The paper below has been accepted for publication in the book Teaching Sociology at Small Institutions, edited by Eric Godfrey, Professor of Sociology at Ripon College, Ripon, Wisconsin. It will be published in late 1997 or early 1998 by the Teaching Resources Center of The American Sociological Association. If you have arrived directly at this paper by search engine, you are at the web site for this book project. This site includes extensive information about the book, first drafts of all 32 papers accepted for publication in this edited collection, and an introductory essay by the editor. Visit the main page of this site for more information on this book and access to the other papers.

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Deconstructing Media Images Of Women

Susan M. Alexander []
Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame, IN 46556
(received October 9, 1996)

Numerous researchers have studied how women are portrayed in the mass media (Haskell 1974; Faludi 1991; Lewis 1990; Rapping 1994). Others have created videos that visually illustrate women's images in the mass media (Kilbourne 1995; Jhally 1995). What is less clear is how sociologists incorporate this information into the classroom. Examining the sociological content presented in the mass media, a "sociology through mass media," misses the profound effect imagery has on the viewer's self-identity as well as their physical and mental health (see Templeton and Groce 1990). My teaching experiences at a small, women's college have revealed the extent to which young women internalize the images of the tall, ultra-slim models they see on television, in magazine ads, in music videos. Saint Mary's like so many other small colleges with a traditional age-based student body has its share of women students with eating disorders. It is with these students in mind that I began teaching students to critically deconstruct the messages they see in the mass media. This paper discusses two strategies I have used to teach students to become media literate. These techniques are particularly effective because the small classroom size allows for the student's hands- on experience in deconstructing media imagery.

Magazine Advertisements

One strategy I use to teach media literacy is an analysis of gender roles in magazine ads. Over a period of three years I randomly selected approximately 100 advertisements from a wide assortment of magazines including Glamour, Better Homes and Gardens, Good Housekeeping, Rolling Stone, Car and Driver, and Automobile. Included are ads with both women and men since both have prescribed gender roles that are illustrated in media imagery. Each ad was glued to heavy gauge construction paper for easy display and to keep the edges intact. New advertisements are periodically added to the collection. Additionally, a student intrigued by this analysis of gender in advertisements conducted a comparative analysis of 1950s ads versus 1990s ads. She donated her project to my collection so limited historical comparison is possible.

In the classroom, I tape the ads to one wall. The ads are arranged according to themes found in Goffman's (1979 ) book Gender Advertisements. The ads illustrate female body-chopping, women in childlike poses, and men's gesture exuding authority while women's gestures are submissive. I considered using slides of ads to illustrate the concepts of gender advertisements, however viewing one slide after the other does not have the visual impact of a wall of ads. By creating a wall of advertisements, the students are visually bombarded by gendered imagery. The repetition of themes and motifs in the ads is disturbing to students who have given little thought to the dominant messages sent by media imagery.

This visual display in the classroom is accompanied by a student project in which they select magazine advertisements that illustrate women in traditional and non-traditional roles as well as men in traditional and non-traditional roles. The class period following my "wall of gender ads" is devoted to students presenting ads they have selected and a discussion of why traditional ads are significantly more common than non- traditional ads for both women and men. This deconstruction of the messages in gender advertisements is then linked to other topics. For example, I show students ads with persons of color and ask students to think about how race and ethnicity are constructed in the magazine ads, and how they might deconstruct such messages. My goal is for students to recognize their ability to deconstruct any media message even if they are not the primary audience of the advertiser.

Music Videos

A second strategy for teaching students to be media literate is an analysis of music videos. Rather than focusing exclusively on those music videos in which women are a component in the 'adolescent male fantasy' (Jhally 1995), a random selection of more than one hundred music videos recorded from MTV and BET are examined. Emphasizing a postmodern perspective, students discover that music videos can be deconstructed from any number of social-cultural sites, from a critique of capitalism to an analysis of the motif of the isolated, anguished teen.

Music videos, like all other forms of the mass media, can informally socialize the viewer. Music videos can and do show positive role models for young women. In order to identify where and how often these positive images occur, the students study videos by both female and male artists. Women in music videos can be classified as fitting one of three categories: the conventional women, the independent woman, and the internal paradox (Alexander 1996). In other words, the images of women in music videos are diverse but, overwhelmingly, most videos either ignore women, keep them in the background as scenery, or treat women in a conventional and sexist manner. The handful of videos with strong, capable, self-assured, autonomous women is small. Students then address question such as, why in 1996 are women musicians who do not sell their sexuality so rare? What positive imagery are women musicians using? How is a traditional gender role used in music videos?

Linked to this in-class analysis of music videos, is a small group project in which students produced a video to teach others to be media literate. They may focus on any genre ofmedia, from sitcoms to comic books, but the purpose of their video is to create critical thinking in the viewer about the messages implicit in media imagery. This project creates an opportunity for students to both deconstruct the images of others and to reconstruct images in a way that highlights the original 'hidden' messages. Media literacy is more than identifying images found in the mass media.

Media literacy empowers students by giving them the tools for understanding how the media's messages can affect their lives and the lives of others. Given the media saturation of our everyday lives, media literacy is a crucial process in educating future generations. An in-depth and hands- on approach is most effective in the smaller-sized classes of less than 20 students. Since smaller classes are a central feature of the small college experience, media literacy can be most effectively taught in the small college environment.


Alexander, Susan M. 1996. " Music videos show our changing roles", Chicago Tribune, May 26. Section 13, page 6.

Faludi, Susan. 1991. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. New York: Doubleday.

Goffman, Erving. 1979. Gender Advertisements. New York: Harper Colophon.

Haskell, Molly. 1974. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. New York: Rinehart.

Jhally, Sut. 1995. Dreamworlds II . Video recording. Northhampton, MA: Media Education Foundation.

Kilbourne, Jean. 1995. Slim Hopes: Advertising and the Obsession with Thinness. Video recording. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation.

Lewis, Lisa. 1990. Gender Politics and MTV: Voicing the Difference. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Rapping, Elayne. 1994. Mediations: Forays into the Culture and Gender Wars. Boston: South End Press.

Templeton, Alice, and Stephen Groce. 1990. "Sociology and Literature: Theoretical Considerations", Sociological Inquiry 60: 34-46.