Dototot • Engaging Education

Gender Roles and the Media

  • et cetera
  • By Jay Nielsen

“Media [are] powerful in that they are unavoidable” (Lester 6). We are constantly bombarded by media in the form of commercials, billboards, and other advertisements blatantly telling us who we aught to be. Media as entertainment also has a subtle influence on society’s way of thinking. “Every message you see or hear will have some impact on you, however small” (Martin). Among all the information and misinformation present in the media, one particularly damaging representation is that of male and female roles. By including more and more important female roles, the media, including books, movies, television series, and video games can avoid portraying gender stereotypes that ultimately form society’s perception of gender roles.

Katha Pollitt believes in this embedded social stereotype, and explores it deeper in her essay “The Smurfette Principle”. Pollitt claims that the media portrays the message that “boys are central, girls are peripheral”, and that “girls exist only in relation to boys” (568). She discovered a recurring theme in the Media she coined “The Smurfette Principle” in which “a group of male buddies will be accented by a lone female, stereotypically defined” (Pollitt 568). She defines this stereotype as “a little-sister type” who “tags along” with the males (Pollitt 568). This stereotypical female must rely on a male for support, and never attracts too much attention to herself unless in a negative light. Pollitt also claims that the Media teaches young females to “be a passenger car drawn through life by a masculine train engine”, and young males learn that “girls just don’t matter much” (569).

People are constantly exposed to various forms of media. Possibly the greatest influence is the television. The television has become a central part of the American lifestyle. It is an easily accessible, relaxing source of entertainment. “Children between the ages of two and seventeen watch an average of twenty-five hours of television each week; adults are estimated to spend half of their leisure time watching television or consuming other media” (Lester 6). People are constantly subject to the media, whether it be via television programs, newspapers, billboards, or other advertisements. All of this media, intentionally or not, subtly promotes certain beliefs and opinions.

With so much exposure to the media’s ideas, beliefs, and opinions, it’s only a matter of time before people begin to adopt them as their own. This is especially true in children and young adults who are still searching for a personal identity. “From the moment we’re born, each one of us is fed on other people’s beliefs. And the same beliefs that go in are often the same beliefs that come out. And they’re often the same beliefs as everyone else” (Martin). As such, the susceptible mind of a child becomes a machine that spits out whatever information anyone, or anything puts in it.

These ideas, however, are not always true, and may prematurely form a child’s opinions. “Whether right or wrong,…imagination is shaped by the pictures seen… Consequently, they lead to stereotypes that are hard to shake” (Lippmann qtd. in Lester XII). Everything a person learns must come from something or someone else. With the media being such a prevalent influence in American households, children are extremely likely to pick up on the lifestyle depictions present in the entertainment they watch. These images shape children’s thoughts and imagination regarding their own lifestyle and opinions. Children are not the only ones that pick up on stereotypes in the media. The messages in the media influence adults to “decide the kind of man or woman [they] want to be” (Martin).

According to the media, the kind of woman women want to be is one that is “caring, emotional, home-loving…guided above all by their feelings” (Martin). Women are to take a back seat in comparison to males. Often, women are depicted as “willing and eager to serve men” (Martin). For example, Marie Barone from the television series Everybody Loves Raymond spends all her time caring for her son and ungrateful husband. Unfortunately, these women also tend to make mistakes, and “when things go wrong, and of course with women they often do, they’re shown as clumsy, helpless, [and] panic stricken” (Martin). For example, Lucy of the classic series I love Lucy is consistently depicted in scenes in which her clumsy behavior results in over-dramatic failure which leads her to become panicked and helpless.

The media also defines what a good and bad woman aught to be like. A “good” woman is “submissive, sensitive, and domesticated” (Chandler). Women contrary to this description are seen as bad and rebellious. “A woman who stands up for herself is no longer a woman” (Martin). She is often viewed as masculine and unappealing to men. This concept of acceptable and unacceptable women is also reinforced in literature. “Historically accepted stereotypes of female characters in literature are projected as passive or active, frigid or lustful, selfish or generous” (Linaker 165). These contrasting descriptions correspond to the respective good and bad characteristics of women, usually linked to a happy or miserable woman. This is evident in the classic childrens’ story Snow White in which Snow White, having the good characteristics of women, was a beautiful and well-loved woman. The queen on the other hand, having the bad characteristics of women, was unattractive and lacking of any feminine appeal. This contrasting presentation encourages young women to either act a certain way, or live as miserable crones. The presentation of lifestyle versus happiness gives the media the power to “promote some lifestyles and dissuade the audience from valuing others” (Lester 6). The media presents two lifestyle choices for women by glorifying a good, obedient woman and making the bad, disobedient woman miserable and horrid. This image is embedded in the mind and helps a person decide how they should be.

Men, on the other hand, are shown as “fearless, tough, decisive, a man of action” (Martin). Men are often portrayed as commanding and authoritative. They have no fear, and never show any weakness. The most extreme example of this stereotype are Saturday morning cartoon superheroes such as Superman, Batman, and Spiderman; super-powered men fighting for justice and the safety of a helpless community. The media leads viewers to believe that this masculine stereotype is “natural, normal, and universal” (Chandler). Men also tend to have more important speaking roles, while women are “rarely heard” (Lester 91). In these speaking roles, males’ voices generally “carry more authority” (Pipher 42). Men are the decision makers and leaders. Their word is final. Women, on the other hand, are rarely seen as an authoritative figure.

This could be a result of the fact that “most politicians and experts…are male” (Martin). Evidence that the United States is a male dominated society is shown in the numbers of women in congress. According to the Center for American Women and Politics, in 2006, women hold 82, or 15.4%, of the 535 seats in the 109th US Congress – 14, or 14.0%, of the 100 seats in the Senate and 68, or 15.6%, of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives.Currently only one woman serves on the United States Supreme Court and there has yet to be a female president. Evidently, Americans prefer to be represented by males. The fact that our country is predominantly run by males helps “to confirm the image of men as people who make decisions; people with authority who can command respect” (Martin).

These two stereotypical gender definitions are not entirely separate entities. Rather, they co-exist–playing off of each other to form a single social stereotype. The male and female stereotype “continue to be put together to make stories, and these stories suggest how men and women should relate to each other.…In this relationship, men and women help bind each other to their traditional roles. Men can only be strong as long as women remain weak, so women are often shown as totally dependent on them for all kinds of help and support” (Martin). This dependence reinforces the idea that women are weak and men are strong. In this depiction, women must have a man when they are weak and emotional, and a man is incomplete without a woman. However, the woman must remain “discretely in the background” so as not to detract attention from the male (Martin).

Females are not the only ones to be depicted in a negative light. Men are given a severely negative image through the media in situational comedies. In a typical sitcom family, the father is generally a “bumbling idiot, having to rely on his wife for almost everything,” and more importantly, he is “inept at raising the children” (Lester 15). He is everything a stereotype could be; his primary concerns being sports, beer, and sex. Jim of According to Jim is the epitome of a fat, dumb, and happy sitcom father. This disgusting representation of males is intentional as it plays off of stereotypical views that are “part of our shared culture” (Lester 15). While this stereotypical representation of gender roles is just a fantasy created purely to make people laugh, it is still a damaging image for males. What better way to appeal to a person’s sense than through humor, thus opening the mind to be more accepting of these stereotypical views.

The negative representation of men is not nearly as common in entertainment as the positive, strong male. The ideal, positive image of the stereotypical male dominates in the media. In a study conducted between 1995 and 1996, it was found that men held 63 percent of the speaking roles in prime time television (Gauntlett 58). In an additional study conducted between 1989 and 1994, it was found that an average of sixty-one commercials aired during the Super Bowl featured male celebrities, while only nine commercials featured female celebrities (Lester 88). Men remain dominant in entertainment, advertisements, and even factual news programs. In the news, “the people that select and report…events are almost exclusively white, middle class, and of course they’re mostly men” (Martin). Men cover serious national news. They are the strong, brave figure that report on a crisis.

The news doesn’t completely exclude females, however, but women reporters are very often “used to cover the less dramatic, more domestic stories” (Martin). In other words, women reporters are often given trivial, meaningless, soft news reports while males handle the more pressing, critical events. This male dominated media misrepresents the country’s population as having more males than females, when in reality, “females outnumber males in the U.S. population” (Lester 110). According to the 2005 United States Census, there are 141,274,964 males and 147,103,173 females. This puts females above males by an astounding 5,828,209 people.

Outside of television, males outnumber females in video games, a popular form of entertainment among teens and young adults. While the vast majority of America spends most of their leisure time watching TV, it is not the only source of entertainment. The videogame industry is becoming increasingly popular, and, like all other media, it has its impact on the people that use it. Most of the video game industry’s leading, successful mascots are males. For example, both Banjo of “Banjo Kazooie”, and Sonic of “Sonic the Hedgehog” are males. Often these males’ primary objective is to save a damsel in distress. Both of the wildly successful Mario and Zelda franchises are built on quests that involve rescuing a helpless princess. This again reinforces the idea that men are important and that women are weak and helpless.

The media may just be a simple made up fantasy, but does this unbalanced representation of gender roles actually affect people? In adolescents, “dominant gender images on television may tend to reinforce traditional expectations” (Chandler). In other words, television reinforces the concept of the male as head of the house, and the female as housewife. Mary Pipher claims that by junior high, girls sense their “lack of power” (41). This could be a result of the minor roles that women play in the media, and the lack of important, commanding female figures. When asked about gender roles on television, a large portion of both males and females outside of the media were found to “agree with [the] view of what men and women aught to be” (Martin). While not necessarily correct, many people believe that gender role stereotypes in the media are accurate.

As well as being exposed to media featuring women with a lack of power, young females are also exposed to media with an extreme vanity appeal. Popular magazines, television, movies, and even factual programs often depict women “not as people, but as objects, largely empty of thought or of feelings” (Martin). In early adolescence, “girls learn how important appearance is in defining social acceptability” (Pipher 40). Females learn at an early age that their purpose is to physically appeal to a man. Teen girl magazines are built on this principle. As a marketing ploy for cosmetics and dieting, teen girl magazines depict women as unnaturally beautiful objects usually attached to an equally handsome boyfriend. This presentation of women creates a wild, unreachable fantasy for young teenage girls.

With these effects on youth, it’s easy to make the media the enemy. However, one must realize that nobody is forced to watch television, read books, or play video games. These gender stereotypes are present in everyday entertainment–the kind of media people want to use. However, not all of the blame can be thrown on the media. In fact, the media is simply another form of free speech, and is actually doing nothing wrong or out of its power. What people must realize is that there is a fine line between using the media and allowing the media to use oneself. Recognizing that the media does not reflect reality is a big part of this. The media cannot be taken too seriously, as it is merely intended as entertainment.

This still leaves the question, do people have power over the media, or does the media have power over the people? On one end of he spectrum, theorists believe that “the power of mass media over the population [is] enormous and very damaging”, while others believe that “it is the audience, not the media which has the most power” (Gauntlett 19). The effects of the media will vary on a person-by-person basis, and there is no solid scientific evidence supporting either theory.

Despite either theory, it is undeniable that there is an over-saturation of gender stereotypes in the media. What accounts for this misrepresentation of gender roles? Perhaps it could in part be a result of entertainment being “mostly made by men” (Pollitt 569). Because the media is primarily controlled by men, “the picture they show of women is often the woman of their dreams” (Martin). This woman is either obedient and never asks for too much attention, or is unnaturally beautiful. Both are unrealistic products of an imaginative male mind. Recognizing this begs the question: why hasn’t the media changed? Since men are controlling the media, they fail to see an imbalance of gender representation, as the current setup favors them.

The male presence in the media’s decision making is apparent in the vast majority of television programs, movies, books, and video games. However, the industry is slowly improving the way females and males are represented. From the 1990’s on, it was found that “gender roles on television became increasingly equal and non-stereotyped” (Gauntlett 58). Now it is possible to watch television shows in which “men and women are seen working side by side, as equals, in the hospitals, schools, and police stations” (Gauntlett 57). In the television series 24, equally capable male and female characters work side by side to fight imminent terrorist threats.

Video games have also seen an increase in female icons. For example, Lara Croft of Tomb Raider is an adventurous woman who engages in over-the-top stunts and action. Jade of Beyond Good and Evil works undercover to undermine a government conspiracy. However, both of these characters have one thing in common: they are glamorously, even unrealistically beautiful. While the use of strong female characters is a welcome relief, this portrayal of their appearance acts much like a teen girl magazine in that it creates a picture of women that is simply impossible to reach.

The media has improved greatly in the past few years. Women are slowly gaining leading roles, and it is not uncommon to see men and women depicted as equals, working along side each other in equally challenging settings. However, this is not yet a standard in the entertainment industry. Women and men are still misrepresented as stereotypes in the majority of the media. This stereotype becomes embedded in the human mind, and is passed on from generation to generation as an acceptable view of male and female gender roles.

Works Cited

Chandler, Daniel. “Television and Gender Roles.” Aberystwyth. University of Wales. Nov. 25 2006.

“Facts on Women Candidates and Elected Officials.” Center for American Women and Politics. Nov. 2006.

Gauntlett, David. Media, Gender and Identity. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Lester, Paul Martin. Images that Injure. Westport: Prauger Publishers, 1996.

Linaker, Tanya. “A Witch, a Bitch, or a Goddess?” Slovo 17(2005): 165-178.

Pollit, Katha “The Smurfette Principle.” Great Writing: A reader for Writers. Weiner, Harvey and Nora S. Eisenberg. River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002.

Pipher, Mary. Reviving Ophelia. New York: Ballantine Books, 1994

Sexual Stereotypes in the Media: Superman and the Bride Exec. Prod. Martin, Ian. 1993. Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 2004.

United States. US Census Bureau. Age and Sex: 2005. 2005.

Works Consulted

Dow, Bonnie. Prime-Time Feminism. Philadelphia: Penn, 1996.

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