Popular Culture or Popular Craze: The role of advertising in sexual and gender stereotyping.

Popular Culture or Popular Craze: The role of advertising in sexual and gender stereotyping.
By Jimoh Ganiyu (Jimga)

Popular Culture or Pop-culture is defined as culture and knowledge passed through the mass media, magazines, television, radio and internet. These contribute immensely to an overall visual culture which in turn shapes human thoughts and worldview.
In colonial and post-colonial African societies, aspects of European culture were creolized and adapted into an African cultural context giving rise to what the Nigerian born, British based artist ‘Yinka Shonibare’ terms ‘Identitarian Ambiguity’. The fusion of these two cultures has affected every facet of African life and created a new form of gender stereotyping. African women in contemporary times have been assigned both gender and culture bound roles in society. However, some of these women have transcended these categorization and have become exemplary in gender discourse. This paper attempts to discuss how women are perceived and represented in the popular culture? It focuses on advertising and its representation of women- areas of popular culture which have attracted the attention of Feminist scholars: women are portrayed as feminine, and as ‘sex objects’, house wives, mothers, house makers while men are portrayed differently in situation of power and authority over women.

This paper will examine selected contemporary advertising illustrations the use of sexual Imagery in contemporary Nigerian advertising and how this affects gender stereotyping and sexuality in Nigerian society.

‘One must understand that men are not born with a faculty for the universal, and that women are not all reduced at birth to the particular. The universal has been and is continually at every moment, appropriated by men’
--- Barbara Rogers (1980)

The rise of gender as a category of analysis has been one of the most striking changes in the humanities since the 1980s. One can not do anything now without making reference to gender. Within Anglo-American feminists discourse, the term ‘gender’ has cultural and psychological meaning imposed upon biological sexual identity. According to Showalter(1982:2) Gender has different meaning than the term ‘sex’ which refers to biological identity as female or male or ‘sexuality’ which is the totality of an individual’s sexual orientation, preference and behaviour. Rogers (1980: 12) agrees also that sex is physical distinction; gender is social and cultural. She further states that though masculine or feminine gender is usually associated with male or female sex, it is not an absolute correlation.
Rakow (1986) opines that sex is a biological difference and gender is a cultural difference, a category of social organization.
Traditional views across cultures hold that sex, gender and sexuality are the same and are naturally acquired through hormones endowed by nature, but Showalter argues that studies show that concept of masculinity vary widely within various societies and historical periods, sexuality, she states is a complex phenomenon shaped by the social and personal experience. Showalter(1982) and Rakow (1986) quoting Spender writes that if gender is something that is constructed because of our experiences, then the effect of this has been to provide men the opportunity to construct the myth of male superiority.

A common feature of gendered representation is the use of stereotypes. A stereotype is:

‘The selection and construction of undeveloped, generalized signs which categorize social groups or individual members of a group. The crude selected signs used to construct stereotypes usually represent the values, attitudes, behavior and background of the group concerned’
(Taylor and Willis 1999:39-41) ’.

Stuart Hall sees stereotyping as a “representational practice”. He points out that stereotyping “reduces, essentializes, naturalizes and fixes ‘differences’”; secondly “it fixes boundaries and excludes everything which does not belong”; and thirdly, “stereotyping tends to occur where there are gross inequalities of power” (Hall 1997: 258). As Mahboob (2005) notes, Stereotypes, therefore, fix representations through a ‘shorthand’ of meanings that maintain inequalities between gendered and racialised groups. This study analyses the stereotypical gender representation in commercials in order to decode these fixed meanings.

Popular Culture, Media and Gender Issues
Popular culture is defined as culture and knowledge passed through the mass media, magazine, television, radio and internet that contribute immensely to an overall visual culture which in turn shapes human thoughts and world view (Strinati:2004).
The social significance of popular culture in the modern era can be charted by the way it has been identified with mass culture. The coming of mass media and the increasing commercialisation of culture and leisure gave rise to issues, interests and debates which are still within socio-political human discourse.
The recent and general resurgence of feminism and feminist theory has been apparent in the growing interest shown by cultural studies and the sociology of culture in popular representations of women (Spender 1983). The liberal feminists have been for years criticizing the unequal and exploitative employment and representation of women in the media and popular culture, and argue for remedial equal opportunities legislation to rectify this situation.

The media, nonetheless, have an important role in redefining stereotypes and circulating new definitions and meanings and certainly the modern media accept several different ways of conceiving women’s role and image: advertisements sell us not only commodities but also an image of ourselves.
The Media is also a powerful means to convey information about gender roles in society and various studies have revealed that television advertisements contain gender—stereotypic ideas and images (Lavine et al. 1999:1049). Such images of women have powerful effects: images of gender in popular culture shape our understandings of femininity and masculinity. According to Peach (1989:119), such images construct and prescribe how women should look, feel, and act, and how they will be seen by others. Images of gender in popular culture contribute to the ‘making’ of women (Zoonen 1995: 315). If feminist thinkers wish to envision different and better possibilities for women, our envisioning must be informed by a critical understanding and awareness of current and potential representations ( Mahboob 2006: 5).

A lot of earlier work on women and popular culture concentrated upon what Tuchman has called the ‘symbolic annihilation’ of women. This refers to the way cultural production and media representations ignore, exclude, marginalise or trivialise women and their interests. Women are either absent or represented by stereotypes based upon sexual attractiveness and the performance of domestic labour (Tuchman, 1978).
The ‘symbolic annihilation’ of women practised by the mass media confirms that the role of a wife, mother or housewife etc., are the fate of women in a patriarchal society. Women are socialised into performing these roles by cultural representations which attempt to make them appear to be natural prerogative of women (ibid).
Van Zoonen (1991) summarises these observations as follows:

‘Numerous quantitative content analyses have shown that women hardly appear in mass media, be it depicted as wife, mother, daughter, girlfriend; as working in traditionally female jobs ( secretary, nurse, receptionist) or as sex-object.
More over they are usually young and beautiful, but not very well educated’

‘Symbolic annihilation’ of women stated by Tuchman can be related to the notion of ‘reflection hypothesis’ which suggests that the mass media reflect the dominant social values in a society. This according to Strinati (2004) concern, not the society as it really is but its ‘symbolic representation’, how it would like to see itself. Tuchman argues that if something is not represented in this affirmative manner it implies ‘symbolic annihilation’: either condemnation, trivialization, or ‘absence’.
With respect to the symbolic representation of women in the American media, he points out that:

‘…although women are 51 percent of the population and are well over 40 percent of the labour force; representatively few women are portrayed in this way; those working women who are portrayed are condemned, others are trivialised. They are symbolised as child-like adornments that need to be protected or they are dismissed to the protective confines of the home. In sum, they are subject to symbolic annihilation (163)’

Gender Stereotypes in African Society
According to Ezeigbo (1996) most traditional African societies undervalued woman than man, though the level of devaluation varies from one society to another; she opines that women appear to have more right and to have been accorded more recognition in traditional Yoruba society than they were in traditional Igbo society. According to Balogun (1994:3), among the Ijebu-Igbo, women are involved in the Egungun cult and a woman called ‘Iya Agan’ is free to move with any kind of Egungun and enter their shrine or groove.
Ezeigbo(1996) and Balogun (1994) both argue that though women in traditional African society lack political power like their European counter part of the same period, they were able to survive ‘sexism’ and its psychological trauma by firmly entrenching themselves in the economic sector of their communities.
However, colonialism brought among other ‘ills’ a radical change in the socio-political engagement of African society, culminating into the misfortune of the contemporary Nigeria woman, Ezeigbo sates:

‘…the misfortune of the modern Nigerian woman is that she neither enjoys political nor economical power. She has virtually lost out on all counts and finds herself even more marginalised and devalued than her traditional foremothers. Though some contemporary Nigerian women have distinguished themselves and climbed to height of academic, professional and intellectual equality with men, nevertheless economic and political power continue to elude them’ (Ezeigbo, 1996:3).

These no doubt are some of the by-products of colonialism and the propagation of Islam and Christianity which relegated women’s role to the background.
The use of female body as sex object also is deep rooted in colonialism. The establishment of colonial rule at the end of the nineteenth century coincided with the ascendance of Photography, as a medium for bringing images of distant regions of the world to the public. These images were spread through book illustrations, magazines, advertisements and postcards. These images which focus more on the black female body, both clothed and unclothed bordered on eroticism, even the pornographic (Thompson, 2008).
Western sexualization and pathologizing of the African female body sharply contrast with traditional African ideologies of womanhood, in which women were and in many cultures today continue to be honoured and depicted in the visual and performing arts as the givers of life, as guardian of moral integrity and as cornerstones of family continuity and communal unity.
Colonial-era photography and postcards have often misrepresented the respectability of this pose, which through uninformed western readings mistakenly can be taken for sexual invitation (ibid).

Nigerian Women and Media
Stereotypes are found in the advertising of all countries, both western and non-western, but are marked in different ways because culture influences advertising and gender stereotypes differently. (See Mazella et. al 1992, Gilly 1988; Bretl and Cantor 1988; and Peterson 1977).
Stereotypes of women as represented in the media are important aspect of sociological theorising and research concerning the position of women in modern society. In looking at the presentation of gender in advertisements, it is possible to scrutinise them for advertisers’ stereotypes concerning the differences between the sexes and also for what they depict about prevalent gender patterns.

Analysis of Nigerian contemporary advertisements suggests that gender is routinely portrayed according to traditional cultural stereotypes; women as housewives, mothers, home makers and sexual objects, men are portrayed in situation of authority and dominance over women. Akpabio and Oguntona (2005)’s research on the portrayal of women in Nigerian advertisement support the view that the primary stereotypes are the portrayal of women as sex objects and as housewives.
Contemporary advertisement took a radical dimension in gender stereotyping in 2005 when an MTN Television commercial placed more value on male child in its advertising content. The advert, popularly known as ‘mama na boy’ was set in an Urhobo rural community of southern Nigeria. The women in the community were busy with their daily chores: cooking, washing, hawking and so on, while the men in the scene were portrayed in a position of authority. The climax was ignited when a woman’s son called probably from city that his wife just gave birth to a ‘boy’. The whole community celebrated in frenzy.
Feminist across the country reacted negatively to the advert and MTN was forced to withdraw it. These and many other cotemporary adverts present the feminine gender as being inferior to the masculine gender. The advert of course did not reflect the society, a male child is by no means superior in the contemporary dispensation, but it has ‘symbolically annihilated’ women in our society relegating their status to that of a ‘second choice’. Akpabio and Oguntona (2005) observe that even though these adverts and many more were crafted to sell products or services, they convey underlying messages about the women folk.
Well (2000) sees this presentation of a group of people, and in this instance as womenfolk, in an unvarying pattern that lacks individuallity as one of the major criticisms against advertising. The sad thing about all this is that the way advertising portray various segments determines in some measure the treatment meted out to them( Rusel and Lane, 1996).This is more striking considering the second-class status that women and the girl child have been assigned in many cultures.

Summary of Finding

This study examines adverts shown on Nigerian television stations and magazines and found out that majority of the Nigerian contemporary advertisements portray women as either housewife, inferior to men and or as sex objects.
Five Television stations, Two Government owned (Nigerian Television Authority Channel five and Nigerian Television Authority Channel ten, both in Lagos) and three privately owned stations (Television Continental, Silver Bird Television and Channels) were chosen for this study. Also three daily Newspapers and Two weekly magazines were observed.
In order to ensure as much representation as could be possible, a sample of ten advertisements were chosen. Three from Television commercials and seven from print media, each representing a different product line. The advertisements are listed below:

Alcoholic Beverages: Gulder, Star
Baby Products: Pampers
Communication Service Provider: MTN, Etisalat
Laundry Soap: Ariel
Bank: UBA, Bank PHB
Non-Alcoholic Beverages: Coke
Electronics: Samsung
Food Seasoning: Maggi
Snacks: Indomie
Medical: Panadol

The findings of this study show that the major female characters in contemporary Nigerian advertisement were still depicted with stereotypes of being housewives, girlfriends, mothers or objects to be admired. Advertising is playing an unpleasant role in ‘symbolically annihilating’ women and situating the women folk in a biased context of being inferior to men. This according to Van Zoonen, affects children’s cognitive psychology and can perpetuate stereotypic social roles, she states:
‘…experimental research done in the tradition of cognitive psychology tends to support the hypothesis that media act as socialisation agents- along with the family, teaching children in particular their appropriate sex roles and symbolically rewarding them for appropriate behaviour…’

Gender roles are not dictated by nature but synthetically manufactured by the patriarchal society. In the contemporary society where women compete professionally with men, they are still being portrayed in the popular culture as either house wives, girl friends, mothers or sexual objects to be admired. This study supports previous research by Akpabio and Oguntona (2005:100) who ask rhetorically:

‘…in this day and age when a number of women have achieved so much in their careers is it still right to keep portraying them as housewives and mothers as if they have nothing else to offer the society?

Akpabio, Eno and Titilola Oguntona. "Patriarchal Universe of Advertising: The Nigerian Example." 2005: 97-100.
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Ezeigbo, Akachi T. "Gender Issues in Nigeria: A Feminist Perspective." Lagos: Vista Bokks Limited, 1996.
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Peach, Lucinda Joy, ed. Women in culture: a women’s studies anthology. Massachusetts.: Black Well Publishers, 1998.
Petersen, Hackworth Lauren. "‘Divided consciousness and female companionship:reconstructing female subjectivity on Greek vases’." Arethusa vol 30, .1 (1997): 35-74.
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Rogers, Barbara. Domestication of Women: Discrimination in Developing Societies . London: Kogan Page Limited, 1980.
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