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Jordyn Wagner

ANT Pop Culture

20 September 2012
Reinforcement of Traditional Gender Ideologies in Pop Culture
Traditional gender ideologies, in which women are submissive and inferior to men, are
reinforced in our society through participation in forms of pop culture like reading romance
novels and being a part of online virtual worlds. In these particular forms of pop culture, this
reinforcement is done through the actual act of participating, rather than directly through the
content of these forms itself by explicitly portraying women in oppressive gender roles.
Based on Radways study on readers of romance novels described in her book chapter,
The Readers and their Romance, I would say that rather than these romance novels reinforcing
oppressive gender ideologies themselves through their content, ideologies are reinforced because
these fictional stories are a source of addiction for participants in this form of pop culture.
These romance novels are used by readers to fulfill a need which, according to Radway, is not
met within the confines of real gender ideologies constructed in our society. Romance novels of
fictional heroines and heroes, who do not have all the traditional, stereotypical traits we might
expect, are like their readers drug, which highlights the fact that the situations, in which their
readers are projecting themselves by living vicariously through the heroine, are not their reality.
It seems that the characteristics of the heroine and heroes that participants in Radways
study desired are not of the traditional gender ideologies. Masculinity is generally associated
with characteristics including being rational, independent/self-sufficient, active, aggressive,
competitive, etc. These characteristics are valued in our society evidenced by the emphasis on
having such characteristics in order to succeed and emerge in the public sphere of economy and
politics, where the power is concentrated in our society. Characteristics of femininity, however,
include being emotional, dependent, passive, and nurturing, and the place for these feminine
members of society is in the private sphere rather than the public one that the masculine figures
inhabit. These gendered characteristics, however, are not completely followed in the romance
novels as described by Radway. Radways participants describe that their most desired traits for
the heroine of the romance novels they read are independent, intelligent, and have a sense of
humor (75). The reality of being traditionally feminine according to our cultures standards
stands in contrast to these desired heroine traits, defining the traditional woman as dependent on
a man so that intelligence and humor are unnecessary because those are what a man should be
according to cultural standards of masculinity. Participants in Radways study revealed that
their desired traits for the hero in their stories are to be strong and masculine (supported by
traditional masculine ideologies of our society), but also tender, gentle, and concerned about
the heroines pleasure (81). Readers want to see a balance of dependence of the hero and heroine
on each other. But in our cultures standards for masculinity, being tender and sweet are not
generally characteristics listed.
Although the desired characteristics of the male and female characters in romance novels
do not align with feminine and masculine traits in reality, I would still argue that this form of pop
culture reinforces the oppressive, traditional gender ideologies by placing this form of pop
culture and its inventions of gender traits in the category of fiction. Therefore, what is portrayed
in the novels will not be the reality of the reader (otherwise it would be nonfiction); the only way
to experience such gender ideologies is to immerse oneself in the novels, hence the addiction to
them for the temporary satisfaction they give. A key ingredient for a good romance novel
according to Radways participants is, afterall, a happy ending--something that is apparently,
therefore, an unachievable reality due to its placement in the fiction category.
Radway asserts that these women feel the need to read these novels in order to satisfy
some desire or need for nurturance that they are not receiving in their real lives because of the
real-life gender ideologies in place in their culture. This seems to be a reinforcement of such
ideologies because it depicts the nurturance and satisfaction these women get from these novels
to only be able to be met by these novels. This is evidenced by the description of such novels to
their readers as some sort of drug or therapy. It seems to me that their addiction is not only an
obsession to read the novels and get the good feelings the stories create for the readers, but also a
reinforcement of the reality of their situation as an oppressed gender in our society. Based on the
description of these heroines and the traits of heroines desired by readers (who are described as
independent and intelligent), the content of the novels do not seem to teach oppressive gender
roles, but the existence of the novels and the participation in reading them and the addiction to
these romance novels reflects a need not met by the reality of the traditional gender ideologies in
place in our society. Therefore, this form of pop culture teaches women that their needs cannot
be met by their reality, thus reinforcing existing ideologies because there is apparently no
Readers recognize that they are fulfilling a need when they read these romance novels,
that they need to read as an escape, and that these novels are good therapy and much cheaper
than tranquilizers [or] alcohol (52). So it would seem that because of that recognition these
women would actually try to challenge those gender ideologies that are not satisfying them and
that are the reason why they need to be satisfied with their drug, romance novels. If these gender
ideologies were altered, these romance novel readers would no longer need to live vicariously
through the daring heroine in the novel in order to feel nurtured and happy or excited, feelings
which are only temporarily created by the stories anyway (84). Perhaps the reason why existing
gender ideologies have not been challenged by these pop culture followers, is that simply reading
a quick book and living through someone else is easier and less conflicting than challenging the
existing cultural ideologies. Therefore, this form of pop culture reinforces the gender ideologies
that are already in place, because it is easier to get the quick fix rather than work to recover
from the addiction, by challenging the structure of existing gender roles.
The theme of reinforcing gender ideologies is further examined in Calverts Identity
Construction on the Internet. Just as romance novels allow readers to [participate] vicariously
in a fantasy world (Radway 60), online virtual worlds are another form of pop culture which
allows participants to become a different character (temporarily) and construct a different
identity, including a different gender, in order to escape the strict expectations set by societys
real-life gender ideologies. We see that many people involved in virtual worlds spend a great
deal of time in those worlds similar to how women who are readers of romance novels spend
so much time reading the novels. Both are used in order to escape reality and fulfill a need not
met in their reality.
Specifically related to gender ideologies, players in the virtually world are treated
differently based on their gender even in the virtual world which confirms the reality of the
treatment of people based on their gender in real life (Clavert 63). Getting caught or in trouble
for gender-bending on the internet and in virtual worlds reinforces the need for such forms of
pop culture in order to experiment with identity, but it also reinforces the belief that gender
ideologies should be strictly maintained and conformed to in order to be considered normal or
at least not be ridiculed, because when people are caught or get in trouble, that acts as negative
feedback which can make them think that if they were to experiment with their identity or gender
in real life, they would be even more harshly abused or reprimanded.
And the fact that people want to experiment with their gender identity in the safety of an
online virtual world highlights the gender ideologies of our society as being strictly feminine and
strictly masculine based on a persons biological sex. If you violate those rules or cross that line,
there are social consequences. Their construction of identity and experimentation with it, as well
as the frequency of gender-bending in virtual worlds, emphasizes the inability to do so in real life
due to societies rules about gender roles.
If a character pretends to be a female, they often receive more help from male players. So
although they are experimenting with their gender and identity, they are doing in
acknowledgment of traditional gender ideologies in real life (i.e. girls are weaker and need more
help from more intelligent and stronger men), and so again those ideologies are reinforced.
Lets analyze this theme in a different realm of pop culture: rap music. Unlike romance
novels and virtual worlds which I argued that participation more than explicit content (in the
form of lyrics) reinforces oppressive gender ideologies, I would argue that the actual content of
rap music is what is reinforcing gender ideologies. Rap lyrics frequently women as objects of
men that can be used and then replaced with others. In music videos for rap songs, women are
depicted sexually and submissively reinforcing the ideology of male superiority and female
The difference between reinforcement of oppressive gender ideologies in rap music and
the reinforcement done by romance novels and virtual worlds is that it is not necessarily
participation in listening to rap that reinforces these ideologies; reinforcement exists in the lyrics
and content of the music itself. Personally, I do not like rap very much, but the advantage that
music has in continuing existing gender ideologies is that you just have to hear it (even
passively) a few times, and the lyrics are in your head. There is a song called Blow my
Whistle which is a raunchy song with not so subtle innuendos referring to oral sex that the
singer desires of Girl. This nameless girl is therefore simply an object that can be used for
sexually gratification of the man. Although I find the song extremely offensive with its terrible
portrayal of women as objects, I find myself singing it now and then because it is a very catchy
song. My roommate says that even the twelve-year-old she babysits began singing this song
over the summer, and she more than likely neither fully understands the sexual innuendo of the
song, nor the oppressive gender ideology it reinforces. Nevertheless, whether we consciously
recognize it or not, songs such as these are invading and affecting our thoughts and even
reinforcing existing gender ideologies thereby: (I hate to admit it) I find myself being more and
more tolerant of such songs because there is just so much of it out there in pop culture. So the
messages and oppressive gender ideologies seem to be met with more tolerance and acceptance
and so it would seem that rap music is successfully reinforcing those oppressive gender
ideologieswhether its audience actively participates in this form of pop culture or not.