Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. September 2004

4.6. Re-telling the Past, Mapping the Future: Feminist Interventions across Times and Cultures
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Ludmilla Kostova (Veliko Tarnovo)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Prototypes, stereotypes and idealized cognitive models of women in the bulgarian press

Boryana K. Bratanova (University of Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria)


I Introduction

The aim of the present paper is to explore the close relationship between three notions widely used in cognitive sciences today - stereotypes, prototypes, and idealized cognitive models (ICMs) and to make a connection between them and the notion of archetype. By putting these notions in the framework of media discourse, the paper provides an account of the changing representation of women in the Bulgarian press. The basis for such an account is the diachronic analysis of two articles taken from the Bulgarian press, which roughly cover the second half of the 20th century. As a result of this study a very important conclusion emerges - the representation of women in the Bulgarian press has changed considerably from the stereotypical housewife model to the idealized representation of our cognitive perception of women today.


II Some theoretical prerequisites

The representation of women in the press is closely related to two mental processes first studied by Aristotle - that of categorization and classification. Actually categorization can be defined as a mental process of classification and the categories, which result from that process have their own structure, the basic model of which is first suggested by Rosch (1981). Categories are structured hierarchically from specific to common ones, the middle of a taxonomic hierarchy being occupied by the cognitively most salient categories known as basic level categories. The process of generalization is a step upwards from the basic level in the hierarchical structure and it leads to a new level - the superordinate level (superordinate categories). The process of specification on the other hand is a step downwards from the basic level and it leads to the subordinate level (subordinate categories). This hierarchy, like all other hierarchies, is organized on the principle of class inclusion - the superordinate level includes all the items from the basic and subordinate levels. Basic-level categories are the most important ones in the process of perception, image formation and knowledge organization. Category structure can be well illustrated by the following example: the notion HUMAN occupies the superordinate level of the category, WOMAN - the basic level while BULGARIAN WOMAN is located on the subordinate level of the category structure. That is why it can be said that the subordinate level of a category is more marked than the basic level, which in its turn is more marked than the superordinate level - the neutral one in terms of markedness.

In order to study the representation of women in the press it is useful to elucidate two other terms also introduced by Rosch (1981) - prototype and periphery, the latter is also known as prototype effects. Prototype is defined as the best example of a category, a member which is regarded as the most typical representative of that category. That is why prototypes have special cognitive status - in most cases they stand for the whole category in human mind. Prototype effects are asymmetries found within a category, i.e. they denote all aprototypical members of a category. If we go back to the example stated above, WOMAN is a prototypical HUMAN while VIRTUAL WOMAN can be treated as a prototype effect.

The theory of idealized cognitive models (ICMs) is put forward by Lakoff (1987) and it shows how our knowledge of the world is organized in our minds based on human experience. Conceptual / cognitive categories form the centre of an ICM. The presence of the so-called mutual knowledge - some commonly accepted definitions of cognitive categories - is an important prerequisite for the proper organization of a given ICM. Thus the ICM of the notion WOMAN would be based on such factors as the existence of a human society where there is opposition of the sexes MAN vs. WOMAN, the existence of some biological functions and social roles typical for each of the sexes, on the opposition WOMAN vs. GIRL, WOMAN vs. OLD WOMAN, etc. The different reincarnations of the woman would also be taken into consideration - the woman as a wife, mother, professional as well as their possible groupings. This complex combination of cognitive models constitutes the complex cluster model of the notion WOMAN. In media discourse there is a tendency towards strong idealization of women in the press. This shows the cognitive structuring of reality in human mind - the centre of an ICM is constituted by the idealized prototype of a given category.

One of the positive aspects of the theory of ICMs is that it allows the existence of many submodels the number of which can increase or decrease depending on the situation and that is how ICMs reflect the changing reality precisely. The first model in the complex cluster usually characterizes the most typical representative of a category, that is the prototype. Since the theory of ICMs suits the cases of socially significant categories quite well, it is necessary to make the distinction between two other terms - prototype and stereotype. Putnam (1975), one of the first to acknowledge the need of some kind of a model to represent the way in which our knowledge is organized, uses the term stereotype as "an idealized mental representation of a normal case, which may not be accurate" (Putnam, cit. from Lakoff 1987: 116). However, it should be noted here that the stereotype actually embodies mainly the socially significant features of an individual, which excludes some aprototypical members of a category. That is why nowadays often ICMs of women in the press function as prototype effects in relation to the stereotype. What is more, stereotypes are universal for a given society while ICMs are based on the individual perception of the world. Besides, the latter are idealized which makes them a subjective reflection of reality.

The fact that ICMs embody more or less unified knowledge of the world relates them to Jung's archetype. He defines the archetype (, ( as the contents of the collective unconscious - the knowledge that we are all born with and yet we can never be conscious of it. Archetypes exist in people's minds as archetypal images. It is exactly this knowledge further enriched by our conscious experience that makes it possible to construct idealized cognitive models of the world.

The analysis of the two articles taken from the Bulgarian Press is based on the following parameters:


III Bulgarian Women in the Press - the Communist Years

The representation of women in the Bulgarian press has changed considerably during the second half of the 20th century and this fact is historically grounded. During the period of communism the Bulgarian press was dominated by the stereotypical representation of women mainly as housewives and mothers and the professional aspect of womanhood in most cases was almost left behind. Since the so-called housewife model is almost the same for all cultures, I decided to focus on women as professionals. It took me quite a long time to find an article in the women's press from the communist period, which accentuates female professionalism. Finally I came across one entitled Udarnichki (Shock-workers), published in Zhenata Dnes (The Woman Today) magazine back in 1945.

The article popularizes working women, that is why it is based on a very restricted cognitive model. The genre of the material, which is reportage, suits perfectly well the manipulative function of media discourse because it makes it possible to represent one and the same individual from two different angles - the first person point of view, that is the person describes him/herself and the third person point of view by means of which the individual is described through the eyes of the reporter. The third person point of view here functions as a kind of a frame being demonstrated at the beginning and the end of the material while the body presents first person point of view. That is how the beginning and the end of the reportage offer a higher degree of objectivism and idealization than its body. Paradoxically enough the subjective first person point of view in this case does not entail any idealization whatsoever.

The idealized cognitive model of women, which is presented in this piece of reporting, actually has the simplest possible structure. It is entirely based on the notion women-workers, even the housewife stereotype being totally excluded. This ICM has no centre and periphery, no foreground and background conditions. This is one of the cases where there is no inference as for the other social roles of women. The ICM of women in this case is a metonymic model - it shows just two representatives of all women workers at that time in Bulgaria. It has one very interesting peculiarity - while in most cases this ICM is centred around a certain quality of the prototype or the superordinate-level members of a category, here the ICM of the shock-workers is structured around the quantitative measurement of their work. That is why the subjective factor is nearly excluded while defining the category membership in this case. The range of imaginary properties of an individual, which is an inherent feature of ICMs is narrowed as well. The ICM of shock-workers can be defined relative to the ICM of ordinary workers and it is exactly the quantity of their work that matters in this case - a fact, which is presupposed for labelling someone a shock-worker. When the women in the article present themselves from first person point of view they do it by resorting to the basic level of category structure. However, by using idealization and superordinate level categories, the third person point of view depiction turns them into paragons of womanhood and this has something to do with "the hidden power of media discourse" (Fairclough 1989:49).

The physical portraits of the shock-workers are largely based on metonymy. At the very beginning the stress falls on their hands "coarsened with work" but they are "honest.... working hands. All people believe in them". Later on they are presented with reference to their eyes and both the eyes and the hands are idealized. The superordinate level of category structure is also emphasized by twice labelling the shock-workers "heroines". The article ends with reference to their hands again. However, there is no cue as to the physical properties of these women and all the information the reader can infer comes metonymically through the depiction of their hands, eyes and kerchiefs. There is no hint as to their beauty, on the contrary - they are somehow diminished as far as femininity is concerned. They are presented as machine-like creatures, "modest heroines" who are endlessly working, "they know neither fatigue nor boredom" and they are constantly increasing their production. One of them works on ten machines, the other on eight looms and they seem never to reach the end point of their achievements.

As far as the relation between the notions prototype, stereotype, archetype and idealized cognitive model is concerned it can be said that the ICM in this case is based on the stereotype of the working women in Bulgaria in the communist years. By referring to our archetypal knowledge of the world we can judge that the shock-workers are by no means prototypical women. The successful choice of vocabulary and grammatical structures also contributes a lot to this type of representation. The ICM is largely based on the use of superordinate level vocabulary such as "immolation", "gratitude for the great immolation in the name of a bright future". The shock-workers seem to be endowed with supernatural powers - in a word the choice of vocabulary proves the fact that both first and third person point of view aim at representing these women as standing above the basic level of the category WOMAN and at setting them as ideals. From a grammatical point of view the article abounds in exclamations, which best express the emotive function of language. Another interesting peculiarity of this material is the lack of relational verbs and the readers are not alerted that an opinion has been imposed on them. That is how the idealization and the persuasive aspect of media discourse are hidden and the reportage seemingly presents the existing state of affairs.


IV Bulgarian Women in the Period of Transition

The representation of women in the Bulgarian press nowadays is in many respects similar to that of women in the West European and American press. That is why while looking for contemporary representations of women in the press I turned my attention to the same magazine Zhenata Dnes with the aim to show how the representation of female characters changes over time. I chose the article Gena Traikova from bTV does not recognize free love published in the May/June 2001 issue because the stress here again falls mainly on the professional aspect of womanhood. The genre of the material is reportage again, which is another similarity to the previous article. Again the subjective first person and the objective third person point of view go hand in hand.

Let us first focus on the models which form the complex cluster model in this case:

These submodels are enumerated in terms of their importance in the article and it is evident that the professional model here takes dominance over the others. Unlike the previous ICM, which is structured round the professional model only, here the ICM is a real combination of models, the beauty model being present too, which makes the representation much more objective.

The ICM in this case is based on the idealization of the prototype. The marriage and the housewife models, which characterize the stereotype do not take dominance in this case. A diachronic analysis of a wide range of materials shows that the idealization of the stereotype, which characterizes the Bulgarian press during the period of communism is no longer popular. Since the two conflicting points of view - first person and third person are present in the second article under analysis as well; the basic and superordinate levels of the category structure compete again. However, even the third person point of view here does not provide strong degree of idealization. That is why the ICM in this case occupies the basic level of the category WOMAN unlike the first article where the superordinate level dominates.

The vocabulary of the article also contributes a lot to the basic level categorization. Here there are no expressive lexemes and lexemes belonging to the formal register. Even those, which idealize the cognitive model are quite in between - "delicate", "charm", "her big eyes melt the Ice Mountain', "exquisite news host", "star", etc. The article also lacks in lexemes with abstract meaning, which contribute a lot to the creation of an ICM. Perhaps the low degree of idealization here has something to do with the genre of the material - when there is both subjective and objective rendering of a character the subjective is usually dominated by the objective one, which in its turn does not always presuppose idealization. The choice of a prototype depends on various factors - age, religion, cultural identity, etc. Having this in mind it can be said that the second article shows the ICM of an immature woman who is making her first steps into professionalism and womanhood.


V Conclusion

As a conclusion it can be said that the Bulgarian feminine press has changed considerably during the last fifty years or so from traditionalism to innovativeness. The idealization of the stereotype is already in the past being replaced by a number of cognitive models mapped in complex clusters, which grade female features and roles. There is a tendency towards idealized representation of female prototypes that embody the traditional housewife model strongly dominated by the professional and beauty models. That is how the Bulgarian feminine press slowly acquires all the features of the world feminine press, which is just one aspect of the process of globalization.

© Boryana K. Bratanova (University of Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria)


Fairclough, N. (1989) Language and Power. London: Routledge.

Jung, C.

Jung, C.

Lakoff, G. (1987) Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Putnam, H. (1975) Mind, Language and Reality. Philosophical Papers, vol. 2. Cambridge: CUP, cited from Lakoff, G. (1987) Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rosch, E. (1981) Prototype Classification and Logical Classification: The Two Systems. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, cited from Lakoff, G. (1987)

Women, Fire and Dangerous Things. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Excerpted Texts From:

Zhenata Dnes 5/1945
Zhenata Dnes May/June 2001

4.6. Re-telling the Past, Mapping the Future: Feminist Interventions across Times and Cultures

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Boryana K. Bratanova (University of Veliko Turnovo, Bulgaria): Prototypes, stereotypes and idealized cognitive models of women in the bulgarian press. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

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