Mechanisms of Symbolic Annihilation and Their Application in the Plight of Women

Symbolic annihilation is a concept that came into popular use in the late 1970’s, when the effects of media on social constructions became evident. At the time, symbolic annihilation meant an underrepresentation or trivialization of a certain group of people, especially by the media. In the media, symbolic annihilation is especially effective, given that the media in itself is considered as a message that dictates the direction of public thought. By under representing certain people, the media manages to make them insignificant within the society even when their role is much more definitive in reality. Gaye Tuchman is a well known professor with a great interest in the humanities. Her studies and papers cover a number of issues, including the media, culture, reality and the corporate university among other things. In the Symbolic Annihilation of Women, she argues that the media has so far managed to belittle the nature and role of women in the mainstream society. This paper bases on Gaye Tuchman works to critically examine what she meant by “symbolic annihilation of women”.

Being a woman is considered a disadvantage in many parts of the world, even in the 21st century (Venzo & Hess 2013). This is mainly because it is considerably a man’s world, with the mainstream society being founded on a patriarchal basis. The women are considered as weak and in need of additional powers or traits if they are to be successful enough to compete with the men. This means that every successful woman needs a justification for her success and, in most cases, the media is especially quick to emphasize on the extra qualities that justify the successful women. In Tuchman’s works, it is clear that women in the 20th century had to live through a number of social injustices, propagated in the context of social inequality (Tuchman 1978). Women were considered inferior in so many ways and men were able to capitalize on these mindsets to take advantage of women. As a part of the mainstream society, the media was also shaped in such a way that women were continuously portrayed as inferior and in need of some form of validation. It can be noted that the meaning of annihilation is to completely destroy or eliminate something or someone and, in this context, the symbolic aspect implies a figurative destruction of femininity. The symbolic annihilation of women can be regarded as a feminist argument that seeks to explain the effect of media on the definition of gender roles in today’s society. In her paper, The Symbolic Annihilation of Women by the Mass Media, Tuchman described this symbolic annihilation as a process that is carried out through omission, trivialization and condemnation of the women in society (Tuchman 1978).


More often than not, the media takes on the pretext of omission when discussing issues that involve a successful woman. For example, in a TV show like Family Guy, which is popular all across America and most parts of the world, it can be appreciated that the mother is mostly omitted in the show’s analysis. Lois Griffin exists in the show, and works just as had to take care of the children and keep the family afloat when Peter is off living his life and generally acting like the fool. He is anything, but a responsible father and, yet, he remains the star of the show season after season. Lois barely gets any recognition or attention from the audience or even her own family in the show. It can be noted in this example that the writers do not intend to bring out the significance that Lois has to the Griffin family.

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When interpreting the implications of this show in the nature and role of the woman in the family, it can be noted that women are not expected to be appreciated in their efforts (Thornham 2007). They can work as hard as Lois does, keep everything running smoothly and even hold the man’s hand when he is in trouble, but she will not even be recognized for her efforts. This goes to show that the society generally expects women to be the backbone of the family and men can go about their business without caring. This is in some instances right, but the challenge comes in when the man in the family takes all the credit for the order and unity in the family. Seth MacFarlane may not be setting out to tell the society that the women in America are generally expected to save their lives away for the men but he ends up omitting the efforts of women in his story. This show focuses on Peter, Stewie and Brian, all male characters and their friends, including Quagmire and Adam West among others. Other than having more male characters than female ones, the show is generally about the domination of males, as women remain in the shadow, doing all the work. This is what Gaye Tuchman considers as the symbolic annihilation of women (Tuchman 1979). By failing to recognize and represent the efforts of women in the show, the writer fails to remind the society of the significance of women in real life.


The context of trivialization under symbolic annihilation implies belittling the efforts and achievements of women in the mainstream society (Dines & Humez 2011). An example would be in the adverts by female athletes who try to showcase their femininity as a validation for their existence (Shields & Heinecken 2013). Rather than being content with their victories in the field, these women are presented to the public in short dresses or tight skirts, with a lot of makeup to emphasize on their femininity. This amounts to the trivialization of their achievements in their sporting disciplines. Like any other field, sports are very competitive and often considered manly in its gender. When women excel in sports, they are perceived as a little tool competitive by the society and, thus, in order to neutralize this ideology, they are compelled to show their ‘delicate’ side. Women are generally defined by social constructs as weak beings in need of protection and support. This is why the image of a strong and competitive woman does not really sit well in the society. Adverts thus seek to exploit the sportswoman’s need to be feminine to their advantage (Dines & Humez 2011).

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This concept trivializes the achievements of women in many spheres of life. For example, an unmarried female monarch in England was consistently chastised for her activities out of office, thus belittling her efforts and activities in government. By focusing on her femininity, her worth as a leader or in this case as a sportswoman are pushed to the side and deprived of the attention that they truly deserve. When a male athlete, for example, gets married, the media will feature stories about the celebrity and go on to congratulate him for another life achievement. If a female athlete gets married, the focus will be on her partner and the future prospects of her career in the event that she decides to start a family. Tuchman specially laments on the media’s tendency to look at the women as women and not as professionals in their chosen field. The application of traditional gender roles in the definition of male and female personalities in the present day only serves to diminish the true worth of the working woman and her hard earned achievements. In order to really stand out, most women are forced to relinquish their private lives and avoid anything that may detract from their achievements. The same can, however, not be said of the men, whose scandals are seen as trivial, compared to their achievements in business, sports and politics.


In Asian studies, one easily identifies that the concept of morality is biased (Martin & Fabos 2011). The American society is no different, and not only on the concept of morality. Women in this society are condemned for being successful or competitive or even for being beautiful, in some instances. For example, a number of American movies show the blonde stereotype, where beautiful women with blonde hair are often disregarded for being too vain or presumptuous in their demeanour (Campbell, Martin & Fabos 2011). This is, however, not always true in reality, as there are quite a number of intelligent women who only happen to have blonde hair. By using their physical appearance to define their personal ability, the media ends up limiting the potential of the beautiful women in intellectual circles. Fortunately, this stereotypic notion is slowly fading, as more women prove their abilities, despite being beautiful and blonde. Their aesthetic value was, at some point, a reason for their grievances but as time goes by, it becomes just another reason for their appreciation in the society.

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It can be noted that successful women continue to be portrayed with evil values in the mainstream media. For example, in The Devil Wears Prada, it can be appreciated that the rich villain is a very successful woman who ends up being looked at as one with so many negative traits. The struggling young woman is represented as one full of virtues that, in the end, remain incorruptible despite her associating with the rich villain. By emphasizing on the idea that being successful comes at such steep price, the media in this case condemns the successful women by giving them an abundance of vices. Another aspect of condemnation can be seen in the definition of beauty. Women are being condemned for defining their own appearance and are expected to conform to the social constructs of femininity (Harper 2009). In the media, for example, short hair and plain clothes are considered a sign of lesbianism and man-hating ideologies. This is rather repulsive and unjustifiable and it forces women to dress in a way that would appeal to men and the society, in general. This condemns them to a life in which they are forced to consistently keep up appearances that may mean nothing to them.


The meaning of symbolic annihilation, as discussed in this paper, is the alteration of the significance of women in the society. This occurs when the media omits, trivializes or condemns the actions of women and pressures them to act in a certain way that makes them insignificant. When women are limited to being beautiful, delicate and helpless, they become insignificant in a society that is mostly competitive and in need of great effort. Tuchman recognizes this fact and her arguments simply shed more light on the fact that even in the 20th century and beyond, women continue to live in a patriarchal society and the idea of gender equality remains a distant desire that is yet to be met.

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