Gender equality has come a long way in recent decades. Yet, as we sociologists know, so much of our binary system of gender--and its many inequalities--remain. But is it that obvious to our students? Usually not! When teaching gender inequality in my Social Problems class this semester, I was struck by how many students could watch a video about gender in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, or even more recently, and say "but luckily things have changed so much, its not like that any more." While much has changed, so much remains the same. To document some of the continuities and changes of our gendered system, let's take a 15-minute video tour of gender representations using clips on this site.
First, consider a retrospective look at the 1950s. In this clip from the 2003 film, Mona Lisa Smile, Katherine Ann Watson (played by Julia Roberts) is a socially progressive art history instructor. In the film, the tensions between the traditional ideology of a woman’s role in society as a domestic homemaker and the new idea of an educated, autonomous woman are constantly present in Watson’s classroom. Watson strongly encourages her students to be independent women, seeing their potential to be more than subservient accessories to a man’s household. Her advocacy for an uncompromising lifestyle is met with criticism and resentment from conservative students, who argue that it challenges "the roles you were born to fill." This tension reflects the common misconception of gender as a biological, rather than social, construct, and prompts Watson to use a powerful and emotionally-charged slide show critiquing depictions of women in a variety of 1950s advertisements (read more here).
Second, let's take a look at a 1963 Disney film that shows that being a socially successful woman is simply a matter of walking, talking and smiling in a feminine way, as well as dressing in equally feminine clothes (read our analysis here).
This is where some viewers may say "at least its not like that any more!" So is that true? What is old and new about the way women are depicted in the media today? For example, consider how commercials often depict women in traditional gender roles (read our analysis here; see other traditional gender roles depicted in commercials here and here).
How about TV shows focusing on seemingly liberated women (read our analysis here)? What is new here?
Finally, consider contemporary music videos and how they portray men and women, in relation to desire, sex, and power (read our analysis here):
Like videos from the 1950s and 1960s, contemporary media place men and women into clearly defined gender categories. In the words of Dr. Watson's student in her fictional 1950s class, these media messages encourage women and men to conform to "the roles you were born to fill." But, of course, we are not born that way. Both women and men (see Jackson Katz's video on masculinity) are socialized--through many sources including media--to perform these roles. By watching this group of clips together, students can be encouraged to think about how much has changed? How much remains the same? Where did the changes come from? Why haven't gender representations changed more, and what is the role of power in reproducing gender?