Monday, December 1, 2014

Gender stereotypes in children's media contribute to unrealistic expectations of both sexes

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According to recent studies, children today spend approximately 7.5 hours every day consuming media primarily through television, music, video games, social media and the occasional book. Human's brains are not fully molded until age 25, giving the media the opportunity to shape our outlook on the world for over 54,000 hours in total.

With this immense power comes detrimental aftermath. By advertising girls and boys toys as polar opposites, the media places children into categories very difficult to escape without copious amounts of criticism from those still stuck in the black and white mindset. The gray area consisting of masculine girls and feminine boys makes up a large percentage of the American youth population, and the media creates a culture that deems these qualities unacceptable.

Furthermore, the gender bias and stereotyped visions of both women and men in children's media are internalized by youth and utilized later in life when deciding women's and men's roles in society. According to Educational Psychologist, Lori Day, "Media shapes perception, and perception becomes reality."

The traits used to establish gender norms in the media immensely enhance the lack of acceptance in the adult world, but parents are also to blame.

Hegemonic masculinity is commonly portrayed by the media with characteristics of:
-lack of emotion
While many perceive this to put men on a pedestal, men who don't fit this definition are harassed and estranged by society. Men are pressured by both the media, and numerous other socializers as a result, to comply to this definition in order to be socially accepted, leading to unhealthy emotional distress by copious amounts of males.

On the other hand, women are frequently depicted as:
Along with the mental inferiority that women feel on a daily basis as a result of this, blatant simplification of women's capabilities, in various children's media outlets provides ammunition for the gender pay gap, which is still a prominent issue in American culture. For every $1 that a male worker makes, a female worker will make anywhere from 54 to 91 cents, depending on race, location, and field of occupation.

While the media is partly responsible for stereotypical gender roles advancing into the adult world, parents are also a main socializer of their children. By purchasing stereotype-enforcing gifts for their children, allowing excessive media intake, and reprimanding children for straying from norms, parents are greatly impacting America's youth.

A recent social experiment was performed where a male child who wanted to be princess for Halloween was submerged in a costume shop, and numerous adult reactions were recorded. Unfortunately, America isn't as accepting of diversity as advertised. Take a look at the full experiment here, which received over 1,000,000 views.

When asked why parents refuse to allow children to stray from the norms sculpted by the media, University of Maryland Sociology Professor, Perry Threlfall, shares a unique perspective. Being a parent herself, as well as an instructor of numerous sociology courses, Threlfall is particularly familiar with why parents may have such strong opinions regarding their child's straying from the norms.

Advertisements for young children characterize women through personality traits, while those for adolescents depict women based on physical attributes.

While youth aged 0-12 and 13-18 typically fall into the same general age category in large-scale observations, the media appeals to these two groups of people very differently. For example, the advertisements on Saturday morning cartoons varies drastically from those on MTV.

In advertisements for toys and sugary foods, targeted at a younger audience, boys spend significantly more time interacting with the product, which creates a sense of ascendency, while girls often appear in the background much less instrumentally. Additionally, around 66 percent of ads for young children include a male narrator, while 15.1 percent have a female narrator. Since only 15 percent of these ads are aimed towards a male audience, this brings up the point that male narrators often dominate gender neutral ads as well.

On the other hand, for teenagers, advertisements often include significantly more women,
Using Hawkin's Consciousness Scale, researchers concluded that 56.9 percent of MTV ads portrayed women in a condescending manner. Instead of including significantly more men like in the children's ads, MTV features roughly the same amount. 77.4 percent of the women in these ads had exceptionally beautiful bodies, while only 2.2 percent of males did, according to study participants. In addition, 53.4 percent of the female actors wore "sexy" clothing, but a mere 6.5 percent of men did. Lastly, 60 percent of women in these commercials served the sole purpose of being admired.

These statistics illustrate that lack of female presence is not the only way the media showcases male superiority. The objectification of women in ads for older audiences creates a culture of male lust and female admiration. Men want women similar to those in the ads, while women want to be like the women in the ads, causing both demographics to buy the product at hand. As a result of this, the self esteem of females with high media intake has plummeted in recent years. Copious amounts of teen girls are being diagnosed with depression, eating disorders and other similar mental illnesses, because of the unachievable high standard the media advertises as "natural".

In this day and age, children are exposed to roughly 3,000 ads a day. The media will continue to cross questionable boundary lines in order to make a profit, and that is not going to change any time soon.  Threlfall believes that in order to change the mindset of our youth, it is the parents' responsibility "to limit media intake," because corporations will continue doing what sells. Why would companies be inclined to change their advertising strategies to match actual behavior, when their current techniques are increasing profit?

Creating products for male children with more purpose and substantiality thrusts inferiority upon young women, leaving pernicious long-term results.

Numerous renowned publications have deemed Mattel, Inc. to be the largest toy franchise of the world. Inarguably, Mattel has proven successful. However, their design strategies, particularly for virtual worlds, suggest a one-tracked mindset for what interests girls in contrast to boys, which could lead to feelings of discomfort for youth who don't fit the stereotypical mold.

According to a recent study comparing the Barbie Girls and Xtractaurs websites, though both sites have a target audience of youth aged six and above, they subtly enforce gender inequity, offering goal-oriented and mentally straining activity to on Xtractaurs, and mindless, shallow games on Barbie Girls.

The avatar customization for the Barbie site takes place in a pink dressing room, with a Caucasian model with an irremovable full face of makeup. Out of the 15 hair styles offered, 12 are waist-length, out of the seven shirts only two cover the midriff and out of the 99 outfit choices, only four are profession-oriented. Interestingly, these four could only be purchased through the Kooky Costume shop, implying that they were just for dress up and had no applicable use. In contrast, the Xtractaurs avatar design takes place in a high-tech laboratory, with each dinosaur part offering a special skill to the player, enhancing the user's combat success. Even in such a simple aspect of the games, female users are taught to focus on superficialities, while males are challenged to better their abilities.

Additionally, the Barbie Girls game contained much more derogatory computer-automated comments, numerous hints encouraging female submission to men, and overall less purpose than Xtractaurs. In a random text-sampling from both websites, the Barbie Girls excerpt contained much less advanced content, with significantly more misspellings and fewer academic words than on Xtractaurs.

After noting significant differences between the two games, researchers surveyed 26 young girls who consistently played on the Barbie Girls site. When asked if they believed they could succeed in a stereotypically masculine job such as a police officer or lawyer, the majority said no. Researchers then dressed Barbie dolls in clothing matching these professions, and nearly all the girls said they could be successful after seeing Barbie do it. This speaks immensely of the impact of stereotypical games. Women are taught to feel inferior from a young age through virtual entertainment, and as the technology becomes increasingly popular, these effects will only amplify.

Both games have recently been shut down after harsh criticism. Regardless, the impact they made on millions of young children is irrevocable.

While gender stereotypes in animated cartoons are still a prominent concern, gender equality has increased drastically since the 1980's.

In a longitudinal study, researchers analyzed 175 children's cartoons and the number of male and female protagonists and minor characters. In the shows that aired between 1935 and 1980, these shows produced 74 females leads, but 170 male leads. Additionally, they featured 107 minor female roles but a whopping 354 male minor roles. In general, for every three female characters, there were seven males. Zero gender neutral characters made appearances in any of these programs. Overall, these statistics proved drastically different than the proportion of each gender in America, leading females and gender neutral individuals to not only feel subordinate, but also be treated oppressively.

Post-1980, the media underwent drastic change in both its quantitative and qualitative portrayal of women. Female characters began to radiate more verbal-assertiveness, individualism and leadership, and the number of male and female characters in cartoons began to balance. Gender neutral characters were also introduced, yet even today they are not nearly as represented as they need to be to stop the harassment they suffer through because of their self-identification. It is majorly important that children's cartoons include proportionate representation of female and gender neutral individuals, in order to create a universal acceptance and sense of respect in regards to all people.

Today, many television shows such as Modern Family, Game of Thrones and X-Files work to break gender norms. These shows are rapidly gaining support, but their audiences consist of mostly adults. While it is important to engage all audiences in situations that stray from stereotypes, if children are not introduced to this concept at a young age, they are likely to grow up unable to freely express themselves in fear of straying from traditionally masculine or feminine behavior.

While the media has come a long way since the early 20th century, it still has a long way to go in order to create an egalitarian society. Threlfall is extremely fond of the detrimental aftermath of the media's suppression of female characters, as she teaches numerous courses that include heavy discussion on radical feminism. While the researchers of this study suggest that time will continue to strengthen gender equality in the media, Threlfall hypothesizes a more immediate approach.

Disney princess films and products all enforce traditional female stereotypes, greatly affecting gender development of children who engage with them.

Disney's nine classic princess films have generated billions of views and 25,000 pieces of merchandise on the market. As time progresses, Disney is becoming more androgynous with its protagonists, but stereotypical behavior is still evident in all nine films.

Photo by Stephanie Stroh
Four of these productions, including the most recent one, The Princess and the Frog, include domestic work being utilized by women to gain love from a man. In Pocahontas and Mulan, though the princesses portray more stereotypically masculine characteristics, their untraditional nature is illuminated in a negative light, creating undertones of trouble and disapproval. In all nine films, the princess cannot complete the final task without the assistance of her prince.

These movies not only reinforce the prominence of gender conformity in our society, but they also create unobtainable standards for love. While half of the princesses fell in love within a few days, the other half did against all odds. Additionally, they all fell in love with a man, which paints a picture that homosexuality is rare and unacceptable. The reason people are bullied for being anything other than straight is because the media only introduces children to heterosexual relationships, making them believe that anything different is second-rate.

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