Since the Oscars were this weekend, what better time to post a little piece I wrote a couple of years ago about gender roles, socialization, and the Academy Awards. This isn’t quite as interesting as Angelina Jolie’s leg, but it is more important in the grander scheme.
Cultural representations in popular media and from real world experiences are part of each individual’s ongoing gender socialization. Any instance of social pressure to conform to one gender identity or another, whether as an adult or a child, is a another form of socialization. Socialization does not stop when one is no longer a child. An adult continually learns what gender means from seeing other men and women within the culture successfully and unsuccessfully represent gender. As with any widely held belief, not every member of society agrees on what is acceptable at any given period in time. Thus, there is variation about what an acceptable gender presentation looks like.
Masculinity, femininity, and androgyny are constantly evolving and changing. Societal “rules” make a certain trait, such as freely expressing emotion, feminine. In absolute terms, expressing emotion is not a feminine activity. But through the images in society and in the media, people begin to see patterns in behaviors and organize them into neat groups. These patterns are reinforced with cultural representations and society learns to expect certain behaviors from certain groups. How the popular media represents people and how they are in real life are synthesized together to produce an image of what a woman or man is supposed to be and many people try to emulate what they see. In this micro-study, I am attempting to isolate what representations are being shown to viewers to determine if they match up with traditional femininity and masculinity. I postulate that traditional gender roles will be rewarded, where non-traditional gender presentations will be ignored.
I analyzed three films that either won or were nominated for an Academy Award to determine if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is biased towards characters that display traditional gender roles and stereotypes. The theory behind this is that most of the awards for Best Actress will go to traditionally feminine actresses. In light of the fact that thousands of films are produced each year, I opted to narrow the sampling frame strategically to include only films that were released in the last 10 years. I further narrowed the frame by choosing films in which the lead female actress was nominated for or won an Academy Award for ‘Best Actress.’ I disregarded any movies that did not meet the following criteria: 1) set in current time period, 2) dramatic, 3) realistic (not science fiction or animated), and 4) not biographical or representative of one specific person. These criteria ensure that the cases are more likely to be representative of U.S. current culture, although images of gender can be seen in most every movie. 23 of 50 films met these criteria. The movies included in the sample, chosen by convenience sample (based on availability at the nearest Blockbuster), are Million Dollar Baby (2001), Monster’s Ball (2004), and The Blind Side (2009).
The average age of ‘Best Actress’ Nominees for the past 10 years is 40 years (46 for Best Actor). The average age of the characters in the sample is 36.6. I analyzed these three female characters for the frequency of 23 typically masculine and 25 typically feminine characteristics (see appendix). This list of traits comes from a 2005 list prepared by Dr. James Chambers at Sacramento State University (Chambers 2005). Data collection consisted of counting each time the character displayed one of these 48 characteristics and recording particularly interesting interactions between the characters.
I calculated the frequency totals for all masculine and feminine traits to produce a raw masculine score and a raw feminine score. Swank (boxing character) had the highest masculine to feminine ratio 62-38, not surprisingly. Bullock’s character was next at 58-42. Berry’s character was the only case with a higher feminine to masculine ratio – 67 feminine to 33 masculine. The average score for all three characters is 42 feminine and 47 masculine. The characters’ average levels of traditional masculinity and femininity are leaning slightly masculine, but represent a fairly equal balance of masculinity and femininity.
One most interesting finding is that the depictions show women who swing fairly equally between expressing emotion freely and suppressing emotion, being active and passive, and being submissive and aggressive. See Figure 1. The highest scores among the masculine traits are activeness, aggressiveness, and repression of emotions. Femininity and masculinity are balanced fairly evenly in these depictions of gender. This is a surprising finding that could indicate that the strong social pressure that exists for women to ultra-feminine is waning. However, it is also possible that these films were chosen by the Academy in part because of their strong, androgynous characterizations of women. We often think of the media as maintaining the status quo, but in this case the media, or at least the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is trying to change the status quo by rewarding depictions of women as more balanced between masculinity and femininity.
Hilary Swank and Halle Berry both imbued their characters as emotionally explosive. However, Bullock’s character had a high frequency of hiding or repressing her emotions, a traditionally masculine trait. All women scored high or moderately high in regard to being submissive. In collecting the data, I chose to regard an act as submissive only if it was submissive to a male. The data seem to support higher levels of aggressiveness, confidence, leadership, activeness, and directness as long as the woman is balancing those traits out with illogical, emotional thinking or if they are submissive and religious. Especially in the case of Bullock’s character, she is independent, dominant, direct, confident, and a leader, but she does not use curse words, she is submissive to her husband, and she is religious. Swank’s character is aggressive (a boxer), actively pursues her goals, and direct, but again very submissive, emotional, and illogical. This sends the message that a woman can be strong and feminine, as long as she is sufficiently docile when it is required by a man. Halle Berry’s character is approximately one-third masculine and two-thirds feminine. The character freely admits that she needs and wants to be taken care of by her boyfriend. When Berry’s character is evicted from her home, she sits on the curb, passively waiting for someone to rescue her. This character shows women as being lost without a man to take care of them, especially in times of crisis.
All three women work in traditionally female jobs, an interior designer, waitress, and waitress (later she is a boxer). The interior designer rarely works and her husband is clearly the major financial contributor. Berry works as a waitress for lack of any better option and Swank works as a waitress just enough to support her boxing training. The cultural representation of female boxers is not just that women should not be boxers, but that no one should be a boxer because it is far too dangerous.
Another discovery is that none of the three characters were strongly distasteful of math and science, excitable in a minor crises, sneaky, or had difficulty making decisions – all typically feminine traits. This means that women are being represented more often as honest, upfront, decisive, and calm during crises. However, this sample of cultural representations did not include strong messages of women being objective, skilled in business, worldly, adventurous, or rough. Again, the messages are mixed, but it does seem as though some progress is being made toward allowing a stronger, more dynamic version of femininity to be perpetuated in the media.
Overall, the messages in these three movies indicate that traditionally feminine characterizations are changing. Feminine is beginning to be associated with strength. Men, it seems, may value an equal partner who can be direct, assertive, competitive, and in at least two cases moderately dominant. Men are beginning to see an advantage in ending the oppression of women. Maybe this will release men’s emotions from the puffery of masculinity. To spread these messages about gender, people may wish to support movies at the box office that are fair in their depiction of women and men as real people who do not always fit neatly at one end of the gender binary.
Original data collected from multiple viewings of Million Dollar Baby, Monster’s Ball, and The Blind Side
Chambers, James. “Typical Feminine and Masculine Traits.” 6 Sept. 2005. Web. 16 Feb. 2010. http://coefaculty.csus.edu/chambersj/assets/043.gender.pdf