Chapter 8:
The Media Contribution to Racism and Sexism

What are the messages that the mass media sends about women and minorities? If we were discussing this issue in the 1960s, the answer would be easy. Bill Cosby on "I Spy" and Diane Carroll on "Diane" probably got around 80 percent of the television air time given to African-American actors. Red Foxx appeared in "Sanford and Son" in 1968. Chicano actors would have included the sidekick to Hop-a-long Cassidy. Some of the bad guys in the Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns might have been Chicano. Native Americans received a few roles in Westerns and Jay Silverstone played second fiddle to the Lone Ranger.

Women on television in the early 1960s were either victims on "Bonanza," "Wagon Train" and "Rawhide" or television moms like Donna Reed on "The Donna Reed Show." Doris Day made a career out of playing in light-hearted romances; Marilyn Monroe sizzled on the screen. Who but Kathryn Hepburn consistently played serious roles? Today any discussion of the presentation of minorities or women in films, television, advertising or magazines is more complicated. Some presentations are stereotypical while others value difference and some just ignore a person's gender or race. We'll look at several images from magazines and discuss them individually and as a group to see how they portray minorities and women. Clearly, a hegemonic debate is under way as to the meaning of being female or belonging to a minority group, and much of that debate is occurring in the media.


Seventeen magazine is targeted to fashion/body/boy conscious teen-age girls. Here are the three images selected for discussion:

American Eagle Outfitters


Singer Shakira

Two of these advertisements present American culture as being an integrated society with blacks, whites and Asians sharing friendships. The only criteria for belonging are that you are young, fashion conscious and have good looks. Obviously, the people in the first two ads meet the criteria for belonging in the Seventeen world for August 2000. Singer Shakira may be the only native Spanish speaker in the magazine, although a few other people were hard to identify racially. Shakira's talent earned her a photo in Seventeen.

Cosmo girl

Cosmo girl is geared toward a similar target audience as Seventeen. It is produced by Cosmopolitan, an upscale fashion and love life magazine for women in their 20s and 30s.

DKNY Jeans

Story on a sex scandal.


The rock group Before Dark.

These images again present a multi-racial world. In figure three, only the woman on the right has clear racial characteristics. The man on the left could be Chicano and the woman in the center has some visual characteristics most typically assigned to African-Americans. Again, having the right look and right clothes seems more important than racial identity. The magazine also presents pictures of three African-American women, who earned a spot in the magazine as a result of their talent.

The Asian woman in the second figure is worth further study. She wears no makeup or brand-name clothes. We learn elsewhere in the magazine that she had sex with her high school teacher and became pregnant. If her appearance is compared with that of almost every other woman in the magazine, she clearly is the most plain, unattractive woman presented. In the context of this magazine, then, she is being punished, letting us ideologically know that her behavior was inappropriate.

A double standard exists. If the woman in the DKNY Jeans ad were evaluated by the signifiers of pornography, she would seem to be sexually available. As pointed out in the previous chapter, the signifiers of pornography have entered the mainstream, and this ad is an example. The woman is on display for the male gaze and she does not turn away from that gaze. Her shirt is short, exposing her navel, as is her skirt, which is emphasized by the bent knee. The hand on the hip with the other on the buckle suggests an attitude that she knows she looks good. If this were a porn film, the viewers would expect to see her engaged in sexual activity before long.

Now that is not to say that every woman in a short shirt and skirt is looking for sex. However, when the attire, the body language and the eye contact combine with the clothing, one possible interpretation is strongly sexual. Did DKNY Jeans know that? Maybe not. On the other hand, this ad was not cheap. The model and the photographer and the graphic designers were all professionals, as were the advertising experts. Maybe they missed the potential for the ad to be understood in a highly charged way. If so, they should be fired. On the other hand, if those professionals knew exactly what they were doing, then....

Then what we have is that Cosmo girl is putting into the agenda for teen-age girls that they should be sexually provocative and that they should dress accordingly. If they do, Cosmo girl promises they will be rewarded with the attention of men and acknowledged as fashionable by women.

From my perspective, the presentation of the woman in the DKNY ad is more oppressive for women than a Playboy or Penthouse. When opening one of those magazines, the reader expects to see pornography and ideologically knows what expectations exist in those magazines. Cosmo girl supposedly is about fashion and being a teen. The DKNY ad offers the same ideology as Playboy without fair warning. The images are presented as the common sense of the culture--what is expected of teen-age girls. A 14-year-old may know she does not want to pose for Playboy because it would be wrong. Does she know and understand what values she buys into if she accepts the premise that the woman in the DKNY ad is fashionable? Does she know what expectations men who are familiar with pornography may bring on the date when she dresses in a "fashionable" way?


Glamour is an upscale magazine for women in their 30s and 40s with articles about fashion, health, sex and relationships.

Fashion layout

24/7 Jeans ad

Virginia Slims ad

A Nike ad

The ideological positions presented in Cosmo girl are brought to fruition in Glamour. The first image from a fashion layout shows a woman engaging in sexual behavior, which pleases the man. The dress she wears is at least partially responsible for her ability to achieve her desires emotionally, physically and sexually. The three ads again put the emphasis on how the woman dresses and her physical appearance. The first woman meets the standards established in the three advertisements, which explains her success.

None of these images, or any of the other images in this issue of Glamour, defined a woman based on character, spirituality, intelligence or creativity. The articles may bring out that a well-rounded woman also succeeds in those areas. But those successes are secondary to her sexual performance, appearance, youth and fashion consciousness.

Woman's Day and Redbook

Woman's Day and Redbook are targeted to women with families. Appearance remains important, but is somewhat subsumed by the woman's role as caregiver for her husband and children.

Michelle Pfeiffer on the cover of Redbook

Jergens in Woman's Day

A Chinese Diet Ad in Woman's Day

An ad for De Beer's in Woman's Day

These four images from the women's magazines Redbook and Woman's Day demonstrate how the media present a multi-dimensional message. Michelle Pfeiffer restates the ideology that began in the teen magazines and continued in Glamour. The most important qualities of a woman are her looks, her sex appeal and performance, and her fashion sense. The ads for Jergens lotion and De Beer's present similar images of women while the third ad gives women a method of achieving the look of the other women. In addition, these magazines argue that if you want the love of your child (Jergens ad) and the love of your husband (De Beer's), a woman needs to be a caregiver.

Like the other women's magazines we have viewed, these ads present a multi-racial world. Both the Jergens and De Beer's ads go so far as to place African-American women into the agenda as examples of beautiful women. Asians, however, did not fair as well. The only image of an Asian woman in the two magazine issues evaluated was of the Asian woman offering the green tea diet.


Maxim is a magazine targeted to men with an emphasis on sports, sex and sexual performance, and women. Sometimes Maxim is described as Playboy with thin fabric glued on the men.


Halle Berry

These two images are typical of the way women often are presented in Maxim. No surprises, I assume.... Except, how are these two images significantly different ideologically from the images in the women's magazines? Is it that, when push comes to shove, these two women are just better than other women at making a fashion statement that attracts males and suggests enhanced sexual performance?

For me, the real surprise for Maxim was found in these images.

Mr. T in Maxim

Jazz Festival in Maxim

Alex Rodriguez in Maxim

Hispanic bad guys in Maxim

Although Maxim may be sexist, its presentation of race is mixed. This issue had two positive images of African-American males, although each is a bit stereotypical. Mr. T of television fame (infamy if you watched "The A Team") is dressed in a suit and tie and presented in a positive way. Similarly, the Jazz Festival ad is positive.

Maxim also had a positive presentation of a Spanish-speaking person. In this case, Alex Rodriguez gives batting tips. Other images of Chicanos are not so positive, with a story on drugs visually presenting Chicanos as responsible for the drug trade.

View this film to see how an image can be manipulated.


Three ways of limiting the influence of minorities are to:

Woman's Day


American Way


American Way

When it comes to racism and sexism, the media present a mixed picture. Some elements of the media present diversity; sometimes people are defined by their humanity first and their race or gender second. Meanwhile, other elements of the media exclude or minimize minorities or present stereotypical images that reinforce the views of those who believe that inferiority is based on genetics.

Advertising targeted to gays