How are women portrayed in the media

Gender democracy

Ulla Wischermann

Prof. Dr. Until her retirement in autumn 2017, Ulla Wischermann was Professor of Sociology at the Faculty of Social Sciences at Goethe University Frankfurt am Main and Director of the Cornelia Goethe Center for Women's Studies and Research on Gender Relations there. For many years she was co-editor of the journal feminist studies and the book series Critical Studies in Media and Communication. Her research interests include gender media studies, feminist theory, antigenderism, social movement research and public theory.

A functioning public is essential for democratic societies. Scientific theories on the "public" classically referred to mature - mind you male - citizens. They ignored the life situations of women and reduced their role to domestic privacy, which has had consequences for gender inequality to this day. Feminist theories have dealt with this imbalance.

In the 1970s, the New Women's Movement criticized the stereotypical portrayal of women in the media. Poster advertising in West Germany 1970 (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

Gender and media - a look back and forward

In 1975, in the "Year of Women" proclaimed by the UN General Assembly, the study published by Erich Küchenhoff on "The Representation of Women and the Treatment of Women 's Issues on TV" was published. and media studies can apply. At this point in time, actors of the New Women's Movement, women's initiatives and feminist journalists had loudly criticized the stereotypical portrayals of women in the media and in advertising. The subsequent UN Women's Decade and four World Women's Conferences provided a suitable political environment for feminist media criticism and for analyzes of media content, media production and media reception from a gender perspective until the mid-1990s.

Media content
The Küchenhoff study mentioned at the beginning stated that women were blatantly underrepresented in the programs of German television, which at the time was still purely public television. The female roles found were extremely stereotypical: they were mostly housewives and mothers or young, attractive, working women. Long ago that media content looked like this? This impression is deceptive: The Rostock scientists Elizabeth Prommer and Christine Linke came in their study "Audiovisual Diversity?" on "Gender Representation in Television and Film in Germany" from 2017 more than 40 years after the Küchenhoff study on similar findings. After evaluating almost 3000 hours from the specialty programs of 17 private and public broadcasters (television films, shows and entertainment, information and news programs) as well as from the range of four children's channels and 800 films, they came to the following results:
  • Women are clearly underrepresented.
  • If there are women, it is as young women. From the age of 30, women gradually disappear from the screen.
  • Men explain the world. They are the experts, game show hosts, journalists and speakers.
  • The future is equal? Not when it comes to children's television. Only one in four characters is female.
( accessed on 06.08.2019)

Although the relationship between men and women has historically and currently proven to be flexible and changeable, this had almost no impact on the (re) presentations of the sexes in the media. On the contrary, the gender-specific representations are still very stable. Communication scientist Martina Thiele confirmed in 2019 that stereotypical gender images of women and men are still present in all journalistic genres and even more so in advertising and in what is known as Gender marketing to find. Even if the gender images change slightly, on closer inspection they remain stereotypical and help to reproduce the system of bisexuality. Both gender equality and gender difference are emphasized in the media, but very rarely gender images are deconstructed or questioned, stereotypes are broken or a "Doing gender", that is, the question of how gender is produced is the subject of discussion.

Media production
In the area of ​​media production, journalism and public relations (PR) in particular are the focus of scientific research. For example, questions are asked about the proportion of women, their genre and department affiliation as well as their chances of advancement up to management positions. Other categories of distinction beyond gender are also brought into focus, for example with the question of migrants in journalism.

In their systematic study of female journalists published in 1984 - the first in Germany - communication scientists Irene Neverla and Gerda Kanzleiter found that journalism was a "man's job" in the 1980s. Only 17 percent women belonged to the group of permanent employees and they were mostly in marginal positions. Much has changed since then, especially the proportion of women has risen continuously. Susanne Keil and Johanna Dorer show in their article "Media Production: Journalism and Gender", published in 2019 in the handbook "Medien undGEL", that 40 percent of women journalists in Germany, and far more women are active in PR.

How threatening this was and is for male colleagues became apparent around the turn of the millennium in misogynous, that is, misogynistic or misogynistic reactions: In numerous media reports a feminization of the profession was complained and criticism of a "seizure of power" by women was raised. Incidentally, the rise in the number of women in the field of journalism was not accompanied by an increase in the proportion of immigrants. In 2019, the journalist and media scientist Bärbel Röben found in the aforementioned handbook "Media and Gender" that just under five percent of female journalists in Germany have a so-called migration background; on the other hand, people with a history of immigration make up around 20 percent of the resident population.

The change processes in the professional field of journalism went and continue; they meanwhile also concern the division of departments, as the communication scientists Margreth Lünenborg and Tanja Maier in their book published in 2013 "Gender Media StudiesWhile in the 1980s, for example, the political editors still managed largely without women, women are now distributed across the departments according to their share in journalism. Only sports reporting can still be considered the predominant "male bastion" in Germany with 86 percent men. But basically there can be no more talk of "men" or "women" s departments, which also contributes to the fact that journalists who are not bound by the department are becoming more and more numerous.

Little has changed, however, with regard to management positions, which are still dominated by men. In a European comparison, the German female journalists with a share of 20 percent in the executive suite do significantly worse than their colleagues in other EU countries. Feminist research discusses this "vertical segmentation" in the context of a "glass ceiling" that women encounter in the course of their professional lives. This means a network of professional, private and social factors that continuously influences and sometimes even determines the career paths of women.

Media reception
Media reception is also often referred to as media action in order to emphasize the active role of those who use the media. In essence, this area is about the analysis of media use, its reception and appropriation. The communication science Gender studies have focused on the media activity of the genders and ask what influences on identity constructions and Doing gender-Processes are recognizable. At the center of early feminist studies of reception and appropriation in the 1980s were the "Soap Operas", everyday domestic life and the television consumption of housewives. The result showed that women who watched these formats dealt with the permanent series with confidence and integrated them into the chronological processes of their everyday life. To see recipients not as passive, but as active audiences who construct their own (media) realities and produce different readings of the media products Gender studies central.

The "gender category" has proven to be particularly productive in research on media violence. The communication scientist Jutta Röser showed in her study published in 2000 "Television violence in a social context: One Cultural studies- Analysis of media appropriation in dominance relationships "in group discussions with a total of 127 men and women, how different media violence is perceived and interpreted by both sexes. She focused on the complex interplay of violence, media violence and its perception by the recipients Research approach.

From the broad spectrum of studies on this topic, reference should be made to an important field of research in which the "media behavior of adolescents", that is, girls and boys, is examined. In a study carried out by Ulrike Wagner and Susanne Egger at the German Youth Institute in Munich in 2013 for the 14th report on children and young people of the Federal Government's Expert Commission, the focus was primarily on the Internet and the social web. The search for orientation, identity, social relationships and participation is what drives young people's media activity. The authors emphasized that the extent and commercialization of media communication represent major challenges, for example through the strengthening of problematic political orientations, the delimitation of private and public spheres and the consolidation of mechanisms of exclusion.

The Gender Media Studies discuss the gender category in media communication and analyze its construction and deconstruction. They also deal with theories and concepts of communication and media studies, which all too often claim general validity without having an eye on gender relations. This is particularly noticeable - as will be shown below - when discussing the public and private spheres. The aforementioned delimitation of the private and public spheres on the Internet and in social media gives the topic a new explosiveness.

Public theories without privacy or: And women do not appear

In 1962 Jürgen Habermas published the book "Structural Change of the Public", which is still fundamental to this day, and which has received considerable international attention. Public theories are still based on this book by either confirming his statements or expressing themselves critically. Habermas described the emergence of the bourgeois public in the 18th and 19th centuries as the "sphere of private people gathered to the public", in which social problems can be discussed and negotiated in political processes. This development was promoted by the rise of the bourgeoisie to the educated and possessing class (private property), by the emergence of the bourgeois-patriarchal nuclear family (private sphere) as well as by the emergence of a literary culture and public, connected with separate rooms such as coffee houses and media, especially newspapers and magazines. A functioning negotiation and regulation of common interests in a public to which everyone had access was considered by Habermas to be a model for a democratic society. In his description, he interpreted the eponymous "structural change in the public sphere" as a "disintegration" that the public had suffered in the 20th century as a result of the commercialization of politics and the media.

The bourgeois public, which is connected by an informed general interest and forms public opinion, is an ideal construction. Exclusions are not addressed in this model. But where, together with the American social philosopher Nancy Fraser, can we find workers, women, the poor and members of ethnic, religious and national minorities in this ideal public sphere? Categories such as race, class and gender are not problematized in this classic public theory. Rather, she takes it for granted that the public sphere is reserved for men and hierarchically takes precedence over the private sphere that is assigned to women. This hierarchical arrangement is still a crucial aspect in questions of gender inequality today.

Women and gender studies dealt with the discrepancies in public theories early on and, above all, took a stand against the dualism of private and public. Through it, border dissolutions were made invisible and women and other marginalized groups were excluded from the public. Feminist historians in particular have pointed out the lack of historical distinction and the contradiction between the public and the private.

The Berlin historian Karin Hausen submitted a systematic criticism of this in 1986. She saw in the public presented by Habermas "initially nothing more than an understanding of male citizens about their living situation and an interpretation of the world from their point of view." This construction was momentous and socio-politically charged, because it relegated women to the domestic and men to the public sphere and contributed to the gender-specific division of labor. Crossing borders and resistance by women, their actions in the political public, for example in times of social upheaval and revolutions, were often ignored by contemporaries and ignored from the historical tradition, and transitions and border dissolutions were hardly explored. For Hausen, privacy and public form a pair of terms that cannot be understood with a "neat separation and comparison". By assigning them to the private sphere, the life and work contexts of women are made invisible and their experiences, interests, forms of organization and actions are viewed as non-political and therefore excluded from the discourse.

Public as a process or: the interaction between private and public

From the perspective of feminist theory, the public is not thought of as a sphere that stands in opposition to privacy. Rather, she examines the relationship between the two spheres under the condition that their boundaries are fluid and always require new processes of understanding and negotiation.

With the "three-level model" by sociologist and communication scientist Elisabeth Klaus from 2005, the public can be seen as a process of social self-understanding that takes place on three levels: the simple, medium and complex public. Her model is based on a broad concept of politics and is implicitly opposed to the separation of private and public, which to this day contributes to the fact that the construction of bisexuality in bourgeois society continues to develop.

By assuming that life experiences form an indispensable basis for social negotiation processes, Klaus gives privacy an important priority. On this level, which she describes as the "simple public", a direct interpersonal, relatively equal exchange of individuals takes place, which is then taken up and "translated" in the "middle public" by social movements, associations and other groups. At this level, socially relevant topics are bundled in sub-publics and counter-publics and made available to the "complex public". This latter, third level is dominated by organizations, political institutions and the mass media. This is where the selection and dissemination of topics takes place, often combined with a stabilization of power and a legitimation function.

Mainstream public theories focus on the third level, the complex public; Feminist public theories, on the other hand, emphasize the process character of the public and place it on an axis between the private and the public. This brings new findings and perspectives to light, especially for the first and second levels of the public.

As part of her research on social movements as actors of social change, the author of this article was able to use the example of the historical women's movement at the turn of the 20th century.Century (2003) present and empirically prove a multi-level concept of privacy and public. This concept emphasizes - firstly - the private side of politics and sees personal connections and networks in "cultures of movement" as resources for politicization. Secondly, it takes into account "moving publics" as places for emotions and experiences as well as for the formation of resistant (counter) publics. These movement publics can be regarded as just as indispensable for effective power and political mobilization as - thirdly - the presence of social movements and their demands in the discursive and mass media arenas of the "complex public". From this research perspective, the movement publics play a more significant role than in other public and social movement theories, which measure the success of social movements mainly by their public effectiveness.
Structure of the various levels of the public sphere (Elisabeth Klaus, the public sphere as a process of social self-understanding and the three-level model of the public sphere, in: Dies. / Ricarda Drüeke (ed.): Publics and social negotiation processes, © transcript Verlag, Bielefeld 2017, p. 17–37; here: p. 23)

The private is political! The category of experience and the politicization of the private

In their 1972 book "Public and Experience", the authors Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge revised Habermas' normative public model and contrasted its "bourgeois" public with a "proletarian" public. In doing so, they brought the concept of "experience" into the debate. The biographical experiences of oppressed and / or marginalized groups that go back to social exclusions or social conflicts must - so the two authors consider - be expressed and generalized as experiences of injustice in order to influence political and social change. New social movements such as the ecology or peace movement, and especially the women's movement, have attached great political importance to the category of experience. These movements have taken privacy as their starting point and turned it into a production facility for politics.

It was quickly recognized that the portrayal of experience and the thematization of the personal do not lead in a straight line to a politicization of the private, but often get stuck in the publication of intimacies. Many entertainment formats in the press, television, radio and the new media, including smartphones, undoubtedly contribute more to an insignificant display of the private and intimate in public than to the politicization of privacy. In order to achieve the latter, it is - according to communication scientists Friederike Herrmann and Margreth Lünenborg 2001 - to first name evaluation criteria that are important for determining the political in the private sphere, such as generalizability, social significance, respect for the intimate and self-determination. These criteria are then to be used as a yardstick for media products and media usage. The idea of ​​shared experiences and the associated assumption of a collective "we" feeling moved into the center of feminist criticism and made a policy questionable in which similarities between "we women" were constructed and differences among women were largely ignored. For example, what was asked - what do the experiences of black women have to do with those of white middle-class women, what does heterosexual experience have to do with lesbian, homosexual or other experiences? Nevertheless, experience remains an important dimension in making exclusion from the ruling publics an issue and thus an object of political negotiation processes. The politicization of the private was and is an important step on this path.

The reinterpretation of the private as well as the political, combined with the demand to bring the private into the public and make it politically capable, has an equally programmatic relevance in national and international, historical and current women's movements. A look at the history of women's movements shows that almost all actions and scandals aimed at shifting the gender-specific boundaries between the private sphere and the public sphere, which is only allowed to men. Most of the injustice experiences made in private were the starting point for political demands: the debate about housework, in which the gender-specific division of labor was identified as the cause of inequality, the protest against § 218, which criminalizes abortion, as a control of female sexuality and childbearing ability as well the exposure of violence in marriage and in private relationships.

Feminist publics as counter-publics

If the public is to be changed through the inclusion of experience and the politicization of the private, the question arises of how the transfer from the private to the public can look like. In retrospect, it was the concepts of counter-public that were already thinking about the possibility and necessity of such a transfer. These concepts, initiated by the aforementioned authors Negt and Kluge and further developed in critical media theory, assumed that the creation of a counter-public was politically necessary in order to differentiate it from the ruling public, but also to influence it. Counter-public includes both the place of political identity formation and alternative lifestyles as well as the space to criticize rule and to create oppositional, democratically organized media. Concepts of counter-public were welcomed in the student and women's movement of the 1970s and 1980s and implemented in a wide variety of ways, which was not least reflected in the diversity of their alternative media.

In the 1990s, Nancy Fraser provided the concepts of oppositional publics with new impulses. It values ​​the counter-public as an indispensable contribution to democratic communication structures and tries to discuss its significance both in the context of research on social movements and to develop it further from a feminist perspective. In her book "Halved Justice. Key Terms of the Post-Industrial Welfare State", published in 2001, she writes: "The public is constituted by conflict. Strengthening oppositional publics then means allowing diverging opinions and, through the associated conflictual nature, questioning the hegemonic public Counter-publics', inequalities and exclusions can become visible and groups marginalized on the basis of class, ethnicity or gender can have their say. Overall, these publics are indispensable arenas for discursive opinion-forming and underestimated places where social identities are constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed. "

In contrast to Habermas, Fraser takes the position that the "ideal of participatory equality can be achieved better with a large number of publics than with a single public". The increase of such "competing publics" is not separatist, on the contrary, it is desirable, because in this way the discursive space is expanded in which political negotiation processes necessary for civil society take place.

By aiming for social change and power-political influence, these publics function as oppositional, counter-publics. As a conflict-ridden public, they can be an enrichment for civil society and democracy. This is shown by examples such as the anti-globalization movements or anti-sexist and anti-racist movements that are formed and articulated in new media such as the Internet, for example via hashtags. Concepts of counter-public are therefore by no means "out of fashion", but have been productively further developed from a democratic-theoretical perspective and are indispensable.

Internet and social web as Gendered Spaces

An overview of the media, the public and gender relations is not complete without considering new, i.e. digital media, which in turn can shed a different light on the shifts in the boundaries between the private and the public. Mainstream communication science, which has long adhered to the setting of boundaries, is facing new challenges as a result of digital media Gender studies have long been worked out theoretically and empirically investigated. The communication scientists Elisabeth Klaus and Ricarda Drüeke, in their book "Publicities and Societal Negotiation Processes", published in 2017, describe the setting of boundaries that blur in Internet publics as those "between mass communication and interpersonal communication, between public and private, between information and entertainment, between fact and fiction , between producers and consumers, and finally between mind and emotion, mind and body ".

Through the internet and through Social media Since the turn of the millennium, communication media and communication spaces have been radically reshaping. Decentralization, openness and, above all, interactivity and the associated abolition of defined roles of producers and recipients can be seen as the basis for non-hierarchical communication across national and cultural borders, e.g. also as a framework for censorship-free spaces and counter-publics.

The development of the Social web has brought about a serious change in the media landscape: In addition to media in which publications are made (print publications, television, radio), there has also been a medium in which one can actively participate. There are undoubtedly great opportunities in this, but also many challenges and many a conflict arises. New publics are forming on the web today and at the same time there is a display of the private and intimate that was unimaginable in the past. At the same time and in reverse, so to speak, debates are developing about the fact that privacy disappears in a networked world, because everything that is put online can be tracked electronically and can hardly be reversed. Concepts of public and private can no longer exist separately from one another or fall back on the usual polarities. In digital media, the two spheres are intertwined: private and public forms of communication are increasingly converging, with the transitions flowing and barely recognizable.

The Gender studies dealt early on with the consequences of the Internet. In the early days of research, different emphases can be identified: The Techno Sciences dealt with the question of computerization and gender, cyberspace looked at cyberspace as a space that could be shaped feministically, feminist cyborg utopias found their expression in literature, games or films and the possibility of changing gender identities in the "disembodied" network, provided an incentive for deconstructivist theories and practices that wanted to break down gender stereotypes and rigid gender attributions.

The expectation that still prevailed in issue 1/1997 of Feminist Studies that multimedia could revolutionize gender relations has met with mixed results since then. Today it could just as well be asked whether and, if so, how digital media will reorganize a return to traditional gender differences. A recently published study on gender representations in social media shows how stereotypical and gender hierarchical young women present themselves on the Internet. A study presented by the MaLisa Foundation with the title "Female self-presentation in the new media" rated the top 100 of YouTube and Instagram and came to the conclusion: "While women mostly show themselves in private, give make-up tips and present their hobbies, men deal with significantly more topics from entertainment to music to games, comedy and politics."

The psychologist Nicola Döhring also confirms with her current research: YouTube is male dominated and spreads traditional gender roles. Misogyny is the order of the day online, anti-feminism and antigenderism are vehemently represented, sexism and racism are frighteningly taboo hate speech is almost everyday. On the other hand, feminist net publics form themselves as counter-publics that enlighten and offer resistance - and thus actively campaign for gender equality.

Source text

# without exception

In the hashtag # without exception, requirements for the media were formulated: Against sexual violence and racism. Always. All over. # without exception

who we are
As feminists from various areas of society, we have been campaigning for justice between the sexes and for an open and fair society for many years, and we are committed to combating sexism and sexualised violence. We learned how important it is to stand against racism and other forms of discrimination. [...]

We are committed to these social solutions:
The debate about sexual violence must be conducted in an open, critical and differentiated manner. This includes the analysis, processing and combating of socio-cultural and ideological causes of violence. There is also an urgent need to talk about the effects of social stigmatization of those affected by sexual violence. [...]

We are committed to these media approaches:
The media coverage of sexual violence must not mock the victims or cover up the acts. Offenders should not be described as "sex gangsters" or "sex mobs" - since sexual violence has nothing to do with sex - and domestic violence should not be played down as "family" or "relationship drama".

Sexism and other forms of discrimination must be understood as breeding grounds for sexual violence and recognized as real and existing problems. It must be taken seriously, such as the media presentation, among other things. the female body as objects of pleasure is linked to sexual violence. Sexism must not have a place in everyday life, in advertising or in the media.

The problem of sexism and sexualised violence must not be "Islamized" and thus generally attributed to a religion and its - often supposed - members. This puts at least 5 million people in Germany under general suspicion. Editorial offices should avoid sensational and stigmatizing interpretations, because these have concrete negative consequences for members of our society.

The imagery must be kept free from racist and sexist clichés. Images work subconsciously and can even torpedo differentiated reporting.

Editorial offices have to become more diverse. As before, only a fraction of journalists in Germany are of non-German origin and careers are primarily open to people with a formal high level of education. Male, heterosexual and white dominated editors-in-chief contribute to the fact that topics affecting other genders, ethnic groups and minorities are not dealt with with sufficient space and competence. [...]

Excerpt: Accessed August 8, 2019



Researching the internet and social web is an essential task of the current one Gender Media Studies. Communication and media studies women and gender studies was and is both science and social criticism. For the communication scientist Tanja Thomas it is politically relevant, because it is normative, aims at changing society and develops ideas of emancipation from a feminist point of view.

Gender Media Studies analyze the cultural and social construction of gender, the processes of genderization and the "Doing gender"of institutions and subjects and include social inequality, power and domination as decisive factors in the analysis. They aim at (gender) justice and their social criticism is bound to political intervention: the knowledge they have acquired is part of a political process; to interfere is still constitutive of feminist science Feminism and media - that shouldn't be an unfortunate liaison.