Communication design for gender cultures

The portrayal of women in the media mirrors an image which in the last few years especially has been the object of study, reflection, analysis as well as the centre of attention for the media themselves. This attention has decisively turned the spotlight back on the dignity of women and its defense, addressing the issue in all its urgency. The production of condemning videos[1], the creation and activities of associations working in this direction[2], the studies and operations carried out in academia, and the setting up of networks and research structures among universities[3] are all parts of a comprehensive task that society as a whole must fulfil.

DCxCG[4], the Communication Design group of Politecnico di Milano, operates within this framework. This group has chosen to direct their energy towards the responsibility that communication design must take on as well as towards the potentialities peculiar to this discipline which we now have a duty to steer in the right direction in order to give our contribution and take an active part in the visual construction of our social environment.

It is a responsibility that CD can carry out in two ways. Firstly through their own power of self-reflection which aims at claiming joint responsibility in the production of a stream of images painting our daily life, through reflection on the use of their own expressive registers , their rhetorical models and the tools that the theories of direction and staging provide designers with. This is the contribution that the visual Cultures can offer in terms of criticism and complex methodological approaches which would support those historically developed by the Social Sciences and represented by Gender Studies. Secondly through their own design work, through a communication program geered towards the production of sensitizing instances and the elaboration of artifacts for their diffusion.

At the core of this research effort lies the issue of women stereotypes in society, achieved through forms of representation which distort their roles in public and private life.

In other words, one must study the socially determined relationship between the stereotyping of female identity and the system of production, distribution and consumption of images through the digital and analogic media. Gender stereotypes, as we know, can be defined as a coherent and inflexible set of socially transmitted common beliefs of what are considered or should be considered the physical and psychological characteristics and the typical activities of the sexes[5]. They are built out of an individual and/or collective process of categorization or simplification of reality: a quality or behaviour is associated to a gender through the filter of subjective experiences or intentions. This cognitive mechanism produces order and simplicity in a world made up of differences and complex social relations but, conversely, it can become “a branding tool necessary to maintain order in the state of a world which feels threatened”[6] producing prejudices and warped perceptions of reality.

In this context, the observation of the universe of images portraying women produced and presented through the media highlights the importance of this phenomenon. In particular if we bear in mind that language, meaning verbal and visual language, “as a system which mirrors social reality while creating and producing it, becomes the place where subjectivity is born and takes shape since a subject can only express itself through language and language cannot exist without an object giving life to it”[7].

So this highly significant environment where innumerable images intermingle and layer, where communicative actions and verbal and visual languages spread, becomes the place, the universe of images in which subjectivity takes form and where the creation of our social dimension is achieved through the visual. The diffusion of gender stereotypes is conveyed by a set of images which can act upon their target as a rhetorical instrument of manipulation and can contribute to the visual construction of social issues creating reference models as structures of social interaction[8].

The system showing the woman’s body in the media is certainly a diversified system in which the female body is deprived of its dignity, which can become the object of condemnation and which is withdrawn from the viewer only after its communicative significance has been irreversibly transferred to the semiosphere[9], but also where apparently harmless images coexist. In this second case the images reinforce the roles, attributes, references, etc… and subtly and silently concur in defining the everyday model of women, thus contributing in sustaining the stereotype. The Resolution of the European Parliament[10] has assigned the role of these images in particular to advertising and marketing, placing on them no small responsibility since they not only reflect culture but they also help to create it. Explicit reference is made to the impact that marketing and advertising can have on equality between men and women and to the fallout of discriminatory and/or degrading messages based on gender or gender stereotypes, in any form. They represent an obstacle for an equal, modern society and contribute from the child’s early years of socialization to gender discrimination which reinforces the existence of inequality between men and women throughout his or her life.

This is an issue that Communication Design in all its expressions cannot afford to ignore.

Valeria Bucchetti, professor at Politecnico di Milano, INDACO department

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. See especially Lorella Zanardo and Marco Malfi Chindemi’s video “Il corpo delle donne”.
  2. Among these DonneInQuota and Amiche di ABCD deserve special attentino.
  3. It is a network connecting the seven Universities of Milan and in which design disciplines are for the first time involved through the participation of the area of Communication Design of Politecnico of Milan.
  4. DCxCG, Design della Comunicazione per le Culture di Genere, (Communication Design for Gender Cultures) advanced by Giovanni Baule – and by the authors of this txt – that involved research group of Communication Design area of Politecnico of Milan.
  5. cfr. Dyer, 1993, The Matter of Images. Essays on Representation, Routledge, London.
  6. P. Montefusco, “Il macho e la checca. Modelli iconografici dell’omosessualità”, il verri, n. 4-5 (dicembre), 1997.
  7. M. S. Sapegno, “Decenni di riflessioni e di impegno: bilancio e prospettive”, in : M. S. Sapegno (a cura di), Che genere di lingua? Sessismo e potere discriminatorio delle parole, Carocci, 2010, Roma.
  8. Cfr. W.J.T. Mitchell, 2008.
  9. We are referring in particular to those campaigns which make a sexist use of the female body and the withdrawal of which has been required. See, for example, the following headlines: “Montami a costo zero”, “E tu dove glielo metteresti”, “Fidati te la do gratis”.
  10. European Parliament Resolution of 3 September 2008 on the impact of marketing and advertising on equality between men and women (2008/2038(INI)).

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