The Study on Public Perception of Portrayal of Female Gender in the Hong Kong Media
The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) today (Friday, 3 October 2008) announced the key findings of a study on public perception of portrayal of female gender in the Hong Kong media (the Study) conducted from June 2007 to January 2008.
The findings showed that there was an imbalance between current media practice and what the public found acceptable regarding female portrayal in local print media because of the negative impact on the society, especially on youth and women.
Responding to the community’s concern over the increasingly explicit sexual content in the print media that would have a profound effect on our next generation, the EOC commissioned the Study in 2007 with the following objectives : (i) to elicit public perception of female portrayal in local media; (ii) to discern the public’s acceptance level over female portrayal and sexual stereotyping of women in the media; (iii) to collect public opinions on the relevance of female portrayal in the media on the attitudinal and behavioural development of the future generation; and (iv) to collect public views on the way forward where female portrayal in the media is at variance with public acceptance of gender perspectives.
The Social Sciences Research Centre (SSRC) of the University of Hong Kong conducted the Study by a face-to-face household survey and focus groups. It interviewed 1,031 adults from randomly selected households and conducted 46 single gender focus groups with 322 participants from 8 target populations, namely professionals, social workers, teachers, parents, media practitioners, students, concern groups and the general public.
Key Findings of the Study
(1) Gender Portrayal – advertisement and news picture samples
In the household survey, the respondents were asked to comment on three ‘advertisement picture’ samples related to ‘objectification’ (Ad O1-3), three ‘advertisement picture’ samples related to ‘sexuality’ (Ad S1-3), and three ‘news picture’ samples related to ‘sexuality’ (News S1-3).
Most of the respondents were uncomfortable with Ad O3 (59.6%), Ad S3 (50.0%), News S1 (79.7%) and News S3 (76.1%). More respondents feel comfortable (37.2%) than uncomfortable (7.4%) for Ad S1. Only a quarter of the respondents were comfortable with the overall advertisements, while only 10% of the respondents were comfortable with the overall news pictures. The majority of the respondents thought the community would find the overall advertisements and the news pictures acceptable, in contrast to personal comfort.
More often, female and older people found the advertisements and news pictures uncomfortable. For community acceptability, those aged below 40, single or divorced, and with higher education were more likely to report that the community would find the samples acceptable.
Only 5% of the respondents found the advertisements appealing, while 10% of the respondents believed that the news pictures would stimulate interest. For advertisement appeal, gender was the factor most strongly associated, with men finding them more attractive.
In focus groups, samples were presented. The samples were categorized into four types : product advertisements, body beauty advertisements, magazine covers and newspapers.
Some participants could not accept the samples of female portrayal especially in body beauty advertisements and magazine covers while others held opposite views on product and body beauty advertisements. About one-third of the negative comments such as “unacceptable”, “dislike”, and “disgusting” were referred to the body beauty advertisements (112 counts) and 1/3 of those comments were referred to magazine covers (129 counts). The positive comments such as “acceptable”, “beautiful in artistic sense” and “OK” were mainly referred to product advertisements (214 counts). Some positive comments were more frequently expressed by men.
Media practitioners expressed less negative views related to “dislike” and “disgusting feelings” while teachers and parents more commonly felt “bad” about the samples. Social workers, students and media practitioners more commonly felt the samples were “OK” and “attractive”. Some felt anaesthetized by the flooding of sexual female images shown in the print media samples, which had been recognized as part of mainstream media culture in Hong Kong.
(2) Masculine and feminine stereotypes
The power of advertising to persuade, manipulate and shape behaviour has long been recognized. Scales of sexual attitudes were used to gauge sexual aggression beliefs, rape-supportive attitudes, and behaviours in a variety of settings.
The Study found that most respondents disagreed that “women going home with you implies sex”, “men should fight if women insulted”, “women hope to be forced into sex”, “men only out for sex when dating”, “women manipulate men”, “some women are too demanding sexually”. Many more respondents, especially young and single people, agreed that “a woman should leave if husband hits her”, “braless women are asking for trouble”, and “family should come before a career for women”.
(3) Media and perceptions
Most respondents explicitly referred to magazines for the first impression of female portrayal in local media. According to their first impressions, the most common female images shown in local print media were “body figure”, “negative”, “female artist”, “appearance”, “sexy”, “photo of women’s body accidentally revealed”, “exposed”, “sex”, and “slim and beautiful”.
These are very different from the perceived female image nowadays that women have higher social status than the past and receive more respect due to their multi-function roles, career achievements, independent financial status, education qualifications, capabilities, as well as tough and aggressive characters.
This indicated a gap between the perceived female images in print media and in real life, which explained the respondents’ negative perceptions towards portrayal in local print media, including “negative descriptions of the female image”, “unreasonable implications to women”, “treating women’s bodies as objects”, “inappropriate presentation manner of female portrayal”, “improperly implying sex” and “implications against social justice”.
(4) The next generation
The impacts of the print media on the next generation were raising awareness of personal appearance, distorting personal values towards appearance and sex, changing personal behaviours in achieving certain appearance standards, imposing higher personal expectation on female appearance and adding psychological pressure on oneself.
Young people and students would be mostly affected by these print media. The impacts of product advertisements, body beauty advertisements, magazine covers and newspapers included deterioration of social values and moral standards, conscious behaviours in achieving certain appearance standard, psychological pressure on women, and casual attitude towards sex. In applying the portrayal model to compare with self-figure or other’s figure, young people would develop low self-esteem and some would try extreme ways to reduce body weight at a young age.
The survey findings indicated a clear imbalance between current media practice and what the public found acceptable regarding female portrayal in local print media. The respondents suggested a number of ways to counteract the negative impacts of media portrayal. The suggestions involved three levels of intervention in the society, namely (i) organizing education programmes in schools and universities to build up moral standard and reduce gender stereotypes; (ii) conducting research on media impact so as to gather further information and raise public concern; (iii) reviewing policies and regulations and strengthening the monitoring mechanism with emphasis on self-regulatory practice and training of professional ethics in the media industry.
“It is a matter of concern that the sexual contents of the media reinforce gender stereotypes of women as sex objects and that women are valued by their physical appearances. Worse still, the phenomenon that people believe others are more influenced by media messages than they are, will anesthetize one’s awareness to potential impacts imposed by questionable media messages. There is a need to inform the public of the potential influence that comes from daily encounters with media sources and its impact on youth development,” said Mr. Raymond TANG, Chairperson of the EOC.
“The EOC has the statutory responsibility to work towards the elimination of sex discrimination, sexual harassment and the promotion of equal opportunities between men and women. We believe that there should be mutual respect between individuals and between genders, which is a vital pre-requisite for social harmony. It is incumbent upon us to properly address the issue of gender dignity in earnest so that we may move forward to a healthier and more caring society,” concluded Mr. TANG.
Equal Opportunities Commission
3 October 2008