Violence Against Women in Mass Media

Images of women in mass media have been under scrutiny in recent
decades. At one end of the continuum is print advertisement, brief, often
single-paged combinations of text and imagery to sell a product. At the
other end is pornography, sexually explicit imagery created to arouse in
print, television, film, and the Internet. Where does power fit in between
these? Women in both these forms of mass media are repeatedly
depicted in submissive, silenced, and even victimized roles.
is a much more benign means of conveying power over women than
pornography. However, the average American is exposed too much
more gendered advertising than pornography in any given day.
In both,
women are not often autonomous beings but passive and objectified.

The power of imagery is well known. As visual imagery is nonverbal, its
messages are often multilayered and contradictory (Kang 1997). As a
socializing agent, the visual imagery provided by the media can have a
powerful impact on our attitudes, values, beliefs, and behaviors, since it
can contribute meanings and associations entirely apart and of much
greater significance (ibid). Advertisements are everywhere, from
television, in print, on billboards, and so on. Yet decoding each one we
see is near impossible due to the number of ads we encounter every

Feminists have been concerned with the media’s representation of
women for some time, particularly the use of their bodies. Many images
that depict women in sexual positions or just displaying a portion of the
female body may aid in objectifying it. The woman is often the object of a
male’s gaze, and thus assuming heterosexuality (Duggan and Hunter
51). Moreover, she is an object for the viewer’s imagination. This is one
of the ways that power differences are created. There is a clear
distinction in this equation between who has control and who is
receiving it.

Turning someone into an object not only dehumanizes, but it can lead to
justifying violence (communicating gender). It is much easier on most
people’s conscience to hit a punching bag than a person. Images of
women as objects and as the recipients of aggressive behavior do
cause a desensitization of violence (Barker 38). Despite this, very little
violent crime is a deliberate replica of one in the media, not a particular
image. Much of crimes against women mirror many of the messages that
are sent in the media. Oftentimes, these images in advertisements are
glamorizing the gender power relations discussed earlier.

Figure 1 is an advertisement from Sisley retrieved from [http://www.about-] Sisley’s advertisements are marketed toward young white,
middle to upper class females reading fashion magazines. The first
thing the viewer notices is the model’s face, bearing a fearful and
frustrated expression. It is well lit in the foreground turning around, with
barely a glimpse of the man behind her. Her hair is in her face as if she
had quickly turned around to see him. The position of her body is clearly
submissive, her hands held behind her back as she lies on the couch.
Her elbow is obstructing the view of the man’s face, thus giving the view
the impression that the man’s intentions are unknown- we cannot see
the expression on his face. While it is not clear what exactly is
happening in this scene, a sense of uneasiness arises.

A power
struggle is used here to sell a name, a name that sells clothing, which is
barely visible here. This hierarchy may help facilitate the perception of
women as targets for violence and aggression. This advertisement
reinforces the stereotype that women can be used as objects not just for
their bodies, but also for their willingness to use those bodies in
demeaning and sometimes humiliating imagery. The look on her face,
the position of her body, and the faceless perpetrator in this
advertisement almost encapsulates the entire notion of the
powerlessness of women as objects.

Katz writes, “the reduction of women to body parts for men’s
consumption can significantly damage a woman’s self-respect” (qt in
Muarianne et al 250). He goes on further than men are not born to
objectify women, but it is a learned behavior, primarily from images of
passive women. Perhaps this lack of self-respect exacerbates the
acceptance of such material. There is no more rampant use of
aggressive imagery than in the pornography industry. Barron et al
examined sexual violence in print media, videos, and the Internet, and
found that the Internet contained a significant portion of graphic and
antagonistic imagery. However, as the violence became more intense,
fewer scenes contained it (259).

Much of the heterosexual pornography in circulation draws on the
conventions of the woman as the object of the male gaze (Duggan 54).
Duggan and Hunter’s book, Sex Wars, critically examines pornography
from both sides of the argument that addresses the nature of the
medium. It must be noted that my interest here lies in violent
pornography and its effects exclusively. The images of women in this
form of mass media are a more intense mutation of the print
advertisements discussed above. “Sexually explicit” often becomes
identified and equated with “violent”. Critically examining pornography
must be done with as much analysis as that of socially acceptable forms
of imagery. Those that contain nudity, nonviolent and non-degrading
material are another discussion.

Although most of pornography is directed towards men, it cannot be
assumed that this is due to greater intrinsic male interest in sex. More
than likely, it is due to the industry’s extreme slant towards the traditional
male perspective. The Internet is the most often used way of accessing
porn, with 12% of all its websites devoted to it
( The effect of this form of the media is
ambiguous. Donnerstein found in one study in the “Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology” that erotic materials facilitate
aggression while he found in another study that it inhibits it (qt in Bryant
et al 289). The resolution of this issue apparently concerns the nature of
the material. Sexual violence and unpleasant themes typically facilitate
aggression, whereas, nonviolent, more loving and pleasant “soft-core”
explicit materials may hinder it (ibid). Thus, the topic of censorship is a
hotly debated one with limited research on its effects.

Themes of female subordination, bondage, sado-masochism, and rape
became increasingly prevalent in porn since the 1980’s (Sapolsky). The
rape myth scenario has become rampant. It typically presents the female
in distress but later shows her being aroused. Sapolsky also quotes
research showing that men, who are exposed to pornography
containing rape in which a female victim eventually expresses positive
reactions to the rape, are more likely to accept rape myths (e.g., women
secretly desire to be raped), be sexually aroused to rape, self-report the
possibility of committing rape, see the victim as responsible, and show
less sensitivity to rape (ibid).

Although sado- masochism, bondage, and
rape fantasies are valid and typically innocuous means of sexual
arousal in practice, in print, video, and the Internet, it dehumanizes the
submissive member of the sexual act.

This type of violent pornography is a clear example of power issues in
mass media. Rape is a crime of control and domination. Sexualizing it
with the intent of arousal sometimes encourage the viewer to accept this
type of violence as acceptable. Women in this kind of pornographic
material are dehumanized on a much deeper level than those in
advertisements. As the author of aptly
writes, “You cannot simultaneously objectify and dignify women”.
Does imagery of objectified women in mass media directly cause
violence toward women? The answer is an overall no.

Rape and
violence existed long before the media. The First Amendment is the
most often cited reason to not censor such media. Much of the research
of violent imagery in the media shows only a small link between actual
violence and the media. Visual literacy is ultimately what will change the
notions of women as passive objects.