Intersections with age, race, class, and sexuality

Those women who are represented in key roles such as film protagonists and television presenters are most likely to be white, middle class, young, ‘able-bodied’, heterosexual and slim. There are limited roles for older actresses and television presenters, and an emphasis on looking ‘younger’ in advertisements for beauty products and makeover shows[167]. Talk shows have been one arena in which women of colour have been better represented, with major hosts such as Oprah Winfrey and Trisha Goddard. However, images of women in women’s magazines remain overwhelmingly white, and in advertising and music videos women of colour are still often represented according to crude stereotypes of exotic animalistic hypersexuality (black women)[168] or sexual submissiveness (Asian women)[169].

Reality television has been one arena where working class women have been increasingly represented and some have reached celebrity status. However representations of such women – and news reporting about them – has frequently been stigmatizing and ridiculing, particularly in relation to their bodies, sexualities, and lack of ‘feminine’ behaviour[170] . The ‘overly sexual’ working class young woman is demonized in representations of the dangers of sexualization, and held up as a cautionary tale: Young women who are viewed as being sexual at too young an age are frequently depicted as working class[171] .

Historically lesbian and bisexual women have largely been invisible in media, in comparison with heterosexual women and even with gay and bisexual men[172]. When they have been depicted it has generally been as either criminal and dangerous, or as tragic and doomed, hence the ‘dead/ evil lesbian cliché’, which has persisted up until recent times, even in films and television series with generally positive depictions of gay characters[173]. Lesbians have also often been depicted in stereotypical ways, for example as exclusively butch and masculine in appearance in film and television comedy. However, recent television shows focusing on the lives of lesbian and bisexual women, such as The L Word and Lip Service, have provided a far more diverse range of representations in terms of gender presentation, race, class, and – to some extent – body type. In news, film and television aimed at a general audience, however, there is still a strong tendency to represent sexual contact between feminine women as aimed at the titillation of men[174], and this reinforces stereotypes of bisexuality as an inauthentic sexuality[175]. As with lesbian and bisexual women, there are specific issues with the depiction of trans* women in media, whatever their sexuality.

Body image and sexualization in representations of women

167. Gill, R. Scharff, C. (Eds.) (2011). New femininities: Postfeminism, Neoliberalism and Subjectivity. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
168. Miller-Young, M. (2007). Hip-Hop Honeys and Da Hustlaz: Black Sexualities in the New Hip-Hop Pornography. Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, 8(1), 261-29.
169. Gill, R. (2006). Gender and the Media. London: Polity Press.
170. Tyler, I. & Bennett, B. (2010).‘Celebrity chav’: Fame, Femininity and Social Class. European Journal of Cultural Studies, 13(3), 375-393.
171. Egan, R. D. (2013). Becoming Sexual: A Critical Appraisal of the Sexualization of Girls. Cambridge: Polity.
172. Ciasullo, A. M. (2001). Making her (in) isible: Cultural representations of lesbianism and the lesbian body in the 1990s. Feminist Studies, 27(3), 577-608.
173. Booth, S. (2008). The death of Tara, the fall of Willow and The Dead/Evil Lesbian Cliché FAQ, http://www.stephenbooth.org/lesbiancliche.htm.
174. Diamond, L. M. (2005). ‘I’m Straight, but I Kissed a Girl’: The Trouble with American Media Representations of Female-Female Sexuality. Feminism & Psychology. 15(1), 104-110.
175. Barker, M., Richards, C., Jones, R., Bowes-Catton, H. & Plowman, T. (2012). The Bisexuality Report: Bisexual inclusion in LGBT equality and diversity. Milton Keynes: The Open University, Centre for Citizenship, Identity and Governance.

Body image and sexualization in representations of women

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