Emergent Gender Myths: A Social Semiotic Analysis of Visual Images in Health Communication Materials for Development

Liza A. Cabrera, PhD, Serlie B. Jamias, PhD

Liza A. Cabrera, PhD
Assistant Professor
College of Development Communication
University of the Philippines Los Baños 
lacabrera3@up.edu.ph, +63 9171469660

Serlie B. Jamias, PhD
College of Development Communication
University of the Philippines Los Baños 


This study explored emerging gender myths in visual images used to communicate health topics such as reproductive health, maternal health, family and nutrition, breastfeeding, and childcare with the premise that visual images may shape notions of gender roles and identities. Selected images from flipcharts produced by development communication practitioners from 1993 t0 2015 were analyzed using Kress and van Leeuwen’s social semiotics (2006). Further, interpretive visual analysis was used to analyze gender archetypes; visual impacts (denotation) and cultural meanings (connotation) using Barthes’ Order of Signification; and gender roles and identity naturalized by the images. 

Images for health communication used more women as subjects relative to the topics that are primarily women’s concern. Subject’s gaze were indirect, offered as items of information, showing a relation of symbolic equality, and implying that health topics are part of the social discourse. Gender archetypes were similar to gender portrayals on TV, film, and literary works, mostly of women-- the virgin, mother, and crone embodying both masculine (anima) and feminine (animus) attributes. Visual impacts and cultural meanings of images uncovered myths that embody the roles and identities, found to be ‘naturalized’ in relation to gendered body, identity, and social expectations of men and women in health. Emerging gender myths have to do with anatomy, mainly as basis for the role, identity, and expectations, especially of women as main actors in health. This reveals that gender roles and identities portrayed in health are still universal and are not historically and culturally contingent. 

health communication, visual communication, gender, Barthe’s mythology, social semiotic analysis, identity, gender archetypes, gender roles
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