Images you see in the media shape your ideas about gender

Whether you like it or not, images shape your ideas about gender

Images shape your ideas about gender; just try doing a Google image search on masculine and ‘feminine. The image results are strikingly different, reflecting society’s perception of gender. We’re all influenced by a wide variety of factors: family, school, peer groups and of course the media. The media and particularly social media, is now an integral part of your everyday life and is increasingly dominated by images not words. Think Instagram, YouTube and Facebook; TV, films and billboards. These images are everywhere and are extremely persuasive. They can and do influence your perceptions and decisions, which in turn shape and drive your attitudes and actions.

Research shows that your visual memory is encoded in the medial temporal lobe of the brain, which is the same place that your emotions are processed. Therefore, visual stimuli and emotional reactions are easily linked, and together, the two form your memories. These images are then stored in your long-term memory where they’re easy to recollect. This means, that when you see the same or similar visual again, you’ll have an associated emotional response. It’s these feelings, no matter how subtle, that affect how you react and behave – why? – because most of your decisions are based on emotions and intuitive judgement, influencing your process of rational thinking.

How exactly do images influence your behaviour?

Images of women in the media influence our ideas about gender
Images of women in the media influence our ideas about gender

When you look at this image of a woman, what kind of words immediately spring to mind and what type of behaviours do you associate with those words? Everything about this image is designed to intentionally tell you something. So what does the soft focus, lighting, environment, clothing, body language and facial expression say to you about this woman? Does it trigger a memory reminding you of a direct or indirect experience with its associated emotional response? I’m guessing it does, right? Although the memories associated with this style of female imagery are more likely to be ones you’ve seen via social media, magazines, TV or films, rather than through direct personal experience, this makes them no less powerful or crucially, influential.

Now take a look at the images of these two men and go through the same process as you did with the picture of the woman. Which image are you more familiar and comfortable with? Be honest with yourself.

Images shape your ideas about genderImages shape your ideas about gender

First impressions count

Consider the types of adverts, films, magazines and social media with women and men who look similar to this. What are the men and women like? What do they do and say? What is their role and what are they promoting? You will make judgements and assumptions based on these. Judgements about the values, interests, intellect, abilities of these women and men. They may be unreliable and false, but they are judgements nonetheless. And every time you see a similar image, those judgements and assumptions, with their associated feelings, surface in your mind. Because from an early age you’re constantly exposed to this style of female and male imagery, these feelings are repeatedly reinforced and this is how gender stereotypes, via images and associated words are formed. Images shape your ideas about gender, whether you like it or not.

Warning! DON’T think outside the box!

Gender image associations are so embedded in our minds that they’re part of our culture’s collective consciousness. So when women and men don’t behave according to perceived norms of feminine and masculine, created by images, your brain struggles to make sense of it and says to you, ‘something’s wrong!’. In an attempt to make sense of it, labels are created. Women are labelled ‘butch’ or their sexuality is questioned, while men are labelled ‘metrosexual’ or told to ‘man up’. This leads to us to maintaining gender specific behaviour, holding the belief that men must act one way and women another. These beliefs are like unwritten ‘rules’, based on embedded images and anything outside of them just doesn’t fit.

And we’re not just speaking about abstract theories here, the danger is that these image associations, feelings and responses are also applied to the people you meet. Like it or not, judgments based on appearance, including gender, play a powerful role in how we treat others, and how we get treated, and that can lead to negative outcomes. The problem is you’re unlikely to be aware of this.

The role of the media in imagery  

“Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture” Allen Ginsberg (American Poet 1926 – 1997) We all make judgements based on images and advertisers and media outlets know this. They understand the power of images to affect our feelings and influence how we respond. A good example of advertisers using gender images to influence us, is the 2016 Autumn/Winter campaign for global retailer H&M. They said their campaign ‘aimed to redefine the meaning of being ladylike’. How did they set about doing this? – By presenting us with new images of gender. Their adverts deliberately featured unconventional models behaving in unconventional ways, including a woman displaying her hairy armpits as she relaxes on a bed. This campaign attracted so much attention, that it was even debated on Sky News. Why? – Because it challenged our gender perception norms. You can read about the campaign here

Unfortunately H&M are in the minority in challenging gender norms and most media formats continue to use images that perpetuate society’s overriding, embedded perceptions about gender, and there’s plenty of work to do to ‘un-embed’ them. But it’s not all doom and gloom because despite the media’s global dominance, we all have the opportunity to affect change in this area.

YOU can make a difference by trying this…

Wouldn’t you like to be more aware of the impact of what you’re visually digesting every day? With 90% of information transmitted to the brain being visual and images processed 60,000x faster than text, can you afford to discount the power of images to influence your perception of gender? Start by noticing images all around you; then tune in to your feelings and the word associations you have with those images. Consider how these words are influencing your subsequent attitude and behaviour. With your increased awareness, you can choose to make a real difference in the way you interact with the next person you meet.

Images shape your ideas about gender
Andréa Watts, Imagery Expert & Founder of UnglueYou®

At UnglueYou® we understand the power of images and we use them as a tool to help you uncover and understand ways of seeing and thinking that affect your emotions and influence your behaviour. In partnership with Genderbuzz® we will shortly be launching an exciting new workshop to help you understand how images reinforce gender stereotyping and share techniques to change that. Watch this space for details!