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The First-Wave Feminism Movement

First-wave feminism arose during 1918 – 1968, paving way for a number of inaugural achievements for the women’s movement in the political sphere. Though legislation may change overnight, personal attitudes do not. I therefore argue media, due to its ever-changing nature and ability to reach a mass audience, is the main cause in constructing changes in attitudes through the way in which certain social groups, in this case women are represented through the platforms of news, propaganda, advertisement and film in Britain.

All of which often represent women in a less than satisfactory or unreflective manor between 1918 and 1968. Examples taken from each platform feature content that distorts women’s status in society through representation and therefore it is argued that media’s representations prevent and impede female accomplishments through tarnishing ‘femininity’ and emphasise women in relation to men as sex objects and family as wives and mothers. (Tuchman, 1979, P. 531)

1918 came with two significant shifts contributing to the attitude towards women’s and, therefore their representation in British media. 1918 saw the end of the First World War and the end of the women’s suffrage movement resulting in the vote for those over 30. Considering the periods of both World War 1 & 2 simultaneously in terms of media during this time, heavy emphasis was placed on propaganda in order to drum up national pride among men, who would be on the frontline and women, who would support both their men and their country on home soil.

Women’s representation during this time could be seen in a ‘two sides of a coin’ kind of sense as “Propaganda posters in WW1, and videos in WW2 tended to depict women as guardians of the home, their gentle nature and vulnerability making them both objects of men’s affections and victims of the enemy’s act, and yet also as resilient, active participants in the war effort”. Portraying women as vulnerable, weak and in need of protection re-enforced male masculinity, a central message of propaganda as a whole.

Simone de Beauvoir (1949, P. 17) stated, “Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought. Thus it is that no group ever sets itself up as the ‘One’ without at once setting up the other over against itself” therefore in reference to gender relations we see women as ‘the other’ and thus the opposite to men. “Man represents the positive and neutral, as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings; whereas woman represents only the negative defined by limiting criteria” (De Beauvoir and Parshley, 1997, p. 15).

Representations of the gender identity in propaganda ensured the country’s victory, as femininity is set up as a direct opposite of masculinity, it could be argued that propaganda targeted men attacking their masculinity. By representing women as weak this automatically presented men as strong and emasculating those who did not through the implications of ‘female related qualities’. However this is not to say that feminine representation throughout this period were represented on the whole negatively, rather propaganda films particularly, during WW2 showed women as active members doing their part in the war effort.

Britannia is a woman (1940) an informative video, showed a range of different British women, old and young working in a variety of different fields contributing to the war effort, and thus changing perceptions. However still represented women in a conventional homemaker role in terms of cooking. “In this hour of need, she is willing to share the burden” “For an army must be fed, and women must cook, so men may fight”. Comparing these two quotes from the Britannia is a Woman, it is clear that women’s representation in this particular video is mixed.

On one side it shows the war as a collective effort between both genders through the words “share the burden”. Imaginary featured the roles in which the women occupied included working in munitions abolishing the idea of women being seen as weak, fragile and having no place in areas considered “ a mans place’, due to their efforts in terms of operating heavy machinery and working long tiresome hours. However focusing on the second quotation, there is a conventional emphasis the ‘wifely woman’ figure who, “simply needed to deliver the three Cs: cooking, cleaning and children” (Paul, 2002, P. 8).

This video features another side to women’s representation in a more conventional sense as it shows women cooking, cleaning and child rearing. However these ‘skills’ were applied to contribute to the war effort in terms of providing food for the army, cleaning salvaged items to be sent to factories, and raising children who had been evacuated from big cities. Therefore during this time women’s work was represented on screen in a twisted fashion that utilised their skills for the war effort.

In many ways the war liberated women, by showing men that they were able to work demanding jobs and keeping the country afloat, yet the post war period also confined women back to the home, as men returned and reclaimed their employment. 10 years on, as Britain recovered economically, people found themselves immersed in the rise of consumer culture with the implication of a better standard of life. A range of new and glamorous products began to become more widely available such as fridges and television sets.

It could be argued that advertising is the most influential institution of socialisation in modern society. Structuring mass media content, it plays a role in gender identity construction. ”(Jhally, 1987, P. 1) ITV introduced in 1955, contrasted to the ways of the BBC as it relied on advertising for it’s funding. “Advertiser at the time conformed to the idealised domestic experience, requiring niche and large audiences and housewives, seen as managers of domestic spending, were seen to be an important target audience. ” (Andrews, 2012, P. 131-132).

Jhally argues advertising through its messages encoded on paper or screen are made more desirable to its audience in a rather senseless fashion, stating “ A washing machine would be a useful machine to wash clothes, rather than a indication that we are forward looking or an object of envy to our neighbour. But if these associations sell beer or washing machines, as some of the evidence suggests, it is clear we have a cultural pattern in which the objects are not enough but must be validated, if only in fantasy by association with social and personal meanings.

Suggesting it is not enough to show the product as they are, but rather what other service they can provide, feeding to the audiences ‘fantasies’ as stated by Jhally helping them in other areas of their lives. Modern day examples of advertising focus on the sexualisation of women to sell products adopting the mantra ‘sex sells’, in a crass manner “buy this body spray and beautiful statuesque women will desire you”.

In relation to television of the 1950/60’s advertisements played to conventional conservative ideals of femininity with heavy emphasis in their relation to men as a wife and homemaker as opposed to sex objects as female representation later progressed into, and their obsession with beauty. Dominant messages within advertisements featured several versions of “keep your husband happy” in particularly Oxo’s give a meal man appeal campaign (1958). These adverts featured Katie and her husband Phillip and show her preparing a meal for him.

Her language throughout should be noted as it is in reference to him, telling the audience what he likes and dislikes in terms of food, while Phillip; dressed in a suit and tie implying he has come home from a hard day at work, when talking to his wife speaks in a patronising. Katie’s is dressed in a typical ‘dolled-up’ housewife sense showing her regard for her appearance, despite her only purpose in the advertisement being to cook. The advertisement itself ends with the tagline “give a meal man appeal” (a tagline which itself ran up until 1974).

Portrayal of Katie fits the mould of conventional women’s representation during the 1950’s but also is somewhat reflective of relationships between married couples, with men seeing their wives as inferior both economically and in terms of their education. This advertisement does so through showing women’s greatest concerns as housework, her appearance and most importantly her husband; who in return greets her evidently to the audience, with a rather patronising tone dismissing her and treating her with less respect than he would respect in return.

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