Gender Issues in the Media
Although the media is a pervasive and profoundly influential socializing force, parents and teachers can make a difference. Young children are especially vulnerable to the teachings of media because they don’t have the critical capacity necessary to distinguish between fantasy and reality, to identify persuasive intent, or to understand irony and disregard stereotypes. The cumulative and unconscious impact of these media messages can contribute to limiting the development of a child’s potential.
Much of children’s knowledge and the experience of the world is indirect, having come to them through the media. Media are not transparent technologies; they do not offer a window on the world. In mediating events and issues, television, film, video games and other media are involved in selecting, constructing and representing reality. In so doing, the media tend to emphasize and reinforce the values and images of those who create the messages and own the means of dissemination. In addition, these values and images are often influenced by commercial considerations. As a result, the viewpoints and experiences of other people are often left out, or shown in negative ways.
Male and female images
As one dramatic example, the image and representation of women and girls in the media has long been a subject of concern. Research shows that there are many fewer females than males in almost all forms of mainstream media and those who do appear are often portrayed in very stereotypical ways.
Constantly polarized gender messages in media have fundamentally anti-social effects.
In everything from advertising, television programming, newspaper and magazines, to comic books, popular music, film and video games, women and girls are more likely to be shown: in the home, performing domestic chores such as laundry or cooking; as sex objects who exist primarily to service men; as victims who can’t protect themselves and are the natural recipients of beatings, harassment, sexual assault and murder.
Men and boys are also stereotyped by the media. From GI Joe to Rambo, masculinity is often associated with machismo, independence, competition, emotional detachment, aggression and violence. Despite the fact that men have considerably more economic and political power in society than women, these trends – although different from those which affect women and girls – are very damaging to boys.
Research tells us that the more television children watch, the more likely they are to hold sexist notions about traditional male and female roles and the more likely the boys are to demonstrate aggressive behaviour.
In fact, images aimed at children are particularly polarized in the way they portray girls and boys. In advertising, for instance, girls are shown as being endlessly preoccupied by their appearance, and fascinated primarily by dolls and jewellery, while boys are encouraged to play sports and become engrossed by war play and technology.
Furthermore, children are increasingly being exposed to messages about gender that are really intended for adult eyes only. These images also help shape the notions little girls and boys have about who they should be and what they can achieve.
In the context of some of society’s real life problems, the constant reinforcement of polarized gender messages has fundamentally anti-social effects. Research tells us that the more television children watch, the more likely they are to demonstrate aggressive behaviour. Furthermore, the linking of sex and violence – increasingly evident in everything from mainstream advertising to slasher movies – is particularly troublesome in the context of a society struggling to overcome real life violence against women.
The role of media education
Media education can play a crucial role in counteracting the impact of these messages. Helping children to understand that media construct – as opposed to reflect – reality; that they communicate implicit and explicit values; and that they can influence the way we feel and think about ourselves and the world, are vitally important lessons towards achieving a society in which women and girls are seen and treated as equal to men and boys.
The media tendency to link sex and violence is alarming.
Nevertheless, the good news is that parents and teachers can have a much greater impact on a child’s development than the media to which the child is exposed. Real life modeling of alternative ways of being male or female, or of resolving conflict; time spent engaging children in imaginative play, and in activities which teach pro (as opposed to anti) social values, ultimately have the most lasting influence.
Mass media uses stereotypical characters to make it easy for the audience to identify the good guys or gals and the bad guys or gals. It is easier to create programs around stock characters than to develop varied personalities. Stereotypes limit our views of ourselves and others and of the reality of the world. The media construct their own version of reality. The point of view of the message presented is driven by ethical, political, economic and social standards of the producers. Characters of ten reflect a narrow range of roles.
The elderly are under-represented. Women and girls are both under represented and portrayed in a very limited set of roles. Victims of violence are usually portrayed a young and beautiful women. Visible ethnic minorities often appear in limited roles. People depicted as intelligent (especially children and adolescents) are often portrayed as unattractive as well.
A stereotype is a view or a characterization of a person or a group of persons based upon narrow and frequently incorrect assumptions. Although children will be able to recognize some examples of stereotyping, this concept is very sophisticated and can be difficult to grasp at a young age.
Images – Using TV or video clips and magazine or newspaper pictures, chart similarities and differences in appearance and body size for the good and bad characters. Look again at the clips and make note of the type of camera shots used for the good and bad guys or gals. Compare the characters with self and peers and family members.
Working women – List the jobs that TV mothers have such as teacher, doctor. Do we ever see them working at their jobs? Does your mother have a job? If she works outside the home do you ever visit her there?
I’d rather be me – Form two groups – one of boys, the other of girls. From various media have the boys list female traits and interests that are most commonly featured, while the girls do the same for male characteristics and concerns. Form new mixed groupings and discuss how boys and girls feel about the stereotypes by which their gender has come to be represented. What is artificial about these stereotypes? An appropriate video resource available from TVO is Behind the Scenes.
Jobs – Examine the media to determine how certain occupations are portrayed, and then interview people in those occupations to ascertain how realistic portrayals are. Count the number of women or men portrayed in jobs. List the types of jobs for women and men portrayed. How do these findings compare to the jobs held by the parents of students? Stereotypes limit our views of ourselves and others and of the reality of the world. They limit our perceptions from infancy to old age.
Posed vs. natural – Select pictures from newspapers and magazines that show the difference between posed and natural photographs of girls and boys, and men and women. Describe what is emphasized in each.
What’s wrong with this picture? – This video is available from MediaWatch and has accompanying educational materials. It can be used to discuss gender issues and concepts such as nonverbal messages. Does body language differ by gender? Make your own collection of pictures or TV clips for each gender and explain the message perceived.
A Real Princess – Introduce stereotyping by brainstorming words to describe a princess. Read the book by R. Munsch, A Paper Bag Princess. Discuss and compare with the image we have of Princess Anne or Princess Diana.
Witches – Make a series of slides of witches, using illustrations from children’s books. Use these to encourage discussions about stereotyping of women and witches and the male equivalent.
Twisted tales – Rewrite fairly tales from the point of view of the opposite gender.
Visual novels – View literature-based films. Compare the films with the books for the handling of gender roles. Does one media form rely more on stereotypes? Why? Generate more examples.
Video games – Design a video game for girls and boys that is not stereotypical or violent.
Recommended resource – Video and workbook, Minding the Set – Making Television Work for You. From the Alliance for Children and Television, 344 Dupont St. Suite 205, Toronto, M5R 1V9.
Shari Graydon and Elizabeth Verrall
For MediaWatch’s guide to taking acation on media violence, go to: http://www.mediawatch.ca/involved/voice/