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Looking Glass Self – Women and the Media

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A sociological analysis based on Cooley’s Looking glass with reference to functionalist, conflict, feminist and symbolic theories in regards to the media and how self concept is developed and distorted based on modern day values and beliefs that are displayed in the media.

Cooley’s Looking Glass Self and the Media

Sociological theory has often been used to analyze the various shortcomings of the media and to criticize how the media influences our day to day life. In respect to sociological theory, examining how the media affects not only our lives, but our understanding of self-concept, socio-economic relations, and social stability within the social world. Looking at various sociological perspectives, we can see that the media encourages and discourages various types of behaviours, images and people. We create an outline for the “perfect” being that is a combination of conflicting standards, economic factors and perceptions.

The media is a collage of visual representations that has narrowed the definition of femininity, beauty, health, sexuality and self worth of women. Self-concept has become greatly influenced by that of a higher power, which determines a persons’ ability to achieve a positive self image. Obsession with magazines, actresses, television, internet and other forms of mass media have set the standards of an “ideal” outer self. This media frenzy has overlapped and diminished the line between reality and an unachievable worldview. “A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience” (Wolf, 1991) Our obsessed culture has slowly yet steadily changed the view of what the “idealized” woman truly is. In North America, the idealized woman is by definition “tall, less than 30 years of age, thin, a size six dress, heterosexual, able bodied and white.” These attributes reflect only 2% of the U.S population. (Lont, 2005)

Symbols (images) have long represented the image of women in history. Historically, drawings, paintings and other forms of images were used to depict realistic images that existed within a particular culture. Culture is defined as “the knowledge, language, values, customs, and material objects that are passed from person to person and from one generation to the next in a human group or society” (Kendall, Murray, ; Linden, 2007) Culture is defined by four separate components: Symbols, Language, Values and Norms. Symbols are considered to be “Anything that meaningfully represents something else.” (Kendall, Lothian, ; Linden, 2007) Symbols are a form of communication that has the power to create, influence and uphold social values, morals and beliefs. In this day and age where media is a transportation form of communication it is easy to see how the media utilizes these cultural definitions and symbols. “Filtering takes two forms 1) deciding not to cover a story an 2) presenting a story in such a way as to diffuse our bias its objective content.” (Herman, Chomsky, 1988)

C.H Cooley’s The Looking Glass Self (1864-1929) “refers to the way in which a person’s sense of self is derived from the perceptions of others.” (Cooley, 1922/1902) Our self concept “the totality of our beliefs and feelings about others” (Gecas, 1982) is affected either negatively or positively depending on how we think others veiw us.

The looking glass self is comprised of three steps; first we imagine how we present ourseleves to other people, next we imagine how other people judge the appearence that we think we present. If we think the evaluation is positive our self concept is enhanced; if it’s negative our self concept is diminished. (Cooley. 1998/1902)

For instance, we see a picture in a magazine and we would first asses how we appear to others in comparison to the model. The next step would be to then imagine what other peoples would judge our apperence. If we think the evaluation is favorable our self concept is signifigantly enhanced, however if we think the evaluation is unfavorable our self concept is diminished. The looking glass self has to do with the perception of others and how we apply that to our personal selves. The control of the outer world on our own personal inner world and the relationship between the two.

The functionalists perspective and the study of mass media in relation to gender from the stand point of C.H. Cooley’s looking glass self (1864-1929) would conclude that generalizations and gender relation are of benefit to society. The media produces social facts, which are “patterned ways of acting, thinking and feeling that exist outside anyone individual.”(Durkheim) The media controls and distributes beliefs, morals and values to the masses. Through this the media is able to establish various cultural norms and expectations; by creating clear and unquestionable guidelines to which we should conform, which establishes social control.

In modern day, social facts are displayed in the form of television ads, popular music videos, pictures, movies and images of the women de jour. These images produce expectations and standards for each gender, shaping the standards of beauty and positive personality traits women are socialized through the media to adhere to. These social facts create social solidarity “the state of having shared beliefs and values among members of a social group along with intense and frequent interaction” (Durkheim) among persons within a specific group.

The clear, unmistakable role distinctions between men and women create a role division. A desirable women is coy, quiet, able bodied, physically attractive, emotionally supportive and caring. Talcott Parsons (1902 – 1979) believed in a division of labor, which are specialized and distinct. These are imperative for meeting the social needs, which were required to survive. When thinking of gender roles the media supports Talcotts’ theory by continually specializing the definitive role of what a woman “is” to society. By maintaining and recreating characters, models and music that supports the image of an idealized woman and how we can embody “her”. When conforming to the rules that society has created, or how well one fits the fabricated mold, this would indicate how well one’s own personal evaluation would be. We assume that if we fit the mold, others will think positively and our self-concept is enhanced, whereas if we do not then the evaluation would be negative and our self-concept is significantly diminished.

A post-modernist perspective would focus on the bias of women playing a specialized role in society. The globalization of communication tends to unify the unrealistic image of women and completely dismisses any attachment to the individual, or their own perspective of self, thus weakening individual women’s ability to have control or power over what they see as their own identity being acceptable by the broader society.

In our post modernist industrialized era of media controlled materialism, C.H. Cooley’s looking glass self (1864-1929) depicts a specific, unrealistic image to a women’s own appearance and self-concept. Where females in the media image are often portrayed as delicate, weak, sexual, impoverished, and dependent on the stronger male image, the exact opposite is also likely to occur, in which females are portrayed as emotional, controlling, selfish and masculine. Heinecken (2003) writes about women as hero’s and in these roles, identifies them as needing to meet challenges, overcome obstacles that are image created for men, and creates a gender bias about women being, strong, confident, and self assured in their images and roles in society. These varying images conflict with one another and provide little resolution in the search to find an acceptable image that is realistically attainable.

A symbolic interactionists’ would view the relationship media has with the female image, on a macro level analysis as media corporations use precise images of women to define an idealized identity using symbols of detailed sexuality, femininity, ethnicity, culture, and cosmetic materialism. The interruption of media with a person’s self creates a subjective reality that does not meet the needs of the majority of the female population in society. When we consider Goffmans (1959) theory about dramaturgical analysis, the integrated effect this method of forced media image puts upon women does, in fact, affect how women go about the roles in the world stage despite the conflict they may feel against this unrealistic expectation to fit the given mold.

The basis of the conflict perspective is one of a changing society, flooded with conflict and power as means of social change. In respect to the media, the blame is on the bourgeoisie. Marxs’ assumption that “the ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships”(1) proves that the more eccentric classes have the means to achieve the ideals they represent, and are therefore able to hold advantage over the lesser classes in the most dramatic case of class distinction. The media is categorized as a way for the upper class to further control and manipulate the middle and lower classes. Marx also notes that “ideas are cultural creations of society’s most powerful members”(2) This said, the upper class originates and reinforces the beauty ideals that the lower class is then forced to endure. Through the constant subliminal messages society is forced to view daily, women are objectified and distorted into unattainable effigies, therefore women outside the media spotlight are doomed to failure.

Feminist perspective is defined as explaining “the differences between men and women in the household, in the paid labour force, and in the realms of politics, law, and culture.”(3) Its beliefs include those of a patriarchal society, in which woman are on the bottom rung. It assumes that “gender roles are socially created, rather than determined” (4) Using those assumptions, it is clear that the women reproduced in the media are nothing more than “inert, timeless and generic…vital lies” (5) meant to comparatively disengage working class women from their normal role expectations, and feed them impervious, but apparently believable goals. In dealing with the feminist perspective, we find that women are much less suited to the roles they are preached in magazines, online, etc. but still attempt to fill the role ideals. By attempting to fill these ideals, they are subjected to the shortfalls that their classes limit “90-95% of anorexics and bulimics are women” (6) “each year 150,000…women die of anorexia” (7) The media only serves as a means to control and oppress women.

There are no obvious arguments against the fact that the media does, in fact, have a hold on modern day society. Whether it is looked at through a post-modernist, feminist, conflict or functionalist point of view, all show evidence of the negative effects the forced and unavoidable media have on women today. As the images become more extreme, women are forced to look at themselves as others view them, instead of as they view themselves. By using the looking glass self, women are unable to appreciate what is natural, and are drawn to the absurd images they have become so familiar with. It will take a world unification of Cooley’s Looking Glass Self that is harmonized to change the outcome from unrealistic to socially acceptable to be seen and feel comfortable in a positive self-concept.

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