Conference Report: Gender, Culture, Media

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Fall 2017. Vol. 29 Issue 3, pp 6-7.

Arialle Kaye Crabtree,
University of Georgia

In a session entitled “Gender, Culture, Media,” five scholars presented papers that addressed the intersection of media and culture. Organizer and presider, Andrea Press (University of Virginia) identified the question that unites the various studies: “Where is the influence?” In other words, which groups have the power to affect cultural shifts? Highlighting the role of consumers, producers, and gatekeepers the panel addressed the degree to which each of these actors is able to maintain or challenge gender difference and inequality in media.

Élodie Hommel (ENS de Lyon/Centre Max Weber) examined consumer patterns among French science fiction and fantasy novels. Based on interviews, she showed how readers’ preferences deviate based on gender. Men were more likely than women to enjoy violence and select books that reference scientific theory. Women embraced romance as an engaging component of these novels and favored plots that utilize suspense or mystery. Hommel argues that these consumer preferences show the persistence of gender stereotypes, even as female readership increases in this previously male dominated science fiction genre.

Lorenzo Sabetta (Sapienza University of Rome) investigated the shifting meanings of “mother courage” in Italy. In Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children (1939), the term “mother courage” represented the terrors of war by depicting a mother who profits from warfare and sacrifices her own children in order to survive. Sabetta showed the “slippage” that occurred as this term was redefined by news and print media. Since the 1960s, “mother courage” has been used to describe self-sacrificing women who abide by cultural norms, maintain moral integrity, and protect their children in the face of extreme economic duress. Sabetta argues that this “slippage” represents a form of symbolic violence against women “under the guise of celebration.” His presentation demonstrates the power of media producers to create and recreate gender meanings in popular culture.

Anna Michelson (Northwestern University) explored the emergence of erotica within the genre of romantic fiction. She explained that writers and producers of mainstream romance novels had to accept erotica writers’ use of sexually explicit prose, LGBT protagonists, and the use of digital publications. These boundary disputes were also linked to romance writers’ devaluation of erotica writers as amateurs rather than professional authors. Each of these conflicts had to be resolved before erotica could be accepted as part of the romantic fiction genre. Michelson’s work demonstrates how cultural shifts are facilitated through boundary negotiations among producers.

In addition to consumers and producers, this session drew attention to the role of gatekeepers in preventing or facilitating cultural shifts around gender. Christine Slaughter (Yale University) considers the influence of social movement actors on culture by investigating representational activism within the National Organization for Women (NOW). Her study focused on the strategic actions of a NOW taskforce that aimed to address misrepresentations of women in media. NOW sought to appoint women to organizations that monitor and control media, such as the FCC. Slaughter argues that this approach is “reactive,” rather than transformative. NOW did not focus on cultural production or creating new media products, instead NOW sought to challenge existing culture representations of women by targeting structural organizations that act as gatekeepers between the public and media.

Francesca Tripodi (University of Virginia) also addressed the role of gatekeepers in media. Tripodi examined the persistence of a gender gap in biographical content about men and women on Wikipedia. This gender gap prevails despite edit-a-thons that are purposefully working to add content about women to this site. Through virtual ethnography and interviews, Tripodi analyzed content that was nominated for deletion. She found that content about women was twice as likely to be flagged for deletion, even though this content often met the notability requirements for inclusion on Wikipedia. Tripodi’s project shows how gatekeepers promote or stall efforts to create a more inclusive digital media space.

This session offered a thought-provoking discussion about the degree to which media precipitates or challenges cultural shifts. The papers shared a concern with examining contested meanings and gender representations in the media. As Press noted, these works remind us of the persistence of gender themes, the interplay between media and culture, and the importance of questioning influence.