Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center

Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Feminist theorists agree mass media serve as instruments to transmit stereotypical, patriarchal and hegemonic values about women, which in turn make hierarchical and distorted sex-role stereotypes appear normal (e.g. Carter and Steiner, 2004; Hartmann, 1981; Vavrus (2009). Van Zoonen (1994) summarized this transmission model as a media reflection on society’s dominant social values that symbolically belittle women, either by not showing them at all, or by depicting them in stereotypical roles (p. 17). As a result, their expression is muted (e.g. Orbe, 1998; Collins, 2004). Muted group theory sees language as excluding and demeaning women based on several factors, including words to describe them. For example, “stud,” and “playboy” are popular words to depict promiscuous men. Conversely, people use less appealing words, such as “slut,” “hooker” and “whore,” to describe promiscuous women.

Early feminist theory emphasized the commonalities of women’s oppression, neglecting profound differences between women in terms of class, age, sexuality, religion, race and nationality. However, because of differences in coverage, black feminist theorists, Hooks (1992), and Moraga and Anzaldúa (1981) evoked the concepts of “interlocking identities “and “interlocking oppressions.” The scholars assert that black women’s experience of various issues could not be conceived as separable from their experience of racism. Hooks (1992) further emphasized that media institutionalize white and male supremacist ideologies, which produce “specific images, representations of race, of blackness that support and maintain the oppression, exploitation and overall domination of all black people” (p. 2).  This sentiment is reflected in stereotypes such as the sexually promiscuous black woman—the “oversexed-black-Jezebel”—the “mammy” and the “welfare cheat” as well as the “overachieving black lady” who emasculates the black males in her life (Lubiano, 1992).

Johnson (2005) asserts that such stories fit a convenient narrative pattern that storytellers have used for more than a century, a pattern that incorporates negative viewpoints of black women and their perceived roles in society. Historically, the myth of the black superwoman essentially consisted of stereotypes deeply rooted in slavery. According to Wallace (1979), the idea that although “lazy,” black women are able to do more physical labor than the average woman while consistently sacrificing themselves for others, have no emotion and are really just men.

In her analysis of local television coverage of the Freaknik Festival, Meyers (2004) indicated violence against women became newsworthy when a camera located in the area of the violence taped it. In one instance, “by positioning the harassment of these women against the gyrations of a woman who appears to be welcoming and encouraging male attention and desire, the story suggested that violence against black women is the result of female provocation” (p.106). Meyers (2004) also argues coverage reinforced race and class stereotypes by representing locals as underclass troublemakers, prone to crime. On the other hand, the media portrayed students as law-abiding people with middle-class values and norms.

Similarly, Benedict’s (1997) study explained the prevalence of the virgin or vamp dichotomy in the media coverage of sex crimes. Benedict (1997) found the habits of coverage to be not only racist, class-oriented, and sexist, but also inaccurate. The most commonly covered rape story contained the scenario of a Caucasian female victim with an African American male perpetrator. These stories, which proved statistically inaccurate, reflected and perpetuated the attitude that Caucasian women are more valuable than African-American women (cited in Benedict, 1997, p. 118).

There is also a growing body of research regarding the stereotyping of sports participants. Women, in general, have traditionally been portrayed participating in sports such as ballet, swimming and gymnastics, which contain elements of grace and beauty (Cratty, 1983). The scholar suggests sports that emphasize “the beauty of line” are considered more acceptable for females, while sports with high contact such as basketball, football and ice hockey are “male sports” (p. 172). Portrayals disseminate the overarching idea that males are superior athletes, which augments the idea that male superiority is ‘‘natural’’ and sporting events tend to support White, corporate, male-dominant ideologies (e.g. Cole, 2001).

Other studies focus on how media outlets frame black, female athletes as both racially and sexually different/deviant. Depictions often imply black female athletes do not meet white American standards of beauty and are defeminized. Scholars have also concluded U.S. sports media often give women of color considerably less coverage than they give their white female counterparts (Blinde and McCallister, 1999; Maas and Holbrook, 2001). However, when depicted, media portray them in team sports considered more masculine than individual sports.

The absence of minority women supports the traditional belief that sports are solely for white, heterosexual, non-disabled women. Such portrayals may play a role in how people treat black women. For example, Ruggiero & Lattin (2008) concluded female intercollegiate coaches, like their male counterparts, often believe they can arbitrarily use the power granted to them within the sport organization to perpetuate racial and gender stereotypes.

Such debates about the adequacy of gender as the central concern of feminist theory have led to the useful concept of intersectionality, which emphasizes women do not experience discrimination and other forms of human rights violations solely on the grounds of gender, but for a multiplicity of reasons, including age, ethnicity, class, nationality and sexuality (Ludvig, 2006). An intersectional approach to analyzing the disempowerment of marginalized women attempts to capture the interaction between two or more forms of subordination. It addresses the manner in which racism; patriarchy, class oppression and other discriminatory systems create inequalities that structure the relative positions of women, races, ethnicities and classes.


  1. […] Narratives of Gender and Race (criticalstudiesblog.com) […]

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