An Analysis of Femininity: How Popular Female Characters In the Media Portray Contemporary Womanhood

Stephanie O. Roussell | March 2013

The impact of the media on adolescent girls has received greater theoretical, legal and societal focus over the last few decades. Several studies link the development of women’s gendered identities, healthy sexual activity and self-efficacy to how the media portray women. Restrictive or unrealistic themes of womanhood or femininity in the media can impact a young girl’s social construction of identity and provide limited examples of what it means to be a woman in today’s society. 

The development of a gender or cultural identity is not solely based on what one views in the media. But, because feminine norms and beliefs often form during adolescence, the media can be a major socializing agent and one of great influence over whether women form healthy gender attitudes and beliefs about themselves or other women (Driscoll, 2002). Limited themes of femininity in the media can be even more detrimental to adolescent girls (Groesz, Levine, & Murnen, 2002). Adolescence—or emerging adulthood—brings about physical, cognitive, sexual and psychosocial developmental changes (Drobac, 2011). During this time, young women navigate emotional, developmental and sexual avenues that allow them to explore their identity and independence (Erikson, 1968; Sugar, 1993). Additionally, Durham (1999) suggests emerging adulthood can also mean a loss of self-determination as limited femininity norms are expressed repeatedly in the media. Hancock (1989) agrees that the mass media can play a crucial role in an adolescent girl’s identity formation.

“A young girl projecting herself into the future can’t help but feel caught by contradictory imperatives: even as she dons her soccer uniform, ads for deodorant implore, ‘Never let them see you sweat.’ Self-confidence yields to self-consciousness as a girl judges herself as others judge her against an impossible feminine ideal. To match that ideal, she must stash away a great many parts of herself. She gives up being childlike in order to be ladylike. She loses her self-possession; she loses her sense of self as subject; she senses that she is now “other” and becomes object in a male world . . . Contained, adapted and sexualized long before adolescence, a girl is cowed and tamed as her natural spontaneity gives way to patriarchal constructions of the female. In donning the masks provided by [mass] culture, a girl easily loses sight of who and what she is beneath the feminine facade she adopts in youth” (p. 22).

This process, articulated originally by Simone de Beauvoir (1961) means “internalizing a ‘male gaze’ and turning it upon oneself, thus learning to evaluate and assess rather than to feel and experience one’s own body” (Tolman, Impett, Tracy & Michael, 2006). This evaluation means young girls will mold their actions and behaviors to fit with social norms, rather than experience adolescence and femininity organically (Tolman, Impett, Tracy & Michael, 2006).

This study qualitatively examines femininity in contemporary media by analyzing—via textual analysis and focus groups—how popular female characters embody, portray and promote different conceptualizations of femininity.  Do these characters portray more traditional styles of femininity? Or do they embrace the gains of Third Wave feminism and promote more contemporary versions of femininity? Results suggest a shift toward contemporary femininity, but also reveal lingering stereotypes in a character’s emotional and cultural behaviors.

For the full paper, please e-mail me here.


Understanding Ophelia: How Sexualization Can Lead To Self-Produced Child Pornography and What We Can Do To Stop It 

Stephanie O. Roussell | December 2012

Mary Pipher, in her seminal work Reviving Ophelia (1995), suggested that young girls live in a much different world than their mothers, and that we as a society have lost sight of how to make adolescence a safe and nurturing experience. Even in 1995, the effect of negative and sexually predatory media messages on young girls was a growing issue. More than 17 years later, a survey conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy reveals that 22% of teen girls have sent or posted nude photos/videos of themselves online, participating in what has become known as self-produced child pornography. This statistic reveals that Ophelia, the metaphorical teenage girl, may still be lost and we have not yet learned how to address the forces that endanger the cognitive, emotional and behavioral well being of our nation’s daughters.

In a media-saturated society, the formation of role models and emulation of characters is a common occurrence (Brown & Fraser, 2003). In Daniel Boorstin’s The Image, he suggests— even in 1961—that celebrities were becoming the heroes of our age. Social cognitive theory suggests individuals will model behavior learned from positive experiences watching characters in the media, and that “modeling is one of the most pervasive and powerful means of transmitting values, attitudes, and patterns of thought and behavior” (Bandura, 1986, p. 686). The allure of the celebrity lifestyles represented on television and the Internet can appear dazzling on screen, but often offer little truth about how society truly functions.

These conflicting models of femininity have prompted greater theoretical and sociological focus on sexualization (Moore, 2011). It has also spilled into the legal realm, where more concerning is the behavior that can result: self-produced child pornography—a growing trend where teenagers send sexually explicit photos or videos of themselves to peers.

This paper reviews what sexualization is, why it might lead to self-produced child pornography and how existing laws regulate, or as we will find, fail to properly regulate this behavior. The paper will then extend these findings to understand how self-produced child pornography is being addressed in different states, and then ask from a critical cultural perspective: Is the law enough? And what, if any, legal remedy, legislative act or education initiative should exist to protect young girls from sexualization and reduce future self-produced child pornography behavior.

For the full paper, please e-mail me here.


The Effects of Empowerment on Self-Efficacy: How Different Models of Empowerment in the Media Can Impact Personal Empowerment

Stephanie O. Roussell | December 2012

In contemporary media, there exists an overwhelming amount of images, text and ideas. The media also offers an abundance of character types viewers can relate and respond to (Sanders, 2004). Both movies and television allow individuals a chance to see how other people—real or fictional—live, act, work and play. This heavy exposure has led researchers to scrutinize how realities represented on television might define or construct an individual’s real-life social context (Cato & Carpentier, 2012). The effect of media characters on adolescent girls has also received greater theoretical, legal and societal focus (Durham, 1999; Lowe, 2003). Traditionally, literature suggests “media representations of femininity are restrictive, unrealistic, focused on physical beauty of a type that is virtually unattainable” (Durham, 1999, p. 193).

In response to these stereotypical female roles, empowerment has emerged as a macro concept within postfeminism as an effort to place power back into the hands of young women negotiating their cultural, societal and sexual identity (Riordan, 2001). But contemporary empowerment looks very different from traditional definitions of empowerment, and focuses more on individualistic success rather than collective gain. This study seeks to examine the modern concept of empowerment, how it manifests in different portrayals of women in the media and how it might impact young women’s self-efficacy or gender attitudes and beliefs.

This study explores the concept of individual-level empowerment and the postfeminist shift from collective gain to personal empowerment. Specifically, the study utilized an experiment to examine the relationship between different models of empowerment and their effect on self-efficacy and perceived empowerment of female media characters. Results indicate that women feel more empowered after viewing sexual media characters, yet do not assign the title of empowerment to those same media characters. These results suggest respondents personally believe sexuality is empowering, but are unwilling to publicly endorse sexual media characters as empowered women.

For the full paper, please e-mail me here.


An Examination of Postfeminist and Girl Power Narratives
in Contemporary Tween Television Shows

Stephanie O. Roussell / 6.5.12

In contemporary media, several different and often conflicting portrayals of women and femininity exist. The representation (or misrepresentation) of women is not limited to one medium, but is prevalent in all forms. Television, often studied as the most constant and persuasive form of media, provides a steady stream of messages and representations about femininity to women and young girls. Durham (1999) suggests that girls live in a media-centric world, where mainstream media institutions constitute a social power over the audience and provide increasing amounts of influence over a girl’s perception of womanhood.

Specifically for adolescent girls the media can be a dominant and persuasive figure in their social lives. Studies have shown that girls who are predisposed to certain emotional weakness or low self-esteem are more vulnerable to media exposure about those topics (Groesz, Levine, & Murnen, 2002). Often, the dominant ideology presented in the media is internalized and young girls behave in concert with it by forming parasocial relationships, or symbolic interactions with their favorite media characters to ease the transition through adolescence in to adult relationships (Durham, 1999; Theran, Newberg & Gleason, 2010). Adolescence is a time marked by severe psychological and emotional stress and constitutes transition out of childhood into more adult roles and responsibilities. Adolescent scholars believe that growth during this period requires hard work and courage, and a protective and nurturing environment. (Pipher, 1995) But what happens when the symbolic relationships that adolescent girls form during this time present conflicting or confusing models of what is means to be a woman?

Studies have long examined the representation of women on television, but within the last two decades, a greater share of the media marketplace is dedicated to a younger, more impressionable audience: tweens. According to Hains (2009), the tween girl demographic was born of market research and characterizes the time when girls are negotiating childhood while imagining life as a teenager, usually ages 9 to 14. Thus, products and media narratives that help them imagine their future life as a teenager have become popular. Marketers have tapped into the spending power of this age group, and a boon of new television shows and programming have entered the market, quenching the thirst of young girls now watching television shows specifically to find other girls that look, act, sound and spend like them. The tween market adds more than $1 trillion per year in additional parental spending for tween-specific cultural products (dolls, clothes or makeup) or media texts (DVDs, concert tickets or music). This represents a staggering number considering this market segment did not exist a decade ago.

In this era of more and more girls maturing and constructing their identity in relation to characters and products that are commoditized and consumer focused, this study seeks to analyze and understand the hierarchy of feminine discourse in today’s media. The study uses a textual analysis of television’s two most popular tween shows (iCarly and Degrassi) to understand the dominant discourses young girls watch and consume. This analysis can help isolate, analyze and critique the most persuasive messages in today’s media that are affecting a particularly persuadable group.

For the full paper, please e-mail me here.


“Typeface for Tennessee: How one city is using design to make a difference”

Stephanie O. Roussell / 5.16.12

Sometimes, the most creative and innovative projects can come from the most unlikely of places. This is the case with Chattanooga, Tennessee. Most often known for its outdoor activities and railroads, Chattanooga has experienced revitalization in the last few years of its business sector and cultural footprint. Capitalizing on this new growth, two artists have sparked national interest in Chattanooga’s economic development plan because of one customized design element: a typeface. This case study explores how this story binds together economic development, marketing, good visual communication and the power of a community.

Download ChatTypeCaseStudy


Article Review:

“Building strong brands in a modern marketing communications environment.”
Keller, K.L. (2009) Journal of Marketing Communications. (15)2-3. 139-155.

by Stephanie O. Roussell / 4.15.12

“In 1960, Procter & Gamble could reach 80% of US women with one 30-second Tide commercial aired simultaneously on only three TV networks: NBC, ABC and CBS. Today, the same ad would have to run on 100 channels to achieve this marketing feat.”

This one example about the dilution of the mass audience in modern media is a great primer on the power of integrated marketing communication. No longer can companies reach the majority of their target audience with one tactic, one strategy or one channel. Good marketing and strategic communication now require a mix of messages and tactics that can effectively reach a more educated and capable consumer.

In Kevin Keller’s 2009 article on building strong brands, he outlines the environment that branders and communicators now live in. He emphasizes the importance of a “customer-based brand equity model” that stresses how a company should know the customer and correctly engage with them. He suggests “traditional approaches to branding that put emphasis on mass media techniques seem questionable in a marketplace where customers have access to massive amounts of information about brands, products and companies and in which social networks have, in some cases, supplanted brand networks” (Keller, 2009, p. 139).

The article defines the role of branding as creating brand equity through attaching uniquely attributable characteristics to the company, product or service. Further, companies create brand equity from “added value endowed to a product as a result of past investments in the marketing for the brand” (Keller, p. 140). So, the sum of all marketing activities creates added value for a brand that is looking to differentiate itself from the marketplace. Keller outlines several benefits of a strong brand. A few selected examples:

  • Improved perception of product performance
  • Greater customer loyalty
  • More elastic customer response to price decrease or increase
  • Additional licensing and brand extension opportunities

To alleviate the strains of a fragmented communication landscape, marketing and communication professionals are “employing more varied…options than ever before” (Keller, p. 142) By using multiple channels and tactics, the marketer can employ a multi-faceted approach to the consumer, surrounding it with reasons to buy. To do this correctly, Keller suggests the marketer must extend brand salience (identification with the brand) to brand resonance (psychological bond with the brand). He attaches characteristics to each level of a “customer- based brand equity model pyramid”:

1. Salience (category identification)
2. Performance (product reliability, style and design)
3. Imagery (user profiles, personality and values)
4. Judgments (quality, credibility)
5. Feelings (warmth, security, social approval)
6. Resonance (loyalty, attachment, engagement)

A successful integrated marketing communication program employs each of these stages and characteristics to bring the customer along the continuum, from identification to loyalty. Then, the communicator must employ different tactical, micro-level strategies and conceptual, macro- level perspectives to most effectively mix and match the appropriate marketing channels.

This article provides great insight and detail into the world of integrated marketing communication and communicated several best practices for the effective use of the process. Most importantly, it concludes with implicating that “marketers must (1) be media neutral and consider all possible communication options; (2) mix and match the communication options chosen to maximize their respective strengths and weaknesses; (3) and ensure that interactive marketing can play a significant—but appropriate—role in the total marketing communications program.

To see article abstract: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13527260902757530


Is Too Sexy Too Soon In The Eye of the Beholder?
A Case Study of Abercrombie and Fitch

Stephanie O. Roussell / 11.22.11

Abercrombie and Fitch, an American retailer with nearly 800 U.S. and international stores, is no stranger to controversy. The company has long profited from shock value and consumer backlash not only in its marketing, but also in its clothing and employment practices. Known for its preppy, casual style of mid-luxury clothing, the retailer is a mainstay in the American shopping mall. But recent controversies about its product style and marketing practices have kept the company continually in the news. The latest controversy is no different.

Download Abercrombie Case Study


7 thoughts on “Writing

  1. Pingback: Writing Post Update « tuliptea

  2. This is so good, Steph! A very good summary of this issue over the last few years. Also very objective 😉 I’m fairly sure I know how you feel, but – like a good journalist – the article doesn’t give it away!

  3. Pingback: Writing Update! « tuliptea

  4. Pingback: Typeface for Tennessee: Writing Update! « tuliptea

  5. Pingback: Writing Update! | tuliptea

  6. Pingback: Writing Update! | tuliptea

  7. Pingback: What I’m Reading Lately … Blog Edition | tuliptea

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