Powerful women

What do you associate with powerful women? How are these associations based on stereotypes that have been generated by the media. How do the media generate these stereotypes?

These are the kinds of questions we aim to answer in this lesson. We will be looking at a specific text type, namely magazine covers, and asking ourselves how the language of magazine covers helps construct the stereotypes that we hold of powerful women. This will allow us to understand how the mass media use language to influence our understanding of power and gender, which ties in to the third learning outcome for Part 2

Who's the most powerful woman?

Below you see six pictures of women on the covers of magazines. Rank them according to who appears most powerful. Try not to refer to your contextual understanding of the women. Only judge them by their appearances (as awful as that may sound). Compare your ranking to those of other people who have taken the poll.

Who's the most powerful woman?

#1 - most powerful woman

Vote:  Current Results

#2 - second most powerful woman

Vote:  Current Results

#3 - third most powerful woman

Vote:  Current Results

#4 - fourth most powerful woman

Vote:  Current Results

#5 - fifth most powerful woman

Vote:  Current Results

#6 - least powerful woman

Vote:  Current Results

 6 Powerful women

Angela Merkel
Time Magazine

Meg Whitman
Fortune

Michelle Obama
Vogue

Tyra Banks
Essence

Sonia Sotomayor
The New Republic

Julia Gillard
Who

Gender, power and magazine covers

Ask yourself how the language of each magazine cover determines our understanding of gender and power through language. By language, consider the following devices that can be used to construct meaning on magazine covers. Analyze the use of these devices in constructing 

  • body language
  • lighting
  • font
  • caricature
  • setting
  • inclusion of symbols
  • facial expressions
  • color
  • dress / clothing
  • layout
  • copy (language of the text)

 Gender, power and magazines covers 

Magazine cover How power or weakness is constructed
Angela Merkel
The term 'Frau Europa' suggests she dominates a continent. What's more, the copy clearly states that she is powerful. The cover is very clean and void of sensational images. All focus is on Angela Merkel. She is looking fearlessly straight into the lens of the camera with icey blue eyes and bold red lips (perhaps accentuated by Photoshop). Her facial expression is very sobre and demanding. Her body language and clothing are very closed and not outgoing. 
Meg Whitman
The horse is a symbol of wildness, which Meg Whitman seems to have it tamed. You could say that she is in control. The open sea represents a vastness of possibility. Her clothing is sturdy (leather) and specific to the sport. 'Can she save California?' is the question in the copy, which does not reinforce her powerful look necessarily. Her facial express is icey. The smile is more of a smirk.
Michelle Obama
The body language and the use of a sofa allow the audience to see her as a kind and gentle type. Her smile looks both warm and slightly forces. Bare arms seem to make her less aggressive and more inviting. She looks like the kind of woman you would want to have a coffee and a chat with. This is created partially by the warm lighting and the warm colors of the setting and her clothing.
Tyra Banks
Although Tyra looks 'fierce' in her body language, as though she is about to jump up and scratch you, she is also exposing herself. Bare arms and a visable cleavage make her more sexy than powerful. The copy seems to be more concerned about hair than accomplishments, which also depowers her. The soft, golden lighting also makes her harmless. She is more like a trophee in this picture.
Sonia Sotomayor
The art director has turned Sonia Sotomayor, first female, hispanic supreme court member, into a caricature. This undermines any possibility of her looking powerful. Instead she looks like a voodoo doll that we can stick pins into. The copy, 'The Sonia Sotomayor you don't know,' suggests a hidden secret that also depowers her. Her smile is too comical to be taken seriously. 
Julia Gillard
Although the main picture of Julia Gillard is heroic, as she looks into the future, the lighting is poor and her neck is overexposed. Her facial expression looks more grumpy than powerful. What's more, she is seen in another image having a good laugh with her husband. This seems to take away from her role as dominant prime minister of Australia. The fact that she is the subject of what appears to be a sensational tabloid, also takes away from her powerful position.

The stereotype

Judging by the language of magazine covers, there seem to be many unfavorable characteristics that we associate with powerful women. 'Icy', 'cold', 'distant', 'closed' are a few of the words that may have come up in your analysis of these images. Are these the definitive characteristics of powerful women? If so, how does that put women in a difficult position in life and on the work floor? Here are two questions that you can answer in light of the article below.

  1. How true are the stereotypes that Brenna Coleman presents in her blog?

  2. After watching the trailers for Disclosure and The Proposal, do you think differently about your first answer? 

  3. How do the magazine covers add to the stereotype that Brenn Coleman presents?

Media Portrayal of Women
Brenna Coleman
2010

Media Portrayal of Women

Brenna Coleman
2010

Common female stereotypes found in the media have a powerful influence over how society views women and how women view themselves.

What is the media portrayal of women today and how does this impact how young girls perceive themselves? With programs such as ‘The Bachelor’ and ‘Flavor of Love’ showing a dozen women competing for the attention of one man, often using their sexuality, magazine ads displaying a half-naked female body to sell a fragrance or cosmetic product, and television commercials highlighting a woman's thigh and butt to sell sneakers, it may be difficult for society not to be influenced by the overwhelming message to objectify women.

Negative Female Stereotypes […]

When a woman is in a position of power, such as the rare female boss portrayed in The Proposal with Sandra Bullock, or Disclosure with Demi Moore, she tends to be a cold-hearted, detached career woman with sociopathic tendencies. This sends the message that a powerful woman sacrifices a healthy relationship, family, and possibly even her sanity to be extremely successful at her career. For the young girl who dreams to run a company, or become a famous journalist, astronaut, or scientist, the media does not provide enough models for her to look to for encouragement and inspiration.

Towards assessment

Written task 1 - After studying several magazine covers from different magazines, you may want to turn your focus to one specific magazine. Find out how one magazine, such as Vogue or Fortune stereotypes women by looking at more of their covers. If you notice a trend, you can write a letter to the editor, commenting on their use of image, copy and headings to reinforce stereotypes.  

Further oral activity - Have a discussion with a classmate in which you rank and analyze several magazine covers. Each of you can say why you agree or disagree that a particular cover reinforces the stereotype of women and power. 

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