Age, Social Class, Ethnicity, Gender, Sexuality & Disability

After studying this section, you should be able to understand:

  • mass media representations of gender
  • theoretical perspectives on media representations of gender
  • mass media representations of sexuality, disability, social class and age
  • mass media representations of ethnic minorities

Media representations of gender

KEY POINT - Almy et al. (1984) argue that media representations of gender are important because they enter the collective social conscience and reinforce culturally dominant (hegemonic) ideas about gender which represent males as dominant and females as subordinate. Sociologists argue that media representations not only stereotype masculinity and femininity into fairly limited forms of behaviour, but also provide gender role models that males and females are encouraged to aspire to.

However, Gauntlett (2008) points out that sociological analysis of media representations needs to be cautious, because of the sheer diversity of media in Britain.

Traditional media representations of femininity

  • Women are generally represented in a narrow range of social roles by various types of media, whilst men are shown performing a full range of social and occupational roles. Tunstall (2000) argues that media representations emphasise women’s domestic, sexual, consumer and marital activities to the exclusion of all else. The media generally ignore the fact that a majority of British women go out to work. Men, on the other hand, are seldom presented nude or defined by their marital or family status.
  • Working women are often portrayed as unfulfilled, unattractive, possibly unstable and unable to sustain relationships. It is often implied that working mothers, rather than working fathers, are guilty of the emotional neglect of their children.
  • Tuchman et al. (1978) used the term symbolic annihilation to describe the way in which women’s achievements are often not reported, or are condemned or trivialised by the mass media. Often their achievements are presented as less important than their looks and sex appeal. Newbold’s research (2002) into television sport presentation shows that what little coverage of women’s sport there is tends to sexualise, trivialise and devalue women’s sporting accomplishments.
  • Research into women’s magazines suggests that they strongly encourage women to conform to ideological patriarchal ideals that confirm their subordinate position compared with men. Ferguson (1983) conducted a content analysis of women’s magazines from between 1949 and 1974, and 1979 and 1980. She notes that such magazines are organised around a cult of femininity, which promotes a traditional ideal where excellence is achieved through caring for others, the family, marriage and appearance. However, Ferguson’s ideas were challenged by Winship (1987), who argued that women’s magazines generally play a supportive and positive role in the lives of women. Winship argues that such magazines present women with a broader range of options than ever before and that they tackle problems that have been largely ignored by the male-dominated media, such as domestic violence and child abuse.
  • Wolf (1990) suggests that the images of women used by the media present women as sex objects to be consumed by what Mulvey calls the male gaze. According to Kilbourne (1995), this media representation presents women as mannequins: tall and thin, often US size zero, with very long legs, perfect teeth and hair, and skin without a blemish in sight. Wolf notes that the media encourage women to view their bodies as a project in constant need of improvement.
  • Content analysis of teenage magazines in Britain indicates that almost 70% of the content and images focus on beauty and fashion, compared with only 12% focused on education or careers. Many encourage the idea that slimness=happiness and consequently Orbach (1991) suggests that such media imagery creates the potential for eating disorders.

The media as empowering women


Sociologists have noted the increasing number of positive female roles emerging, especially in television drama and films. It is argued that these reflect the social and cultural changes that females have experienced in the last 25 years, especially the feminisation of the economy, which has meant that women are now more likely to have aspirational attitudes, a positive attitude towards education, careers and an independent income. Westwood claims that we are now seeing more transgressive (i.e. going beyond gendered expectations) female roles on British television as a result.

Gill (2008) argues that the depiction of women in advertising has changed from women as passive objects of the male gaze, to active, independent and sexually powerful agents. Gauntlett (2008) argues that magazines aimed at young women emphasise that women must do their own thing and be themselves, whilst female pop stars, like Lady Gaga, sing about financial and emotional independence. This set of media messages from a range of sources suggest that women can be tough and independent whilst being ‘sexy’.

Traditional media representations of masculinity

Easthope (1986) argues that a variety of media, especially Hollywood films and computer games, transmit the view that masculinity based on strength, aggression, competition and violence is biologically determined and, therefore, a natural goal for boys to achieve.

However, the 1980s saw the emergence of a new breed of glossy magazines aimed at middle class young men, such as GQ, Maxim and FHM. The content of such magazines often suggested that:

  • men are emotionally vulnerable
  • they should be more in touch with their emotions or feminine side
  • they should treat women as equals
  • they should care more about their appearance
  • active fatherhood is an experience worth having.

These magazines were seen by some commentators as evidence of a new type of masculinity – the new man. Media representations of this new type of masculinity led to post-modern sociologists speculating that masculinity was responding to the growing economic independence and assertiveness of women. The media trumpeted the metrosexual male, a type of masculinity that was focused on appearance and fashion and which championed masculine values as caring and generous. The metrosexual male was thought to be in touch with his feminine side, useful around the home and considerate towards his female partner.

However, Gauntlett argues that there are still plenty of magazines aimed at men which sexually objectify women and stress images of men as traditionally masculine. Rutherford suggests that these magazines are symbolic of what he calls retributive masculinity – an attempt to reassert traditional masculine authority by celebrating traditionally male concerns in their content, i.e. ‘birds, booze and football’.

Whannel (2002) notes that mass media stories about and images of David Beckham are contradictory, in that they stress Beckham as representative of both metrosexual and retributive versions of masculinity. Whannel notes that media representations of Beckham are fluid – his good looks, his football skills, competitive spirit and his commitment mark him out as a traditional ‘real man’. However, this image has been balanced with alternative media representations that stress his metrosexuality, particularly his emotional commitment to his family and the fact that he spends a great deal of time, effort and money on his image.

Theoretical perspectives on media representations of gender

Liberal feminism

Liberal feminists believe that media representations lag behind the reality of social and economic conditions. However, they acknowledge that representations of women have changed significantly for the better in the last thirty years. Some liberal feminists have noted that women’s progress as media professionals has slowed down in recent years. The majority of media owners are male and influential positions within the media such as media executives, newspaper editors, senior journalists, producers, television and film directors, and heads of television programming are also dominated by males.

Marxist and socialist feminism

, or socialist, feminists believe that the roots of the stereotypical images of men and women in the media are economic. They are a by-product of the need of media conglomerates in capitalist societies to make a profit. The maledominated media aim to attract the largest audience possible and this leads to an emphasis on the traditional roles of men and women in sitcoms, game shows and soap operas. The alternative images of women encouraged by feminism, e.g. as assertive career women, do not fit easily into this type of media content and consequently such women are ignored, devalued or treated critically.

The media emphasis on women’s bodies as projects is the result of the growth of the cosmetic and diet product industries. It is estimated that the diet industry alone is worth $100 billion a year in the USA. Marxists note that the marketing strategies of these industries deliberately manipulate women’s anxieties so that they can be exploited as consumers of body-related products.

Radical feminism

Radical feminists
argue that traditional hegemonic images of femininity are deliberately transmitted by a male-dominated media to keep women oppressed into a narrow range of roles. This creates a form of false consciousness in women and deters them from making the most of the opportunities available to them and consequently men’s patriarchal power is rarely challenged. Radical feminists believe that it is no coincidence that, at the same time as women are achieving greater social, political and professional equality, media products symbolically relegate them to subordinate positions as sex objects or motherhousewives.


(2008) focuses on the relationship between the mass media and identity and argues that the mass media today challenge traditional definitions of gender and are actually a force for social change. There has also been a new emphasis in men’s media on men’s emotions and problems, which has challenged masculine ideals such as toughness and emotional reticence. As a result, the media are now providing alternative gendered images and ideas, which are producing a greater diversity of choices for people in constructing their gender identities.

Representations of sexuality



Batchelor found that being gay was not generally integrated into mainstream media representations. Rather, when it did appear, e.g. in television drama, it was represented mainly as a source of anxiety or embarrassment, or it was seen as a target for teasing and bullying. The study also found that, in mainstream young people’s media, lesbianism was completely invisible

Media representations of sexuality in Britain are overwhelmingly heterosexual in character. Gerbner (2002) argues that the media participate in the symbolic annihilation of gays and lesbians by negatively stereotyping them, by rarely portraying them realistically, or by not portraying them at all. Craig (1992) suggests that when homosexual characters are portrayed in the media, e.g. in popular drama, they are often stereotyped as having particular amusing or negative psychological and social characteristics.

  • Campness – this is one of the most widely used gay representations, found mainly in the entertainment media. The camp persona reinforces negative views of gay sexuality by being somewhere in between male and female.
  • Macho – a look that exaggerates masculinity and which is regarded by heterosexual men as threatening because it subverts traditional ideas of masculinity.
  • Deviant – gays may be stereotyped as deviants, as evil or as devious in television drama, as sexual predators or as people who feel tremendous guilt about their sexuality. In many cases, gay characters are completely defined by the ‘problem’ of their sexuality and homosexuality is often constructed to appear morally wrong.
  • Responsible for AIDSWatney has illustrated how British news coverage of AIDS in the 1980s stereotyped gay people as carriers of a gay plague. He argues that news coverage of AIDS reflected mainstream society’s fear and dislike of the gay community and resulted in unsympathetic accounts that strongly implied that homosexual AIDS sufferers only had their own ‘immoral and unnatural’ behaviour to blame for their condition or death.

Gauntlett argues that lesbian, gay and bisexual people are still under-represented in much of the mainstream media, but things are slowly changing for the better. Gauntlett suggests that tolerance of sexual diversity is slowly growing in society, and images of diverse sexual identities with which audiences are unfamiliar may assist in making the population generally more comfortable with these alternative sexual lifestyles.

Representations of disability

Barnes (1992) argues that mass media representations of disability have

generally been oppressive and negative. People with disabilities are rarely

presented as people with their own identities. Barnes notes several common

media representations of people with disabilities.

  • In need of pity and charity – Barnes claims that this stereotype has grown in popularity in recent years because of television appeals such as Children in Need.
  • As victims – Barnes found that when people with disabilities are featured in television drama, they are three times more likely than able-bodied characters to be killed off.
  • As villains – people with disabilities are often portrayed as criminals or monsters, e.g. villains in James Bond films often have a physical impairment.
  • As super-cripples – Barnes notes that people with disabilities are often portrayed as having special powers or as overcoming their impairment and poverty. In Hollywood films, the impaired male body is often visually represented as a perfect physical specimen in a wheelchair. Ross notes that disability issues have to be sensational, unexpected or heroic in order to be interpreted by journalists as newsworthy and reported on.
  • As a burden – television documentaries and news features often focus on carers rather than the people with disabilities.
  • As sexually abnormal – it is assumed by media representations that people with disabilities do not have sexual feelings or that they are sexually degenerate.
  • As incapable of participating fully in community life – Barnes calls this the stereotype of omission and notes that people with disabilities are rarely shown as integral and productive members of the community such as students, teachers or parents.
  • As ordinary or normal – Barnes argues that the media rarely portray people with disabilities as normal people who just happen to have a disability. They consequently fail to reflect the real, everyday experience of disability.

Roper (2003) suggests that mass media representations of disability on telethons can create problems for people with disabilities and suggests that telethons over-rely on ‘cute’ children who are not that representative of the range of people with disabilities in Britain. Roper argues that telethons are primarily aimed at encouraging the general public to alleviate their guilt and their relief that they are not disabled, by giving money rather than informing the general public of the facts about disability.

Karpf (1988) suggests that there is a need for charities, but that telethons act to keep the audience in the position of givers and to keep recipients in their place as grateful and dependent. Karpf notes that telethons are about entertaining the public, rather than helping us to understand the everyday realities of what it is like to have a disability. Consequently, these media representations merely confirm social prejudices about people with disabilities, e.g. that they are dependent on the help of able-bodied people.

Representations of social class

KEY POINT - Mass media representations of social classes rarely focus on the social tensions or class conflict that some critical sociologists see as underpinning society.

Representations of the monarchy

Nairn (1988) notes that contemporary media coverage of the monarchy has focused positively on every trivial detail of their lives, turning the Queen and her family into an on-going soap opera, but with a glamour and mystique far greater than any other media personality. Furthermore, mass media representations of the Queen are also aimed at reinforcing a sense of national identity, in that she is portrayed as the ultimate symbol of the nation. Consequently, the media regards royal events, such as weddings and funerals, as national events.

Representations of the upper class and wealth

argue that mass media representations of social class tend to celebrate hierarchy and wealth. Those who benefit from these processes, i.e. the monarchy, the upper class and the very wealthy, generally receive a positive press as celebrities who are somehow deserving of their position. The British mass media hardly ever portray the upper classes in a critical light, nor do they often draw any serious attention to inequalities in wealth and pay or the overrepresentation of public-school products in positions of power.

Newman (2006) argues that the media focus very positively on the concerns of the wealthy and the privileged. He notes that the media over-focuses on consumer items such as luxury cars, costly holiday spots and fashion accessories that only the wealthy can afford. He also notes the enormous amount of print and broadcast media dedicated to daily business news and stock market quotations, despite the fact that few people in Britain own stocks and shares.

Representations of the middle classes

Four broad sociological observations can be made with regard to mass media

representations of the middle classes.

  • The middle class are over-represented on TV dramas and situation comedies.
  • Part of the British newspaper market is specifically aimed at the middle classes and their consumption, tastes and interests, e.g. the Daily Mail.
  • The content of newspapers such as the Daily Mail suggests that journalists believe that the middle classes of middle England are generally anxious about the decline of moral standards in society and that they are proud of their British identity and heritage. It is assumed that their readership feels threatened by alien influences such as the Euro, asylum seekers and terrorism. Consequently, newspapers, such as the Daily Mail, often crusade on behalf of the middle classes and initiate moral panics on issues such as video nasties, paedophilia and asylum seekers.
  • Most of the creative personnel in the media are themselves middle class. In news and current affairs, the middle classes dominate positions of authority – the ‘expert’ is invariably middle class.

Representations of the working class

Newman argues that when news organisations focus on the working class, it is generally to label them as a problem, e.g. as welfare cheats, drug addicts or criminals. Working class groups, e.g. youth sub-cultures such as mods or skinheads, are often the subject of moral panics, whilst reporting of issues such as poverty, unemployment or single-parent families often suggests that personal inadequacy is the main cause of these social problems, rather than government policies or poor business practices. Studies of industrial relations reporting by the Glasgow University Media Group suggest that the media portray ‘unreasonable’ workers as making trouble for ‘reasonable’ employers.

Curran and Seaton (2003) note that newspapers aimed at working class audiences assume that they are uninterested in serious analysis of either the political or social organisation of British society. Political debate is often reduced simplistically to conflict between personalities. The content of newspapers such as The Sun and the Daily Star assumes that such audiences want to read about celebrity gossip and lifestyles, trivial human interest stories and sport.

Representations of poverty


Newman argues that when the news media turn their attention to the most destitute, the portrayals are often negative or stereotypical. Often, the poor are portrayed in statistical rather than in human terms by news bulletins that focus on the numbers unemployed or on benefits, rather than the individual suffering and personal indignities of poverty.

McKendrick et al. (2008) studied a week’s output of mainstream media in 2007 and concluded that coverage of poverty is marginal in British media, in that the causes and consequences of poverty were very rarely explored across the news, documentaries or drama. Dramas such as Shameless presented a sanitised picture of poverty, despite featuring characters who were economically deprived, whilst family issue-based programmes such as The Jeremy Kyle Show treated poverty as an aspect of entertainment. Cohen notes that the media often fails to see the connection between deprivation and wealth.

Representations of age

Media representations of different groups of people based on age (i.e. children, adolescents and the elderly), also generalise and categorise people on the basis of stereotypes.


British children are often depicted in the British media in positive ways. Content

analyses of media products suggest that eight stereotypes of children are

frequently used by the media.

  • As victims of horrendous crimes – some critics of the media have suggested that White children who are victims of crime get more media attention than adults or children from ethnic minority backgrounds.
  • As cute – this is a common stereotype found in television commercials for baby products or toilet rolls.
  • As little devils – another common stereotype especially found in drama and comedy, e.g. Bart Simpson.
  • As brilliant – perhaps as child prodigies or as heroes for saving the life of an adult.
  • As brave little angels – suffering from a long-term terminal disease or disability.
  • As accessories – stories about celebrities such as Madonna, Angelina Jolie or the Beckhams may focus on how their children humanise them.
  • As modern – the media may focus on how children ‘these days’ know so much more ‘at their age’ than previous generations of children.
  • As active consumers – television commercials portray children as having a consumer appetite for toys and games. Some family sociologists note that this has led to the emergence of a new family pressure, ‘pester power’, the power of children to train or manipulate their parents to spend money on consumer goods that will increase the children’s status in the eyes of their peers.


There are generally two very broad ways in which young people have been

targeted and portrayed by the media in Britain.

  • There is a whole media industry aimed at socially constructing youth in terms of lifestyle and identity. Magazines are produced specifically for young people. Record companies, Internet music download sites, mobile telephone companies and radio stations all specifically target and attempt to shape the musical tastes of young people. Networking sites on the Internet, such as Facebook, Bebo and MySpace, allow youth to project their identities around the world.
  • Youth are often portrayed by news media as a social problem, as immoral or anti-authority and consequently constructed as folk devils as part of a moral panic. The majority of moral panics since the 1950s have been manufactured around concerns about young people’s behaviour, such as their membership of specific ‘deviant’ sub-cultures (e.g., teddy boys, hoodies) or because their behaviour (e.g., drug taking or binge drinking) has attracted the disapproval of those in authority.

Wayne et al. (2008) conducted a content analysis of 2130 news items across all the main television channels during May 2006. They found that young people were mainly represented as a violent threat to society. They found that it was very rare for news items to feature a young person’s perspective or opinion. They note that the media only delivers a one-dimensional picture of youth, one that encourages fear and condemnation rather than understanding. Moreover, they argue that it distracts from the real problems that young people face in the modern world such as homelessness, not being able to get onto the housing ladder, unemployment or mental health and that these might be caused by society’s, or the government’s, failure to take the problems of youth seriously.

The elderly

Research focusing on media representations of the elderly suggests that age is not the only factor that impacts on the way the media portrays people aged 65 and over. Newman (2006) notes that upper class and middle class elderly people are often portrayed in television and film dramas as occupying high-status roles as world leaders, judges, politicians, experts and business executives. Moreover, news programmes seem to work on the assumption that an older male with grey in his hair and lines on his face somehow exudes the necessary authority to impart the news.

However, female newscasters, such as Anna Ford, have long complained that these older men are often paired with attractive young females, while older women newsreaders are often exiled to radio. Leading female film and television stars are also often relegated to character parts once their looks and bodies are perceived to be on the wane, which seems to be after the age of 40.

Sociological studies show that when the elderly do appear in the media, they tend to be portrayed in the following one-dimensional ways.

  • As grumpy – conservative, stubborn and resistant to social change.
  • As mentally challenged – suffering from declining mental functions.
  • As dependent – helpless and dependent on other younger members of the family or society.
  • As a burden – as an economic burden on society (in terms of the costs of pensions and health care to the younger generation) and/or as a physical and social burden on younger members of their families (who have to worry about or care for them).
  • As enjoying a second childhood – as reliving their adolescence and engaging in activities that they have always longed to do before they die.

However, recent research suggests that media producers may be gradually reinventing how they deal with the elderly, especially as they realise that this group may have disposable incomes, i.e. extra money to spend on consumer goods.

Media representations of ethnic minorities


Many sociologists believe that media representations of ethnic minority groups are problematic because they contribute to the reinforcement of negative racist stereotypes. Media representations of ethnic minorities may be undermining the concept of a tolerant multicultural society and perpetuating social divisions based on colour, ethnicity and religion.

Evidence suggests that, despite some progress, ethnic minorities are generally under-represented or are represented in stereotyped and negative ways across a range of media content. In particular, newspapers and television news have a tendency to present ethnic minorities as a problem or to associate Black people with physical rather than intellectual activities and to neglect, and even ignore, racism and the inequalities that result from it.

Stereotypical representations

Akinti (2003) argues that television coverage of ethnic minorities over focuses on

crime, AIDS in Africa and Black children’s under-achievement in schools, whilst

ignoring the culture and interests of a huge Black audience and their rich

contribution to British society. Akinti claims that news about Black communities

always seems to be ‘bad news’. Van Dijk’s (1991) content analysis of tens of

thousands of news items across the world over several decades confirms that

news representations of Black people can be categorised into several types of

stereotypically negative news.

  • Ethnic minorities as criminals – Black crime is the most frequent issue found in media news coverage of ethnic minorities. Van Dijk found that Black people, particularly African-Caribbeans, tend to be portrayed as criminals, especially in the tabloid press and more recently as members of organised gangs that push drugs and violently defend urban territories.
  • Ethnic minorities and moral panicsWatson (2008) notes that moral panics often result from media stereotyping of Black people as potentially criminal. This effect was first brought to sociological attention by Hall’s classic study of a 1970s moral panic that was constructed around the folk devil of the ‘Black mugger’. Further moral panics have developed around rap music, e.g. in 2003, ‘gangsta rap’ lyrics came under attack for contributing to an increase in gun crime.
  • Ethnic minorities as a threat – ethnic minorities are often portrayed as a threat to the majority White culture. It is suggested by some media that immigrants and asylum seekers are only interested in living in Britain because they wish to take fraudulent advantage of Britain’s ‘generous’ welfare state. Poole (2000), pre 9/11, argued that Islam has always been demonised and distorted by the Western media. It has traditionally been portrayed as a threat to Western interests. Representations of Islam have been predominantly negative and Muslims have been stereotyped as backward, extremist, fundamentalist and misogynist.
  • Ethnic minorities as dependent – news stories about less developed countries tend to focus on a ‘coup-war-famine-starvation syndrome’. Often such stories imply that the causes of the problems experienced by developing countries are self-inflicted – that they are the result of stupidity, tribal conflict, too many babies, laziness, corruption and unstable political regimes. External causes such as colonialism, tied aid, transnational exploitation and the unfair terms of world trade are rarely discussed by the British media.
  • Ethnic minorities as abnormal – the cultural practices of ethnic minorities are often called into question and labelled as deviant or abnormal. Many Asian people believe that the media treatment of arranged marriages was often inaccurate and did not reflect the way that the system had changed over time. Ameli et al. (2007) note that media discussion around the issue of the wearing of the hijab and the veil is also problematic, often suggesting that it is somehow an inferior form of dress compared with Western female dress codes and that it is unnecessary and problematic. It is often portrayed as a patriarchal and oppressive form of control that exemplifies the misogyny of Islam and symbolises the alleged subordinate position of women in Islam.
  • Ethnic minorities as unimportant – Van Dijk notes that some sections of the media imply that the lives of White people are somehow more important than the lives of non-White people. News items about disasters in developing countries are often restricted to a few lines or words unless there are also White or British victims. Moreover, Sir Ian Blair, the former Metropolitan police commissioner, claimed that institutionalised racism was present in the British media in the way they reported death from violent crime. He noted that Black and Asian victims of violent death did not get the same attention as White victims. However, the murder of the Black teenager Stephen Lawrence by White racists in 1993 received high-profile coverage, both on television and in the press.
  • Ethnic minorities as invisible – in 2005, a BBC News Online survey noted that Black and Asian people were represented as newscasters and television journalists, but the range of roles that ethnic minority actors play in television drama is very limited and often reflects low status, e.g. Africans may play cleaners or Asians may play shopkeepers. Ethnic minority audiences were also very hostile towards tokenism – the idea that programmes contain characters from ethnic minority groups purely because they ‘should’. Ethnic minority audiences complain that Black and Asian people are rarely shown as ordinary citizens who just happen to be Black or Asian.

Media professionals from ethnic minority backgrounds have responded to these inequalities and prejudices by developing media institutions and agencies that specifically target the interests and concerns of ethnic-minority audiences. There is a range of homegrown media agencies that are owned, managed and controlled by ethnic minorities themselves, including newspapers and magazines, e.g. Eastern Eye, Snoop, The Voice, etc, and radio stations such as Sunrise Radio, Asian FX, etc.


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