Gender in commercial radio in New Zealand: a critical discourse analysis of the “Secret Life of Girls”

Mearns, Stephanie
Harrison, Jacqueline
Nelson, Frances
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Master of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

Radio can be a highly gendered environment, but to date this has not been explored in New Zealand (Hendy, 2000; Karpf, 1980; Lacey, 2004). For scholars of New Zealand radio the deregulated, highly commercial environment is significant, and my own background in radio leads me to question the influence of commercial imperatives upon content. Feminist scholarship pays particular attention to advertising and commercial media, and in this respect the local radio industry proves to be a fruitful environment in which to explore issues of gender. It is in this context that this study sets out to investigate the construction of female gender in New Zealand commercial radio.

This study is grounded in the political economy of communication tradition, and is also influenced by feminist theory. Gender is viewed as a social construct which, for radio, is formed largely through speech. Fairclough’s (1992) critical discourse analysis has been chosen as an appropriate method for a study of radio talk. The data selected consists of samples of the weekly feature Secret Life of Girls (SLOG) from station ZM. Critical discourse analysis provides useful insights regarding gender within SLOG and the industry more widely. SLOG is a discursive environment of synthetic friendship, intimacy and pleasure. Female broadcasters produced and encouraged “girly” behaviour including hypersexualisation and a focus on appearance. Goods and services and the language of advertising featured prominently, positively emphasising consumption. The mix of advertising and neoliberal discourses amongst friendly discourse and assertive “girl power” talk highlights the postfeminist nature of SLOG. Postfeminism describes a contemporary representation of womanhood that combines feminist and anti-feminist ideals (Gill, 2003, 2007b). SLOG also displays what Talbot (1995) labels “synthetic sisterhood”, which sees friendly, relatable discourse used to promote stereotypical feminising practices.

Fairclough’s approach considers social power and introduces the critical concerns that form the conclusions of this study. Ideologies of postfeminism, patriarchy, and neoliberalism are identified, and the positive tone of the feature suggests that these exist hegemonically. The sustained presence of postfeminism throughout this feature shows that, while the message may have altered, the media continue to focus on women’s appearances and consumer practices in a manner that stereotypes, distracts and depoliticises the female audience.

Such inequalities can be traced to the commercial imperatives of the radio environment. Even editorial content must placate advertisers and the wider capitalist system in which ZM exists (McChesney, 2008; Pietrykowski, 2009). This system relies on constant consumption and the products and services that exist to “feminise” women are important within this. The conclusions of this study reinforce the concerns of Mollgaard (2005, 2012; Mollgaard & Rosenberg, 2010) and Watts (2010), who argue that the New Zealand commercial radio industry prioritises profit above any civic responsibility.

Media , Communications , Broadcasting , Radio , Critical discourse analysis , Gender
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