionally, feminist film scholars have taken up theoretical concepts and concerns more generally, including attention to masculinity (e.g., Cohan & Hark, 1993; Jeffords, 1994; Penley & Willis, 1993; Tasker, 1993), whiteness (e.g., Negra, 2001), transnationalism and Eurocentrism (e.g., Kaplan, 2004; Shohat & Stam, 1994), the anthropological gaze (e.g., Rony, 1996; Trinh, 1989), and queer theory (e.g., Straayer, 1996; White, 1999). They also have turned to history (along with a good portion of the larger field of film studies), looking again at silent U.S. cinema in particular in order to add to ongoing, revisionist debates about how to understand the place of film in society and in larger mass-mediated contexts (e.g., Bean & Negra, 2002; Rabinovitz, 1998; Staiger, 1995; Stamp, 2000; Studlar, 1996). Others have looked at racialization and the star system, both then (e.g., Feng, 2000; Liu, 2000) and now (e.g., Valdivia, 1996), as well as at culturally grounded film movements and histories, such as Fregoso’s (1993, 2003) work on Chicana/o film. Finally, some scholars have looked again at issues of authorship, focusing on how questions of intersectional identities overlap with production context, the economy, globalization, and social change (see Bobo, 1995; Foster, 1997; Hamamoto & Liu, 2000; Heung, 1995; hooks, 1989; hooks & Dash, 1992; Kennedy, 1992; Lane, 2000; Oishi, 2000; Projansky, 2001; Smith, 1992; Wallace, 1988). As feminist film studies moves into the 21st century, it is grappling with the ongoing growth and complexity of feminist theories, as well as with the shifting boundaries around film as a category and with its relationship to other media and to other aspects of popular culture (see the recent forum in Signs [2004], including essays by Jayamanne, Kaplan, Kuhn, Mayne, and Spigel).


Feminist television studies are interconnected with feminist film studies, although they arguably emphasize different issues. Audience and pleasure, industry and production (given the more extensive role of women in mainstream TV production than in mainstream film), and canonical and cult shows are all foci of feminist television studies. Like feminist film studies, feminist television studies have also become more eclectic, addressing, for example, issues of social space, the changing structure of media technology, history and memory, and feminist and postfeminist discourses on television.

In the 1980s, work on audience often focused on television soap operas. Like melodrama, soap operas had been denigrated as a form of popular culture, assumed to be empty narratives used to distract women and to define them as passive consumers. Early work challenged these assumptions, looking carefully at both soap operas and women viewers as worthy of study and explicitly linking soap opera to theories of melodrama (e.g., Ang, 1985; Brunsdon, 1982; Feuer, 1984, 1989; Kuhn, 1984; Modleski, 1984; Nochimson, 1992). One of the most influential arguments to come out of this work was the idea that soap operas matched the flow of a woman’s day. In other words, the commercial interruptions, the repetition of information, and the emphasis on talk all allowed a woman who was working in the house— ironing, cooking, cleaning, caring for children—to move in and out of the space the television occupied without losing her connection with the program. This argument did much to shift the ways in which television narrative, representation, and spectatorship were theorized, but it nevertheless contains what is now seen as an obvious class bias—most women do not work only within the home during the day. Nevertheless, this theory linking a representational form to the specificity of a woman’s experience was an important insight, and it influenced subsequent work on daytime television, such as talk shows (e.g., Masciarotte, 1991; Morse, 1990; Shattuc, 1997).

Within communication studies, questions about polysemy and the possibility of oppositional or resistant readings emerged in relation to theories of audience and spectatorship.

Fiske’s 1987 book, Television Culture, was highly influential in this area, as was a published exchange between Condit (1989) and Cloud (1992). Both argued that the audience could not make any meaning it wanted, and Condit drew on audience members’ responses to a television show about abortion to make her point. She showed that while pro-choice and pro-life viewers came to different conclusions about the value of a story, each generally agreed on the ideological position of a show. Through her study of the detective drama Spenser for Hire, Cloud argued for even more containment of meaning by the text, basing her argument primarily on textual analysis. In theorizing audience, many scholars emphasize ethnography much more than do Fiske, Condit, and Cloud (Jenkins, 1992; Press, 1991; Seiter, 1995). In her study of Cagney and Lacey, D’Acci (1994) combined audience reception work with textual analysis and production history, providing an important example of feminist work that insists it is never enough to study just the text, the audience, or the production history.

D’Acci’s work is also an example of feminist television research that looks to cult or canonical shows, primarily (but not exclusively) sitcoms: I Love Lucy, 1951-1957 (Desjardins, 1999; Mellencamp, 1986); Julia, 1968-1971(Bodroghkozy, 1992); The Mary Tyler Moore Show, 1970-1977 (Bathrick, 1984; Dow, 1996); Laverne and Shirley, 1976-1983 (Doty, 1993); Cagney and Lacey, 1982-1988 (D’Acci, 1994);Kate and Allie, 1984-1989 (Deming, 1992; Rabinovitz, 1989); L.A. Law, 1986-1994 (Mayne, 1988); Thirtysomething, 1987-1991 (Mumford, 1994-95; Probyn, 1990; Torres, 1989); A Different World, 1987-1993 (Gray, 1995); Roseanne, 1988-1997 (Rowe, 1990); Murphy Brown, 1988-1998 (Dow, 1996; Rabinovitz, 1999; Walkowitz, 1993); Twin Peaks, 1990-1991 (Lafky, 1999); Living Single, 1993-1998 (Smith-Shomade, 2002); The X-Files, 1993-2002 (Badley, 2000); My So-Called Life, 1994–1995 (Byers, 1998); Xena: Warrior Princess, 1995-2001 (Helford, 2000; Jones, 2000); Ally McBeal, 1997-2002 (Dubrofsky, 2002; Vavrus, 2000); Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1997-2003 (Early, 2001; Ono, 2000; Wilcox, 1999); and the Star Trek franchise, 1966-present (Harrison et al., 1996; Jenkins, 1992; Joyrich, 1996; Roberts, 2000). These shows have become the texts that feminist film scholars return to repeatedly. In part, these scholars are asking about the feminist possibilities of television. How feminist are these shows? What happens to feminism when it is depicted on these shows and through these characters? What does it mean to read feminism “back into” shows such as I Love Lucy? What happens to feminism and gender representation when questions of both gender and race are engaged within the shows? What are the possibilities for powerful women working in television?

Although questions about feminism on television do run throughout this collective body of work, each scholar, of course, raises other issues as well, and contemporary work indicates the myriad directions in which feminist television studies are developing. For example, Doty (1993), Byers (1998), and Helford (2000) look at questions of queer reading and queer representation, and Bodroghkozy (1992), Gray (1995), Ono (2000), and Smith-Shomade (2002) address intersections of gender and race in shows centering women. In their chapter in this volume, Brooks and Hébert address the growing work on masculinity. Some scholars (Meehan, 2001; Meehan & Byars, 2000) have looked at narrowcasting, especially as cable has developed, using both textual analysis and production studies to show how women are constructed and targeted by the industry and the text. Lifetime Television has been a special object of study in this area. Some scholars have turned to relatively recent genres such as music television (Kaplan, 1987; Lewis, 1990; Smith-Shomade, 2002) and reality shows (Dubrofsky, in press), or more limited ones such as natural history programs (Crowther, 1995). McCarthy (2001) looks at television in social space, comparing, for example, its place in 1950s taverns (a primarily masculine space) with department stores (a primarily feminine space). She draws on Spigel’s (1992) work on how advertisements early on worked to position television within domestic space. McCarthy’s and Spigel’s work also relates to the relationship between television texts and other social discourses as varied as bridal magazines (Rabinovitz, 1992) and public policy (Haralovich, 1989). Spigel (1995) has combined textual analysis and ethnography to think about the role of reruns in how her female college students define the past from which they then distance themselves. Some scholars work on the links between film and television. They argue for the specificity of each, but they also emphasize that because cultural discourses flow across both, we need to think about them together (Leibman, 1995; Projansky, 2001). White (1992) has looked at ways therapeutic discourse emerges and even predominates on television.

White’s work also helps to rethink television itself. She suggests that television as a whole might be linked to the therapeutic, just as work on soap opera suggested that television could be understood as melodramatic and engaged in modes of distraction, and just as work on representations of feminism suggests television may be particularly suited to feminist and postfeminist discourses. Thus, feminist television studies have contributed and continue to contribute to the rethinking of television studies as a whole.

Magazines and Advertising

Following early work by Berger (1973), Goffman (1976), Williamson (1978), Santa Cruz and Erazo (1980), and Coward (1985), feminist research on magazines and advertising continues to be a fruitful area of study. Following Millium’s (1975) work on images of women in advertising, Winship (1987) has provided a classic cultural studies approach to the analysis of magazines, gender, feminism, and popular culture. Other important studies include Barthel (1988) and Ferguson (1983). Wolf (1991) extended this work to focus on beauty, foregrounding advertisements. Kitch (2001) has worked on the historical development of visual stereotypes. Research even has included the analysis of advertising within feminist media (McCracken, 1993; McKinnon, 1995; Steinem, 1990). Some focuses as much on the Internet as on print and television (Nakamura, 2002), and much of it emerges under the broader rubric of gender and consumer culture, both contemporary and historical (Cronin, 2000; Scanlon, 1995, 2002), including the examination of clothing slogans as an instance of resexualization (Gill, 2003).

Contemporary research also addresses girls as a generation worth studying and examines the construction of girl culture. Two readers on the subject, Growing Up Girls (Mazzarella & Pecora, 1999) and Girl Wide Web (Mazzarella, 2005), extend previous research such as that mapped out by McRobbie (1991, 2000; see also Driscoll, 2002; Harris, 2004a, 2004b). Both of these collections include chapters on class and ethnicity. Mastronardi (in press) extends Shields (2003) on space, body, and self-image to the adolescent female population.

The role of gendered ethnicity in advertising and magazines is attracting some attention from scholars exploring new attempts to exploit the “girl market” (Acosta-Alzuru & Kreshel, 2002; Acosta-Alzuru & Lester Roushanzamir, 2003) in ways that expand the ethnic register to relationally position whiteness as central and Latinas as the eternal outsiders. Jennifer Lopez has been examined in terms of her relation to and difference from Penelope Cruz (Valdivia, 2005), as narratives of Latinidad do seem to differentiate between those with European (read as white and pure) and those with Latin American roots (read as brown and polluted). Consequently these two celebrities are used to advertise different types of products. Shields (2002) explores not only how advertising affects self-image but also (2003) how it links feminine power to the decreased amount of space women are supposed to occupy. Johnson (2003) and Johnson, David, and Huey (2004) relate these themes to Latinas and their self image as inflected by advertisements in magazines, while Martinez (2004) looks at Latina magazine as an effort to construct a panethnic gendered identity. Many other feminist scholars link themes surrounding magazines and advertising to a global context. Williamson (1978) links advertising to themes of gendered postcoloniality, and Moorti (2003) examines fashion marketing as a transnational strategy to market ethnic style.

Contemporary/Emerging Approaches to Feminist Media Study

In this final section, we discuss two of the many contemporary themes in feminist media studies. We choose these themes not because they are the most dominant or important, but because they resonate well with our own work. We mean them only as examples of the kind of varied topics and methodologies employed by contemporary feminist media scholars.

Postfeminism and Mass Media

In the early 1980s, popular media in the United States began using the term postfeminism (see Bolotin, 1982). Media drew attention to the defeat of the ERA in 1982 and the continuing increase of middle-class women in higher education and professional occupations and then defined these social changes as evidence of the success of feminism. Popular media began to assume feminism was no longer needed and women were now beyond (i.e., “post”) the need for feminist activism. Feminist media scholars soon began writing about this concept, finding it not only in newspaper and magazine articles that literally used the term postfeminism, but also in films and television shows that may not have used the term but still implied that feminism was somehow in the past (see Dow, 1996; Jones, 1992; Lotz, 2001; Probyn, 1993; Projansky, 2001; Vavrus, 2000; Walters, 1995). Probyn theorized the idea of choiceoise as part of postfeminism. She argued that many films and television shows represented women as having choice (a key feminist concept) between and among marriage, children, and career. Nevertheless, as Probyn points out, the specific choices to which women supposedly have access remain limited. Most postfeminist texts represent women as choosing only among marriage, children, and career. Questions about alternative ways to (choose to) organize one’s life are thus nonexistent in postfeminism (see also Jones, 1992).

Modleski (1991) describes representations of masculinity in postfeminism in her book, Feminism Without Women. She argues that many popular texts use postfeminism to define men as better feminists than women. The logic of these texts goes something like this: if feminism has been successful and men and women are now equal, then men can be feminists just like women. Modleski’s argument, however, is that this idea displaces women and returns men to the center of concern (see also Cuklanz, 2000; Projansky, 2001).

Several scholars also have pointed to a blindness to race, class, and sexuality in postfeminism, emphasizing that media’s typical postfeminist woman is white, heterosexual, and middle class (Dow, 1996; Holmlund, 2005; Projansky, 2001). The experiences of most women in the United States—who are not white, heterosexual, and/or middle class—are written out of media’s discussion of women’s lives today. Moreover, the complexity of feminist history and theory disappears. Issues that are central to contemporary scholarly and activist feminism—e.g., intersectionality, queerness, labor activism, transnational coalitions—simply cease to exist in postfeminist media representations of feminism.

More recently, some scholars, particularly those working in the United Kingdom, have built on this previous work to articulate an alternative response to postfeminism. Rather than ultimately taking a stand against whatever postfeminist representations they analyze or arguing that there is a difference between feminism (which is by definition politicized and a continuing movement) and postfeminism (which is by definition depoliticized), these scholars emphasize the now undeniable and pervasive discursive presence of the latter in popular culture and the role those discourses play in producing a mainstream definition of feminism. Their goal is more often to ask what pleasures and social changes are (and are not) available to women as a result of their engagement with postfeminist media representations (see McRobbie, 2004; Negra & Tasker, in press; Tasker & Negra, 2005).

Global and Diversity-Focused Research

Most international feminist media scholarship available in either the United States or in English remains centered on Britain and Australia. A little more is included about Canada and South Africa, but English language research on most of the rest of the world is in an emergent stage, although we have noted its presence at various points above in our discussion of different specific media. Research on global media is a crucial area for growth in feminist media study. This research, however, does have specific dangers, as Hegde discusses in her chapter in this volume. For example, Shohat (1998) warns that a “flavor of the month” approach often reduces third world feminists to temporary native informants or to a set of static stereotypes, a danger in all types of scholarship. Global feminist media research has been carefully documented by Gallagher (1981, 2001, 2003). Shohat and Stam’s (1994) Unthinking Eurocentrism and Shohat’s (1998) Talking Visions collection remain models of careful and thorough gender and media analysis treating issues of globalism. Both Gallagher and Shohat stand out in that their reference lists actually include a significant number of sources not published in English. Roach (1993) is yet another scholar who assiduously documents gendered issues of international scope.

Feminist media scholarship is increasing globally, such as the recent research on Latin American telenovelas (Acosta-Alzuru, 2003a, 2003b; La Pastina, 2004). Literature on Indian media and gender issues is also growing, ranging from fashion (Moorti, 2003) to romance novels and their readers (Parameswaran 1999, 2003). Shome and Hegde (2002) and Ganguly (1992) focus on contemporary theories of globalization and postcoloniality, and their contributions, together with others we have mentioned, set the stage for further development in this area. With the emphasis on issues of globalization increasing in media research generally, research focusing on gender/feminism within this area is one of the newest and most important growth areas for feminist media scholarship.


This chapter offers one way of organizing the vast literature of feminist approaches in media studies. There are many other ways to organize and discuss these issues, and there are many emphases, such as popular music, that we did not touch on in this chapter. We have made choices to fit our discussion within the space allotted, but we wish to emphasize that feminist media studies is a huge area within communications studies, one that also contributes to English, sociology, political science, psychology, history, anthropology, and linguistics and to the newer interdisciplines of gender and women’s studies, ethnic studies, global studies, American studies and so on.

This attempt to map out feminist media studies seeks to include global concerns often missing from U.S. research. We want to reiterate that the missing global material, which is quite likely available in a range of other languages, is by no means inferior; rather, our inability to access it speaks to the parochial aspects of our culture in general and our academic culture in particular. We would like to see much more research from the understudied regions of the world, especially Africa, Latin America, and certain regions of Asia. Once we have a broader understanding of the greater range of issues, we can proceed to understand commonalities and differences in a relational manner that does not ignore unequal power and access to resources. We suspect that media vary across regions yet we also know that homogenizing global trends will generate many similarities.

We hope we have communicated how intellectually rich feminist media studies are. A wealth of scholars working with a variety of theories and methodologies continually extend the parameters of our area of study. Thus we can already sketch a history of this field as well as a set of discernible stages. What has not changed is the contested character of feminist media studies. Whether we look at production, content/ text, audience/reception or effects, major issues are still being debated that have yet to be resolved. Post-feminism notwithstanding, issues of symbolic annihilation and the glass ceiling have not disappeared, and research must continue to document the ways mass media offer both constraints and possibilities for efforts toward gender justice around the globe.