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Gendered Media

February 6, 2011

Why don’t more women play video games?

Is it because games include overly-sexed and physically unattainable images of femininity? Or because many popular games incorporate excessive violence—be it toward aliens, armies … or women? Or is it because young girls and women just aren’t interested in sitting in front of a console for hours on end?

These are the questions posed by the creators of the video posted below (please note: it is worth the full 10 minutes of viewing time, as the narrator offers some great answers to these questions at the end). However, the relationship between media and gender may have less to do with what’s on screen (or in print, or on the airwaves) and more to do with how individuals incorporate different forms of media into their daily habits and activities.

Experiencing gender in media

The “hypodermic needle theory” suggests that mass media have a direct, immediate, and powerful effect on audiences by motivating human behavior. This theory is predicated on the belief that consumers of media (including video games) are passive receivers of information and images, and as a result, the visual representations are taken at face value and incorporated as such into the belief systems of women, men and children. Many feminist scholars have used this description to argue that the media support and encourage a patriarchal hierarchy that reinforces the idea of women as being subservient to men.

Ien Ang, however, questions this argument. Rather, she suggests that “media consumption has has evolved considerably from the early emphasis on ‘unrealistic’ images of women” (1996, 114). Ang posits that women are active participants in media consumption, often using the images on screen as a form of escape or even a symbolic resistance to a dominant discourse. Noting the soap opera viewing habits of working class women, she suggests that it is, in fact, women who define what role media play in their lives and for what purpose:

The assumption of an a priori, monolithic reproduction of sexism and patriarchy has gradually made way for a view in which the media effectivity is seen as more conditional, contigent upon specific—and often contraditory—textual mechanisms and operations, on the one hand, and upon the active and productive part of played by female audiences in constructing textual meanings and pleasures, on the other. The latter trend, especially, has solicited a more optimistic stance towards women’s role as media consumers: they are no longer seen as ‘cultural dupes,’ as passive victims of inexorably sexist media; on the contrary, media consumption can even be considered as empowering …. (114)

Ang notes that gender is often implicitly taken as the category through which we foremost define ourselves. However, she notes, gender is only one role that men and women perform on a daily basis. Other roles may at times take priority. For example, the roles of teacher, boss, doctor or citizen are not necessarily gender specific but may direct our media consumption behavior. In this way, she notes, individuals navigate daily a wide range of social discourses, tailoring their activities to meet (or rebel against) the expectations of defined social constructs. Ang notes, “… it is through the practices of media consumption—and the positionings and identifications they solicit—that gender identities are recursively shaped, while those practices themselves in turn undergo a process of gendering along the way” (122).

Ang refers to this as articulation, or a process through which identity is defined by negotiating relationships between different roles so as to alter one’s identity to meet a specific context.

Gender Articulation in Gaming

In “It’s a Boy Thing,” Helen Thornham highlights how both men and women articulate (to use Ang’s term) gender identities when playing video games. Over a four-year period, Thornham empirically studied the gaming habits of men and women in their 20s. The results of her research demonstrated that women, when playing in groups with men, often took on passive roles, allowing their male counterparts to direct or offer advise on their game playing—even when they were able to compete at the same level. In this way, the women negotiated their success or failure in the game in terms of their relationship(s) to the men in the room. Similarly, men also altered their behaviors in the social “gaming” setting, often downplaying or outright denying their private (or geek) use of video games in an effort to avoid any accusations of personal gratification from the activity. Moreover, both the men and women agreed in interviews that gaming is purely a social activity, even when their anonymous surveys suggested that many actually played solo. Thornham writes:

Changes in household dynamics, material set up of spaces, opinions, relationships … altered the performances of the gamers. In other words, the performances are discursively negotiated and specific to the time and place in which they were performed. (140)

What does this tell us about gaming in relation to the opening question: why don’t more women play video games? In one way, Thornham’s study, although relatively small in sample size, shows that gaming can be viewed as an extension to lived hierarchical gender structures. Thus, one could posit that women avoid gaming — with men — more because they must navigate a discourse that is often already restrictive. For example, women with children may have less time to play games alone to accrue points that could make them more competitive in the gaming world or they may be socially asked to downplay their own skills to “support” the masculinity of their male peers.

Yet, as Thornham and Ang both note, roles of any kind are not static. Rather, they are part of larger discourses that are dynamic and dependent on the contextual elements of any given situation.

Thus, based on the articles discussed here, gaming may become more popular with women as gender stereotypes change in lived realities and as both men and women take on activities outside of the roles that have been predetermined by society. (Although some updates to the avatars could help, as well.)

In fact this is just the sentiment that is echoed by the creators of the video below.

For further reading:

Ang, Ien. “Gender and/in media consumption.” Living room wars: rethinking media audiences for a postmodern world. London: Routledge, 1996. 109-129. Print.

Thornham, Helen. “‘It’s a Boy Thing’: Gaming, Gender, and Geeks.” Feminist Media Studies8.2 (2008): 127-142. Print.

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