English: One of the symbols of German Women’s movement (from the 1970s) Deutsch: Ein Logo der deutschen Frauenbewegung (aus den 70er Jahren) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
History and overview of feminist theory
Merriam-Webster defines “feminist” as the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes and organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests. On the other hand, “feminist theory” is the extension of feminism into theoretical, or philosophical, ground. It encompasses work done in a broad variety of disciplines, prominently including the approaches to women’s roles and lives, and feminist politics.
For feminist theorists, there is no dispute that media function ideologically, working with other social and cultural institutions to reflect, reinforce, and mediate existing power relations and ideas about how gender is and should be lived (Enriques, 2001).
Ardener (1975) posits that women and men within patriarchal, capitalist societies tend to form two distinct circles of experience and interpretation, one overlapping the other (Krolokke & Sorensen, 2006). The masculine circle converges with the norms of society, providing a masculine signature and overriding the feminine circle.
Therefore, women’s voices and perspectives are not openly articulated. Women can either try to translate their point of view into a masculine mode or try to separate alternate models of communication.
As a result, women’s expression is muted (Spender, 1980). It illustrates muted group theory, an approach to communication that considers women a muted group because manmadelanguage aids in defining, depreciating, and excluding them.Worth noting is that muting is not the same as silencing. It is successful only when the non-dominant group ceases to find and develop alternate communication styles to express their experiences and code their messages.
Media coverage often follows the patriarchal paradigm as outlined by Hartmann (1981),who defines the model as a set of materially-based social relations that create a solidarity among men of all races and classes “who are united in their shared relationship of dominance over their women” (p. 14-15).
Vavrus (2009) argues that news outlets often feature institutional sexism and patriarchy. She says the resulting news representations are “oblique, weak gestures of gratitude toward feminist achievements alongside attributions of blame for feminists’ alleged responsibility in unnecessarily complicating the lives of the very people who were supposed to have been helped by the movement—women” (p. 223).
The news media in the United States, which profit from setting up and then exacerbating social antagonisms (see the so-called “mommy wars”), play this game perennially with numerous issues traditionally pegged as “women’s issues,” suggesting implicitly and explicitly that feminism has duped women in any number of ways, and that it is to blame for any ills women continue to suffer. A crucial piece of this is news media’s refusal both to call out individual instances of sexism as such and to identify patterns of it as the exercise of patriarchal power (p. 223).
There is no single feminist method of study, but feminist communication researchers have incorporated and transformed different methodologies (Krolokke & Sorensen, 2006). What feminist-informed methods have in common is they put gender and gender-related concerns at the center of analysis and highlight notions of power in different ways.
Scott (2008) writes that historically, the dates 1890-1940, typically accepted as encompassing the modernist period, coincide with the first wave of feminism and its educational, suffragist, socialist, and professional agendas. “Feminist activism and ideology of the period, as well as reactions against them, made gender a field of contention, sometimes labeled the ‘sex wars’” (p. 7).
Vavrus (2002) defines postfeminism in her book, Postfeminist News, as a “revision of feminism that encourages women’s private, consumer lifestyles rather than cultivating a desire for public life and political activism” (p. 2). The definition rejects feminism’s challenges such as those grounded in critiques of capitalism and class privilege. However, she states that postfeminism asserts “feminism actually harms women, overall, because it gives women unrealistic expectations—that we can ‘have it all’” (p. 22).
The feminist “first wave” is generally identified with the mobilization of strong feminist movements in the mid-19th and early 20th Centuries in Europe and North America that were concerned with a number of egalitarian and radical issues, which included equal rights for women, educational and legal reform, slavery, and the right to vote (Vavrus, 2002).
Issues of sexuality and gratification for women, as well as reproductive rights and birth control, for example, were highly controversial dimensions of the first wave. It is within this context that many young women in particular began to question the institution of marriage, in which women and children were literally the property of men.
“Second wave” feminists were young women and girls who were part of the massive baby boom generation (1946-1964) born during the period of economic prosperity that followed the Second World War.
Many were the first in their families to receive university educations and were greatly influenced and involved in the civil rights movement. Others were disenchanted with societal conventions following the war that had forced women back into conventional roles, often as full-time wives and mothers.
Initially the term “third wave feminists” characterized a feminism mediated by the terrains of race and multicultural alliances, rather than age (Hammer & Kellner, 2009). It is this kind of insurgent feminisms that exploded in the 1980s, and examined not only the intersections between race, class, culture, and sexuality, but also the celebration–and coalition politics–of difference.
Within this context, the relevance of what has been called the “politics of hybridity” was of central concern (Hammer & Kellner, 2009). This concept has been central to describing a new generation of feminists — primarily women of color — with multiple cultural and class experiences. In the early 1990s, they began to describe their work as “third wave” (Hammer & Kellner, 2009).
Translating from the theories and writings of their insurgent feminist predecessors, their personal contexts are taken into account and mediate their feminist perspectives (Hammer & Kellner, 2009). For example, contemporary issues related to immigration, class conflicts, multiculturalism, globalization, and coalition politics, as well as environmental matters, like social activism for national and global human rights, underlie much of their feminist theory and practice.
Feminist theory later incorporated and advanced “queer theory,” which argues that sexual identities are not fixed, and questions the social construction of heterosexuality as the norm. However, many conservative women, some who were blatantly antifeminist, adopted the term “third wave feminist,” which is often used interchangeably with “postfeminist” to promote their own political interests. This group often one-dimensionalized and demonized feminists associated with the second wave (Hammer & Kellner, 2009).
Many feminist studies focus on gender-role messages in advertising, television programs (Ferri & Keller, 1986), newspaper, and magazine content. These studies traditionally find media often represent women stereotypically as passive, submissive, and dependent.
Van Zoonen (1996) explained such stereotypes fulfill the structural needs of a patriarchal and capitalist society by reinforcing gender differences and inequalities. Moreover, Carter and Steiner (2003) assert that sexist images reproduced by the media make hierarchical and distorted sex-role stereotypes appear normal.