Jenny Lange and Catrice Stanley
Prof. Jil Freeman
Sex and Media
Binary Gender System and Corresponding Media Representations
Image #01: TransAmerica Movie Poster
Image #02: Homosexual Newborn
Image #03: Michelle Rodriguez
Image #04: I want a Barbie!
Image Group #05: GQ Magazine Covers
A binary gender system consists of polar opposites. On one side there is a female gender, and on the opposing side, there is a male gender. These polar opposites base their genders in the gender specific roles of femininity and masculinity. This system leaves no room for the queer spectrum or any gender otherness. Queer theory blurs the lines between heteronormativity and sexual otherness. Anything considered deviant or outside of the norm of the binary system is still acceptable in queer theory. Queer theory is important to understand because it allows non-normative gender and sexual representations to be included in our society. This is achieved through visibility in the mass media. If the mass media acknowledges something in society, it becomes more acceptable. If the mass media does not cover these formerly deviant spectrums, our society may continue holding negative views of queer subjects. The following images show representations of the binary gender system as well as the queer spectrum.
The film “Transamerica” (Image #01) shows a representation of sexual otherness. The female on the poster began life as male, but made the transition to female. There is no in between gender shown in this movie, even queer people represent themselves as male or female. Not many “middle” sexes are evident, especially in popular media. In our society, even individuals that can be considered queer feel the need to represent themselves as completely one gender. The media took a big risk with this movie because of the lack of heteronormativity, which mediated a different look into our binary system. Films of this nature are not produced on a regular basis. This movie was nominated for two Oscars, and really connected with the transgendered community. Even though mainstream media sources have not produced many movies with this subject matter, this movie shows how transgendered individuals are beginning to be exposed more in the mass media.
In this image of the baby with a hospital tag (Image #02), the newborn is given a homosexual label at birth. Although this is not a gender label, it shows how against the norm it is for us to give a label that is not strictly male or female. In our society, we label children as male or female at birth. There is no consideration for “other” genders that might be in between the spectrum of male or female. This image can be seen as a negative portrayal of the newborn, because we don’t label the baby male or female. In our society we expect children to be born heterosexual or lacking sexuality in all. This image assumes that children are not only born with sexuality, but can also be born with a sexuality that is not the norm.
In the article Two Steps Forward, one-step back: The Selling of Charlie’s Angels and Alias by David Roger Coon, he lists similarities between Charlie’s Angels and Alias. One of the similarities is the “wide disruption of gender norms” which can also be seen in the picture of Michelle Rodriguez (Coon 3). The picture of Michelle Rodriguez (Image #03) shows an individual identifying on the female gender extreme. By acting “manly”, she contradicts the binary gender system. People are expected to perform certain sexual scripts as determined by their gender. This woman is wearing boxers, a dog tag, and a wife beater, which are typical male clothing options. She is covered in grease, implying she was working on the car in the background, which is typically male pastime.
The article also mentions “traditional female objectification and sex appeal to sell the product” (Coon 3). The product in this case is Rodriguez herself. Rodriguez is still expected to be sexy in this situation, which is shown by her sexually available pose, her exposed midriff and her inviting gaze. This upholds gender stereotypes of women, even in a typically male situation.
The “I want a Barbie” image (Image #04) contradicts the binary gender system because it shows a male desiring something typically for females. Men in mass media typically show interest toward masculine types of activities and objects, which is why this picture is of a deviant nature. The color scheme of the boy and the Barbie (blue for the boy, pink for the Barbie/girl) still represents our stereotypical gender model of male and female colors, but the message behind the image is trying to show a more diverse gender role.
These GQ magazine covers (Image Group #05) show the different representations of male and female in popular media. The Monk-Turner article argues that women are typically displayed in magazine advertisements as subordinate to men, in passive roles, and sex objects (201). He goes on to say that the main purpose of women in magazine advertisements is to specifically look appealing for men (Monk-Turner, 202). This is shown on the cover of most GQ magazines. When the magazine cover presents male actors, the male’s face is prominent, centered, and his gaze is at the camera/observer. In one of the movies we watched in class, the narrator compared the male gaze to animals looking at prey. The women’s gaze is to attract the observer into a world of wonder. Another interpretation of the female gaze is a look of confusion, implying that they are distressed and need a male’s assistance.
In contrast to the male actors’ covers, the female actors are scantily clad and their bodies are completely shown head to toe. In the article Women, Pop Music and Pornography, Levande writes, “Power is attained when one’s body is on display”, which is what the women on these covers seem to be adhering to (302). This is a way that women in our mass media try to be heard and gain power. The women of our mass media seem to be showing more skin in order to gain popularity and power (Levande, 305).
Gender neutral images are absent from these magazine covers. Females on these covers are portrayed in a strictly feminine construct. Both genders are shown in a standardized way; females shown one way, and males in another. This perpetuates the binary gender system by drawing distinct lines between what is feminine activity and male activity.
The first image and the fourth image contain many correlations. The movie Transamerica follows the story of a man turning from a male gender norm to a female gender norm. Although the main character of this movie does not follow the acceptable heteronormative system because of her gender transition, she still relies on the binary roles to figure out how to portray herself as female. In contrast, the fourth image of the young boy dreaming of owning a Barbie shows a more deviant version of a male. In our society, boys are not expected to play with toys meant for young girls. By creating this media image, the author is trying to expand what we think of as acceptable. The author is trying to show that a male can still be male while desiring things of a feminine quality. Although the first image is expanding the acceptable subject matter concerning the transgendered community, it does not expand the binary roles our society adheres to.
The male turning female underwent numerous changes in order to appear more feminine. The way she dresses falls into social norms of “doing gender”, from the dress she is wearing, to the makeup that is on her face. The boy dreaming about a Barbie image, as stated above, has a color scheme going on automatically placing both boy and Barbie into their gender placement. By glancing at the image one can tell instantly which item are feminine and masculine by the color. Boys in similar circumstances as the boy in Image #04 often are viewed as femininized for wanting a Barbie, while the Transamerica image is depicting how one must go about society to be seen as a female. Both of these males, because they are portrayed as wanting or looking like a female, are demasculinized because of their feminine desires.
In an attempt to defeminize Michelle Rodriguez (Image #3) by putting her in a typically male environment and male clothing, she is still photographed in a way that is not masculine. She shows the same characteristics as the actresses on the GQ covers. The photographer captures Rodriguez’s body, as opposed to only a face and shoulders in males. She has a lot more skin showing than a male would if photographed in the same situation. Rodriguez does not obtain an animalistic gaze that is common in photographs of males. Instead, she is looking off into the distance while the male gaze is specifically scanning her in an objectified manner. This image shows the actress in a voyeuristic manner in which the camera is the male gaze upon her.
If a male model is photographed in a feminine environment, it is difficult for him to retain any real masculine qualities. The males in photographs like these are often seen on the queer spectrum or even homosexual. But, generally, it is almost impossible for women to break into stereotypical masculine roles without being objectified, as Rodriguez and the women on the GQ covers are.
Overall, the gender binary system is used continually throughout these images even when they appear to show sexual otherness. Gender is an important factor in sexuality because our society requires specific gender qualities. If one is trying to be something different than the norm, it still must fit within the gender binary system. There is very little in our society that is not given a feminine or masculine undertone, as shown by the colors used in the “I Want a Barbie” advertisement. The different qualities between men and women are shown in the media as polar opposites. When it comes down to it, there is no wide spectrum of gender represented in our media because individuals are trying to fit into a specifically male or female role.
Bamar Productions. Transamerica Posters. 2008. Web. 24 Feb 2010. http://www.trailerdownload.net/posters/Show/11812.html
Coon, D. R. (2005). Two steps forward, one step back: The selling of Charlie’s Angels and Alias. Journal of Popular Film and Television, 33(1), 2-11.
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Levande, M. (2008). Women, pop music and pornography. Meridians, 8(1) 293-321.
Monk-Turner, E., Wren, K., et. al. (2008). “Who is gazing at whom? A look at how sex is used in magazine advertisements.” Journal of Gender Studies, 17(3), 201-209.