Visual Culture - the representation of women in contemporary media

Term Paper, 2003

18 Pages, Grade: 1,7



1 Introduction

2 What is Visual Culture?
2.1 Roland Barthes The Rhetoric of the Image
2.2 The representation of women in media in the past – Angel in the House
2.3 How does advertising present women today?
2.3.1 Women´s bodies in sports ads
2.3.2 “Heroin chic” and its results
2.3.3 Perfect beauty - but unreal?
2.3.4 A trend towards individuality – “power feminism”

3 Conclusion

4 Appendix

5 Bibliography

1 Introduction

Over the years, cultural images concerning women in society have changed dramatically. Thus, the woman we see in a current newspaper ad is presented totally differently from former times: powerful, more self-confident, energetic, dominant and autonomic are the visual characteristics we get in mind by looking at it. The traditionally typical male or – in this context more interesting - female role model does not seem to exist in our world anymore. There is no longer a clear distinction between the passive, soft, sensitive and very feminine looking woman on the one hand and the dominant, masculine, powerful and dynamic man on the other in these pictures.

The paper at hand will try to analyse these phenomena and show the development from a symbol of a happy family life and a caring housewife to the representation of a powerful and individual human being by regarding the representation of women in advertising in the past.

But first, to illustrate this, it will be helpful to describe the term visual culture and how it works by including Roland Barthes´ The Rhetoric of the Image .

To show the great importance cultural images have in our lifes, how they are created to appear as realistic as possible, and how difficult it becomes for us today to distinguish between reality and illusion, I want to refer to Susan Bordo´s Twilight Zones. Some examples like women in sports advertisements, heroin chic or the computer-generated artificial “reality” we are confronted with by glamorized visual images of perfection will try to give a more detailed insight into illusions which we consider to be reality.

In the final subchapter then it will be discussed if the sum of these created images could be described as “power feminism”, as Susan Bordo names it or if it is just a superficial trend.

2 What is Visual Culture?

As I already mentioned in the introduction, there has been a remarkable shift in contemporary visual media, which led to the fact that visual culture is no longer only a technical term but a widely respected field with departments of visual culture in many universities.

Nicholas Mirzoeff sees Visual Culture as a concentration on the issues arising from the interaction between viewer and viewed. It is always related to a visual happening that carries information and meaning and –something that can be seen in advertisement- a certain intention to influence the consumer strongly (i.e. to buy a product).

For Mirzoeff, its primary question is precisely the formation of visual subjects. So, in a nutshell, according to Mirzoeff there are two things coming together: visual subjects, so-to-speak the viewer or the agent of sight, and visual events, the viewed, which have an effect on the viewer.

A photograph in an advertisement for example is never just a real copy of what actually happened. As Mirzoeff so rightly says, photography is no longer dominated by the evidential. It is possible to manipulate visual images digitally and so photography today is not just about pure photos, but rather a construction of art. What we see is never exactly what the picture or image was originally about. An example could be the photographic techniques focusing specific attention on a sexualized body part: the women´s bodies in sports ads are photographed in certain ways to emphasize female sexuality for a male gaze. This shows us again that a picture in a magazine is not just a picture.

But, as a whole, contemporary life is increasingly full of images and we seem to find ourselves in a world of vision.

Nicholas Mirzoeff describes the intensification of images in our society as a tendency to visualize things that are not in themselves visual, like icons on a computer desktop, for example. So I would describe the visual as something that creates meaning through interaction with the viewer, as some kind of a construction of art that is formed by it.

2.1 Roland Barthes “The Rhetoric of the Image”

In his essay The Rhetoric of the Image Roland Barthes tries to analyse the different messages that an image contains. The background information he gives us is very necessary and helpful in order to understand the intention that stands behind an image (i.e. of an advertisement, Barthes too in the essay turns to the advertising image) and so in this context I want to attach importance to it.

He chose the advertising image, because he is of the opinion that it is more “frank” and explicit in the information it carries to the viewer. Barthes says that there is a specific system of signification in every sign or image and goes on to divide this system of signification into three parts, that of the linguistic message, the coded iconic message and the noncoded iconic message. Every advertising image intentionally gives us the information we need to get the desire to buy the product. To make all this theoretical information clearer and less abstract, I want to refer to an advertisement I found in a magazine (see figure 5): we see a man standing in the pouring rain in the middle of a street, smiling, already in soaked clothes, with an open gesture looking up to the sky. All the other people in the picture are seen only from the back, walking up the street, covering their bodies in order to stay dry, protecting themselves from the rain. The linguistic message is the first step to analyse the different levels of signification: the French name “gauloise” that appears on the package of the cigarettes can also be split up into two levels: it is denotational and connotational. The name of the company is directly signified by looking at the package of the cigarettes and by reading the name repeatedly under the image. This is the denotational aspect. Then, by reading the additional text that creates an individual slogan “Liberté toujours” something like a typical French lifestyle or even mentality is signified. Moreover, the word “liberté” is also closely related to France´s history and so this is besides fraternity and equality a slogan everyone associates with France or with French people. So in this particular case a “generally cultural knowledge” as Barthes describes it, is required. The coded iconic message is the sum of all the messages we get in mind when we look at the image. Thus, these are the visual ideas derived from the things seen in the picture: liberty, french mentality, carefree naturalness, nonchalance. The noncoded message is simply the literal “what it is” of the photo: we see the man, the background (the rainy street with some people on it) and part of the sky. But, after having analysed and explained the three messages, I want to come to another point, Barthes questions: “What are the functions of the linguistic message with regard to the (twolfold) iconic message? There appear to be two: anchorage and relay.” (p. 38) In this particular advertisement I would say that we find the system of anchorage dominating, because the text “liberté toujours” “directs the reader through the signifieds of the image….” (pp. 39-40) and Barthes himself emphasizes that “Anchorage is a control, bearing a responsibility-in the face of the projective power of pictures-for the use of the message.” (p. 40) He characterizes it as the most frequent function of the linguistic message commonly found in press photographs and advertisements. To complete the explanation, relay is, as Barthes argues, when “textand image stand in a complementary relationship” (p. 41) and as an example of it he mentions comic strips, where a story is told only with the help of pictures because, as he claims, they are intended for quick reading. Finally, we should keep in mind that, according to Barthes, most systems are actually a combination of anchorage and relay, but “…the dominance of the one or the other is of consequence for the general economy of a work” (p. 41).


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Visual Culture - the representation of women in contemporary media
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (Englisches Seminar Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Introduction to Cultural Studies
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ISBN (eBook)
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Visual, Culture, Introduction, Cultural, Studies
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Denise Sajdl (Author), 2003, Visual Culture - the representation of women in contemporary media, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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