Gendering the Commodity Audience, Eileen Meehan

By now we’ve discussed several sociologists who have pointed out that media as an industry is in the business to create audiences to turn over to advertisers. A central problem that media outlets face when compiling data about their audiences, however, is that it’s done from an administrative social research perspective. Computers crunch numbers about the viewership, but these analyses lack the critical depth of actually understanding who makes up the audiences and what they desire from their media. Eileen Meehan addresses this issue and brings both Marxist and feminist theory in her essay “Gendering the Commodity Audience.”  She studies how stations, in a counterintuitive move, tended to broadcast less influential programs during the daytime hours when women homemakers were primarily the audience. This was also the time during which soap operas and talk shows came to popularity as daytime television staples. Later in the day, primetime viewership would include a mix of women and their husbands coming home from work for the day, calling for a push for more important news to cater to the heads of the household at this time. However, because women historically served as homemakers and took care of the purse strings of the family, they would have been the target audience for advertisers hoping to push their products to families across the country.

So why this contradictory structure in the creating the commodity audience? Meehan argues that this is due to flaws in which historical precedence of male-dominated culture is manifested in current institutions. Social construction of sex and gendered expectations doesn’t just manifest itself in TV programming for adults, but it also has an incredibly strong influence in advertising towards children. There have been numerous studies on the way that children learn gender, especially with the advent of modern television and commercial marketing. Walk down a toy aisle in a store and you’ll likely find a divide between the evidently “feminine” toys from those for the boys. Diane Ruble, Terry Balahan and Joel Cooper add to this conversation with their study “Gender Constancy and the Effects of Sex-typed Televised Toy Commercials.” Their findings showed a “direct link between television viewing and sex-typed behavior, and equally important, they demonstrate an important connection between the child’s cognitive development level and the impact of gender-related information provided by television.” Part of their experiment showed that when a child saw another playing with a gender-neutral toy in a context that made it seem appropriate for only one gender, the first child would avoid that toy thinking that it was only appropriate for the opposite gender.

This type of marketing has faced a lot of push back in recent years. A few years ago, Lego was criticized for taking its fairly gender-neutral toy, although it recently has primarily marketed towards boys, and creating a separate “girl” version of their sets. The Lego Friends addition was targeted for unnecessarily creating another toy that perpetuated generalized ideas of femininity and what it means to be a girl, including being consumed by beauty, shopping and an excessive amount of pink.

Others have worked to help dissolve the environment of gendering the commodity audience, like Antonia Ayres-Brown, who wrote to the CEO of McDonald’s as an 11-year old upset with their gendered marketing of Happy Meal. Although she has received some positive response, the issue of gendering the commodity audience goes farther than children’s toys. Meehan would suggest that the root of these type of problems lie in a deeper institutional flaw of patriarchy and its reinforcement through hegemonic practices and ideology. Advertisers who realize this can help decrease this business model of gendered marketing, like some have started doing. However, as long as this kind of subversion of gendering the audience is no longer newsworthy, the dominant cultural standard will continue to influence the market.

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