Tag Archives: Representation

Is fairness in representation possible?

In The Oppositional Gaze, Bell Hooks recalls the reaction of black women to their representation in film, “she was not us… We laughed at this black woman who was not us. And we did not even long to be there on the screen. How could we long to be there when our image, visually constructed, was so ugly?” Clearly the tropes and caricatures that populate modern media representation of racial and gender minorities are dehumanizing people to the point that we cannot even recognize ourselves in them. Is it possible, however, for the media to achieve any kind of ideal representation when any given character or cast is going to inevitably leave out characteristics and traits that some members of the viewership identify with? In choosing to represent any single person at all does the media inherently alienate others?
As Samuel Chambers speculates in Heteronormativity and the L Word, if the ideal cast for a group of friends on television included a representative of every race certainly the audience would deride the show for a lack of realism. So how can the media be simultaneously representative, realistic and universal? It’s a question that I believe may be easier to answer than it appears. If the people creating, producing and writing films and television were as diverse as the audience they are attempting to represent then the characters, even those who are very specific, would gain a complexity and depth that comes from viewing them with empathy and humanity that would resonate more universally with any audience.

Chambers, Samuel. Reading the L Word: Outing Contemporary Television. New York: TB Tauris, 2006.
Hooks, Bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End Press, 1992.


Big Question: What is Oppression?

One mechanism of oppression that produces highly pervasive damage and is difficult to eradicate is that of self-censorship. Every day, the entire population of American women uses it, usually unintentionally.

Over the last half century, the image of the ideal woman has morphed into one of genetic impossibility for 95% of the female population.[1] The media’s images of women are often dramatically altered or even constructed.[2] “But how does this negatively affect women?” you may wonder. The answer lies in how women respond to these images. Just think of how many times you, or a woman you know, steps on the scale each week, hoping that the number is lower than at the previous weigh-in. As Susan Bordo explains, obsessing over one’s appearance is a “powerful normalizing mechanism” that ensures “self-monitoring” and “self-disciplining.”[3]

Self-censorship deflects from the reality that propagating one, unattainable version of normal oppresses the entire female sex by limiting expression of individuality and promoting harmful objectification. Moreover, for those who will never come close to the ideal image, like women of racial or ethnic minorities, the oppressive nature of these depictions is especially detrimental. Minorities are continually pushed further from the point of acceptance for who they naturally are. While some argue that the increasingly idealized slender body, “symbolize[s] freedom from rigid femininity,” the reality is that our oppressive image of female idealness serves the purposes of a patriarchal, oppressive world. [4]  After all, society “confers” privilege according to one’s ability to achieve the ideal.[5]

To overcome the adverse nature of oppression and discontinue self-censorship requires identifying and combating the oppressor, which in this case, is the media. Just think, “how would the media respond to mass consumer refusal to purchase or consume products that insist upon the unrealistic ideal woman?” More specifically, “what personal choices can you make to help mass action become a reality?”

[1] Killing Us Softly 4: Advertising’s Image of Women, dir. Kilbourne Jean, Sut Jhally, and David Rabinovitz (Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation, 2010), DVD.

[2] Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber, “Selling the Body Beautiful: Food, Dieting, and Recovery,” in The Cult of Thinness, Second ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 65.

[3] Susan Bordo, “Reading the Slender Body,” in Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 186.

[4] Ibid., 208.

[5] Marilyn Wann, “Forward,” in The Fat Studies Reader, by Esther D. Rothblum and Sondra Solovay (New York: New York University Press, 2009), XIV.

What are we responsible for ?

The question of our responsibility in terms of representations of gender and sexuality is an important one. According to the Oxford Dictionary, being responsible means “having an obligation to do something, or having control over or care for someone, as part of one’s job or role”. We can then ask : have we any kind of obligation when it comes to representing gender or sexuality ? The answer is here a difficult one. To a certain extent, I think that we are all responsible, that we have all an obligation in terms of representing gender and sexuality. Of course, that does not mean that we have any kind of obligation when it comes to live our gender or our sexuality. But in terms of representation, we are responsible. We must fight against any kind of degrading, insulting or inappropriate visions. We must stop the propagation of stereotypes. We must work for a society in which people are free to live their lives as they want to. For instance, as Rachel Kramer Bussel explains, we all must speak up and make the notion of consent a core value in our relationships. In all of our acts, in all of our words, we are responsible for the representations of men and women, of gender, of sexuality, in our societies.

Phallic bottles on fragmented bodies, or TOM FORD FOR MEN 2007


In 2007, Terry Richardson shot these advertisements for Tom Ford’s brand of men’s cologne. They are a few years old, but exemplify perfectly the objectification of women in media.

We could easily list the ways these model is sexualized and objectified. She is naked. Her hands and the cologne are the only things covering up her breasts and genitals. She suggestively caresses her wet body, or the small portion of it we see. It’s like the photographer is saying that the only parts of a woman that matter are her breasts and vagina, and the way to get to these parts is through this cologne. These fragmented bodies contribute to the notion of women as objects because not once do we see a full human. They also portray women in a constant hyper-sexualized state, which is not true.

Nudity and nudity in the media are not necessarily wrong. But let’s look at who is creating these images and who they are for. First, these photographs were taken by Terry Richardson, who has been accused multiple times of sexually assaulting his models. As usual, a powerful straight man is creating the image of a naked woman; she is not free but is the subject of a man’s gaze.

Now for the audience: in bold letters, the copy reads TOM FORD FOR MEN. Yes, the product is for men, but what I end up reading when I see this is that this woman is here for the pleasure of the straight male audience. In all, these ads are shocking but completely unoriginal in the way they objectify the female body.

All this, just for men’s cologne.

What is fairness? A question of representation

After looking at the way many different and diverse people are portrayed in media, it is clear that there is discontent with the way people of color, women, and members of the LGBT community are portrayed. We have discussed the persistent stereotypes and reductive tropes in representations of minorities. In class, the question was raised whether The L Word would be worth anyone’s time if it was written by straight men.

Can we not write about things we haven’t lived personally? How can we fairly represent everyone?

Lena Dunham, creator of the show Girls, was recently criticized for not including any major characters of color. She responded by saying that she was only writing from what she knows. We seem to attack writers for not being fair in their inclusiveness, but also for not being genuine when they try to be inclusive. 

It is tricky territory, because having minority characters would be more inclusive and diverse, but runs the risk of falling back on tropes and not being “genuine,” as we saw with the lesbian portrayals in The L Word. However, doing what Dunham did while trying to avoid creating a normative character seems to alienate a lot of people. People want to be represented; it’s a validation of our way of life. But will we ever be satisfied by the reduced characters we see? Is it fair to attack the writer for their choice to include or not include a certain type of character?

Samuel Chambers is probably correct in focusing on a politics of norms rather than representation, because we will ever agree on what is fair representation.