The symbolic: gender is a system of meanings
When students new to sociology are trying to make sense of why women and men act in the ways that they do, they often blame ‘the media’. They suggest that the media might be responsible for anything from making women anorexic to encouraging men to be violent. But can this really explain the variety of ways in which gender is organized within social life? It is certainly worth considering how influential the media are in forming our ways of seeing the world. The media have become a huge part of people’s lives, at least in wealthier nations and amongst more privileged groups in poorer nations. In particular the spread of television and computer media, such as games and the Internet, has brought huge changes in how people spend their leisure time and how they get news about the world around them. Jean Baudrillard (for example, 1983) is a French social theorist who builds on this basic fact to argue that the increasing importance of mass media has fundamentally changed the way that people see and understand their world. He goes so far as to suggest that the media are our reality. The media constantly present us with images, with models of the real that are always imitations or ‘simulacra’, as he calls them. However, we are so immersed in these imitations that we judge by them and distinctions between ‘real’ and ‘simulated’ break down. We exist therefore within a state of hyperreality. There is no longer any reality, only appearance. Meaning, media and politics become blurred, but arguably in highly gendered ways. It is only in a hyperreal world, we might argue, that Arnold Schwarzenegger could go from body builder to film star to Governor of California. People’s decisions about voting for him were bound to be influenced by what they knew of him in the movies. Many probably thought it would be cool to have ‘the Terminator’ for Governor. Indeed when he entered the gubernatorial race, the media instantly gave him the title ‘the Governator’, linking the real politician with the fictional movie hero who is saviour of the human race. Obviously ‘the Terminator’ is a highly gendered image of muscular masculinity protecting us from harm. This is a version of the kind of macho leadership which has been popular within the US (Holmes, 2000b) and it did him no harm trading on that image. He was elected, despite having very little political experience and without his political views or policies being really known by most of the electorate. Likewise, in this hyperreal world people go on ‘reality’ television shows like Big Brother which are highly staged and artificial, in order to become celebrities; not for doing anything special but for doing something supposedly ordinary — pretending to ‘be themselves’. The real and the fictional become
mixed-up and confused. But Baudrillard has little to say about how this relates to gender.
Baudrillard can offer a way of seeing how people’s decisions, including around how gender works, might be made on the basis of information communicated via mass media; but he assumes there is really no other way of getting information. People make decisions which are not strictly determined by what the media tell them, but by what they learnt from their family and at school. In addition, where people do draw ideas about gender from mass communication, they may be influenced not so much by the medium itself but by the way other people around them take up media reports and meanings (Fiske, 1989). There is also an assumption that the way women and men are presented in the media is negative. Sometimes, however, media texts might be empowering. They may offer visions of gender relations, for example, that are more egalitarian than in most people’s real experience, promoting tolerance of diversity in sexual orientation or providing gender bending alternatives (Van Zoonen, 1995). Programmes such as Queer as Folk, Ellen, or Will and Grace are illustrations of some shows which challenge mainstream ideas about gender and sexuality. In this case it is possible that hyperreality could be understood as having emancipatory potential rather than necessarily being oppressive, as is usually insinuated. However, that assumes that images of femininity or masculinity presented in the media are clearly negative or clearly positive. In fact, that is a matter of interpretation. There is a wide variety of messages about gender and individuals do not just passively receive these as if from a hypodermic syringe (see Fiske, 1989). There is really no solid evidence that people model their behaviour on what they see in the media (Gauntlett, 2002: 28—33).Although the media may be increasingly important as a player in forming and influencing people, they are not the only way in which we learn about gender. Indeed, most students recognize what sociologists have long debated: that it is not entirely clear whether the media reflect already existing ideas, or create those ideas (see Gauntlett, 2002). Thus it is crucial to understand other possible sources from which gender is imposed and/or moulded.