Representation in Media: A Literature Review

Posted: November 7th, 2023

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Representation in Media: A Literature Review

One of the primary challenges in establishing a multicultural society is how to encourage effective intercultural relations. Past studies criticize mass and social media for their role in constructing false representation of others. Since members of large dominant societies have less opportunities to interact with minorities, mediated images are the only way they get to learn about others. An analysis of anthropological studies highlights negative gender, racial and sexual representations that impact the attitudes and acceptance of others into mainstream society. The media has a powerful role to play in representing others, meaning a need to ensure they do not consistently reinforce negative stereotypes and misrepresentations of cultures in the mediated world.

Gender Representation

Previous anthropological research outlines that news media coverage tends to adopt more negative tones when discussing successful women in politics and commerce. Shor and Miltsov conduct a cross-national analysis across seventeen countries to assess the relationship between coverage tones in articles about women and parliamentary representations of women (455). The findings of the study highlight that an expansion in parliamentary representation of women correlates with more negative media coverage. The findings affirm the hypothesis that media houses are cultural institutions that impede the perceived breaching of gendered hierarchies. News is used as a tool to maintain masculine social hierarchy.

Koenig, in his secondary research, performs a metadata analysis to find much broader applications of gender stereotypes. According to the author, the analysis of media identifies three prescriptive gender stereotypes for children, women and elderly men (Koenig 1086). Gender representations for children and women tend to be more restrictive compared to that of men. The male image is presented as one that should be independent, physical in appearance, invested in science and agentic (Koenig 1086). Women and children are portrayed as weak, shy, feminine, emotional and indecisive.  The stereotype applies to boys and girls up to middle school age. The article’s findings demonstrate the applicability of gendered stereotypes across different age groups.

Racial Representation

Racial stereotypes disseminated by mass media in early American history has had a significant contribution in shaping the bias attitudes towards African Americans and other immigrant minority communities. Green undertakes a chronological analysis of the evolution of racial stereotypes for Black men in early American history. The practice begins during the slave era with the portrayal of the ‘Sambo’, which refers to the docile, single-minded African man (Green paragraph 4). The media representation of the happy slave helped justify the institution of slavery. The portrayal would change to the ‘savage’ during the Jim Crow era. In the early 20th century, the Ku Klax Klan and the media revitalized the image of the brute and threatening Black man to justify acts of racial violence (Green paragraph 7). Scientific studies in the early 1960s would propagate the idea that Africans and African Americans were physically, mentally and culturally inferior (Green paragraph 8). Media would apply archeology and the evolution theory to reinforce the Victorian stereotype that associated Negros with apes.

The misrepresentation of Black Americans has not changed in the digital era. According to Variety (paragraph 1), two out of three African Americans believe that media does not represent their true experiences on-screen. The media house conducted a consumer survey to assess if the level of interest in shows correlates with diversity, inclusion and equity in the plot of the shows. The study highlighted that 67% of Americans believe there is a need for greater on-screen representation of Black queer men and Black women (Variety paragraph 2). The finding outlines the intersectionality between gender, class and race in media representations. The modern consumer is more interested in diverse stories, which is why inclusivity is an important factor when people are selecting what to watch.

Sexual Representation

The is growing concern regarding the increased exposure of children to sexual content through digital media, and the potential implications on their sexual behaviors, attitudes and beliefs. Scarcelli, Krijnen and Nixon conduct an assessment of sexual representation in commercial advertisements to find that they tend to be heteronormative in nature (1069). Despite the significant strides made by the LGBTQ movement, business commercials still reinforce the traditional male-female sexual relationships. Sexist performances are still prevalent in popular media. The authors are of the opinion that both digital and mass media are not sufficiently addressing contemporary variations in sexual orientation and sexual expression. Sallabank et al. (2021, p.1) criticize media for contributing to the stigma and violence faced by Black gay and bisexual men. Cultural messages contained in media accentuate stereotypes that disregard intersectional identities for Black gay men. The authors are describing how media contributes to pathological forms of depersonification.

Class Representation

Media representations of social class tend not to focus on class conflicts that underpin society. Sallabank (2021, p. 1) criticizes media for not portraying the wealthy and in power in a critical light despite their institutionalization of racism and sexism. Media benefits the upper class through over-representation. For instance, media focuses on consumer items, such as luxury cars, holiday destinations, stocks and shares. The middle class is equally over-represented, but in TV dramas and comedies. News organizations will focus on the working class, whereas low-income classes are represented through music and art. News media turns its attention on the negative aspects of poverty, such as crime, failing to see the relationship between wealth and deprivation.

            The literature review highlights that media representation often fails to match reality. Media inaccurately reflects male and female beauty ideals, sexual roles, sexual orientations, and class inequalities. More inaccurately depicted are realities based on an intersection of more than one demographic group. Reform and research are recommended for more authentic representations.  

Works Cited

Green, Laura. Negative Racial Stereotypes and Their Effect on Attitudes Toward African Americans. Ferris State University, July 2022,, Accessed 29 June 2022.

Koenig, Anne. “Comparing Prescriptive and Descriptive Gender Stereotypes About Children, Adults, and the Elderly.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 9, 2018, pp. 1086. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01086

Sallabank, Gregory, Natalie Blackburn, Megan Threats, Deren Pulley and Megan Barry. “Media Representation, Perception and Stigmatisation of Race, Sexuality and HIV Among Young Black Gay and Bisexual Men.” Culture, Health and Sexuality. 2021.

Scarcelli, Cosimo, Tonny Krijnen and Paul Nixon. “Sexuality, Gender, Media: Identity Articulations in the Contemporary Media Landscape.” Information, Communication and Society, vol. 24, 2021.

Shor, Eran, and Alex Miltsov. “The Price of Greater Representation: A Cross-National Analysis of Parliamentary Representation and Media Coverage Sentiment for Women.” Newspaper Research Journal, vol. 41, no. 4, Dec. 2020, pp. 455–468. doi:10.1177/0739532920968219.

Variety. Two in Three Black Americans Do Not Feel Properly Represented in Media, Study Finds. NBC News, 18 September 2020,, Accessed 29 June 2022.

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