As I have come to understand it, symbolic annihilation is the lack of representation of a group (for example women, African-Americans, LGBTQ’s) in the mainstream media. Another good definition that explains it a bit more in death defines it “as the way cultural production and media representations ignore, exclude, marginalize, or trivialize a particular group”. This more clearly shows the problem and it’s cause, that it’s not only a lack of representation, but also where this might have originated from. By mentioning “culture” for example, the roots of this problem can be better understood; meaning that it’s based on our culture, our society and the system it’s based on: patriarchy. Groups like women, who are not valued the same as men in a male-dominated society/culture, are therefor less valued in the media too, because the media wants to represent the dominant group and share their stories, values etc.
“Symbolic annihilation in the media is of concern because it presents people with implied messages about what it means to be a member of a culturally valued group versus a member of a socially disfranchised group.”
When women are seen less than men, the implications of this becomes then that women are valued less, seen as being worth less and basically becoming the exception than being the norm. Essentially, all this is doing is strengthening sexism, the ideology that justifies patriarchy, and projecting androcentrism. Media is so important in today’s life, and while our parents, peers, teachers etc try to help us and guide us to fit in and conform to society, media also plays a huge part in that. But by sending out messages that ignores and excludes women, making women seem less values and worth less, these messages become normative and eventually creates our frame of reference for how we see our world. Thus, when we finally see women, it becomes obvious and stands out, like it’s not normal… For example, in many shows and films (basically you can just look at the posters) you’ll have a bunch of guys, and then one girl to “balance” it out our something… Look at all the most popular (most viewed) TV shows in America right now for example, and you’ll notice that the top ten scripted shows are all male-centered!
It can also be that when we finally see a woman portrayed as something other than what we expected, we point it out and praise her for breaking the norm, but then we’re also drawing attention to the problem itself, without seeing the problem?! I mean, I’ve seen so many articles on “groundbreaking” female characters and portrayals of women in movies and TV, like for example Geena Davis in Commander in Chief as a female U.S. president, Kerry Washington as a woman of colour playing the lead in Scandal, Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy as buddy cops in The Heat, Charlize Theron’s Oscar winning performance of a serial killer in Monster… Of course, these are maybe some extreme cases, but when we don’t often see women portrayed as powerful (Commander in Chief), capable and funny (The Heat), complex (Monster) and that we come from a full range (Scandal), we draw attention to these exceptions and trivialize it. It’s like, “you have you’re token now, be happy!” or “we’ve showed you know in this movie/TV series that women can do this now, be satisfied with it!”. But of course, this isn’t enough. The symbolic annihilation of women in media won’t be cured by one exception here and there, the media need to create fair representations of women; one that is varied, one that shows all kinds of women, one that shows women doing jobs just like men etc.
Personally, I never saw this lack of representation as a problem before thinking about it in a bigger perspective. I thought that the reasons for media showing more men as powerful, for example as lawyers, doctors, politicians etc was that “maybe men are just drawn towards these kinds of job more than women”. But then again, all I’ve ever seen in the media are men doing this and doing that, how would I know?! By showing more women in all kinds of manners, perspectives, jobs – and represent us in the media as the 50% we actually are in reality – would help women and men create a new frame of reference in what we see as normal, and it would especially help women feel better about ourselves just by seeing us represented in an equal way, with all these options, possibilities etc that the men have, so we feel like we can achieve it in reality too.
(Originally posted on 2014/10/08 for Melanie Klein’s class blog “Women and Popular Culture”)