In today’s economy, advertisers understand that sex sells. The foundations of this concept, however, are influenced by patriarchal expectations that women are first and foremost sexual objects for men. Women are sold beauty and demeanor expectations for them to utilize when making themselves attractive for men and men are sold the idea of beautiful, docile women. This dynamic perpetuates strict definitions of acceptable gender displays and reinforces socially permitted gendered behavior. As a society in the 21st century, we understand the damage of sexist ideals, but where we fall short is in the monitoring of channels that perpetuate and maintain those stereotypes and how affected the public really is by the male gaze, and lack of a female gaze, in media. In this paper, I search for a female gaze, but in doing so recognize the inequalities inherent in yet another gendered practice of looking and instead steer the conversation towards personalized perspectives informed by an understanding of the dominant practice of looking and its inverse.
The primary perspective from which people are depicted in media today is shaped by the male gaze. The male gaze is comprised of patriarchal ideals and relies on the understanding that the spectator or viewer is a standard human being, which heteronormativity tells us is a man. From this perspective, the scope of visual representations of men and women in media has been molded after the hierarchized gender displays within which masculinity has primacy over femininity. By presenting a limited spectrum of behavior acceptable for men and women, the media hegemonically manipulates the social constructs of gender and gendered behavior across all levels of society.
This honors thesis applies semiotic and feminist methodologies to engage visual forms of media through art, film, and social media to challenge the social constructs of gender perpetuated and reinforced by dated stereotypes of gender and gendered behavior. First, the theoretical foundation will provide a framework for semiotic and feminist analysis of visual representations of gender in media. Then, I will present data representing the real-world impact that this social construction of gender has on adolescents in America using The State of Gender Equality for U.S. Adolescents, published by Plan International Inc. I will then bring together the explicated methodologies and evidential data alongside my own experiences as a female consumer of visual media to reveal alternative practices of looking that do not revolve around patriarchal norms, looking for a female gaze. In doing so, I hope to present recourse in the face of persistent use of sexist imagery across all levels of our culture and every medium of visual self-expression by providing tools that can be used to interrogate gendered perceptions and inform self-examination in pursuit of a feminist practice of looking.