Problematic motifs: portrayals and identity construction of women in visual consumer media

Conference: 

Discipline: 

Photography, Film & Multimedia

Keywords: 

  • stereotypes

Considerable  criticism  has  been  levelled  at  problematic  visual  portrayals  of  women  in  consumer  and  popular media.  Current  Western  media  landscapes  feature  images  of  women  that  engender  problematic  ‘narrow’ identity constructs – marginalising agency and intellect, promoting physical idealisation, sexual objectification, and commodification  – and, as such,  reproduce  patriarchal  discourse.  Despite  the rise of feminism  and the resultant  increased  awareness   of  and  advances  in  the  area  of  gender  equality,  stereotyped   images  of sexualised,  objectified  and  idealised  women  seem  to  persist  globally  and  in  South  Africa.  Images  exert discursive power and have the ability to shape people’s identities, beliefs, and behaviour. In this way, consumer images possess ‘normative’  authority  and are able to mediate  identity.  Media representations  that objectify women, sexualise them, and remove intellectual and authoritative agency are unhealthy, even destructive, especially  considering  the social challenges  present in South Africa, such as the disturbingly  high incidents of gender violence and rape.  
 
Within this context, design education has a responsibility to advocate an approach that carefully considers the role  that  visual  media  representation  plays  in  shaping  identity  and  works  towards  more  constructive  and ethical  visual  practices.  Students,  as  future  professionals  in  the  visual  communication   industry,  including graphic  design,  photography,  and art-­‐direction,  need to understand  and appreciate  the important  role they play in mediating ‘personal’ identity, and ultimately in shaping collective ‘community’ identity.
 
This research paper functions as a broad critical-­‐theoretical analysis, engaging with academic concepts relating to social, cultural and aesthetic communities. The paper outlines and discusses visual techniques evident in problematic representations of women in mainstream approaches in
Western consumer media. Amongst other things, body language, physical perfection, commodification, and sexual objectification are discussed. The implications  of problematic  portrayals  of women are considered  in general,  and more specifically  within the sociocultural context of South
Africa.  
 
The  aim  of  the  research  is  to  argue  against  harmful  media  portrayals  of  women  and  to consider  the  visual communication industry’s complicity in the problem, as well as its power to correct it.

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