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The Effect of the Media on Gender Role Stereotypes

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    A variety of stereotypes are prevalent in today’s society, so of course there are gender-role stereotypes with the assumption males and females should each perform specific functioning roles in society which go back for many generations. Helgeson (2016) describes gender-role stereotypes as the features that society assigns to males and females due to social contexts rather than biological contexts. There are different questions that can be posed regarding gender role stereotypes regarding if underlying influences, like the media, particularly play a role in the components that are considered the norm, whether gender-role stereotypes adapt to changing societies, and when individuals start developing gender-role stereotypical mindsets.

    Gender roles and society have both been changing and developing, and the media seems to play a role in the impact one has on the other. The media has an influence on many aspects of life so may also undoubtedly play a part in the development of gender-role stereotypes beginning at an early age then continue to shape a child throughout adolescence as development continues. Children’s media, including television shows, movies, books, and toys all enforce gender-role stereotypes to an extent, often without realization. Some examples consist of Disney princesses among girls and superheroes among boys. The media’s influences may help construct how society views gender-role stereotypes and establish a foundation for children’s beliefs about gender roles then soon thereafter help contribute to the development of gender-role stereotypes in adolescence and adulthood as different types of media exposure become prevalent.

    Some gender-role stereotypes have shifted in recent years, with the most common being the growing number of women in the workforce, and the normative of professions for men and women and the capabilities of each changing. It is not uncommon to hear stories from members of only a few generations back describe how the women were considered to be the ones who typically stayed home to do household chores and rear children while men were the hardworking breadwinners of the family during a time when the media was not as rampant in many different platforms. Men often held more authority positions than women who were once considered incapable of such, but these gender-role stereotypical beliefs have shifted since the mid-20th century when more women entered the workforce (Eagly, Nater, Miller, Kaufmann, & Sczesny, 2019).

    Before this shift, men dominated the workforce and typically were also the ones society considered to be best fit to hold professions in the medical field or hold political offices. It is not as uncommon today to see the woman of the family as the breadwinner and the man of the family as the one who stays home to rear children. Women also now hold more political positions compared to previous years, but there still seems to be a direct influence by the media on gender-role stereotypes that align with the traditional beliefs when it comes to their capabilities to hold such positions. According to Bligh, Schlehofer, Casad, and Gaffney (2011), the media may directly sway the public’s opinion on how they should view women politicians by portraying them as not competent enough to hold leadership positions, but instead more able to handle issues dealing with compassion. This poses the assumption that although gender-role stereotypes have shifted and will probably continue to, the traditional gender-role stereotypes about females will always be present to some extent in the media when it comes to triumphing their compassionate abilities over leadership abilities.

    Stereotypes about gender begin to become engrained while babies are still in the womb since blue is always associated with baby boys, and pink is associated with baby boys. Gender reveals are constantly seen on social media platforms where these colors are highly associated. Different gender stereotypes only increase with age as gender-roles become more rooted. The way we differentiate associations between genders continues throughout childhood with the different types of media these children become exposed to, which further strengthens the development of gender roles. According to Golden and Jacoby (2017), research suggests that media-based play has an effect on gender-role behavior during childhood and is rooted in the social cognitive theory. Some examples of media that young children are exposed to that affect their styles of play and development of gender-role stereotypes are Disney princesses for girls and superheroes for boys, as well as toy commercials.

    During childhood, most little girls grow up watching, reading about, and playing with Disney princesses. Golden and Jacoby (2017) also suggest that young girls can face major consequences resulting from the female stereotypes of beauty associated with Disney princesses. Disney princesses are typically flawless figures who become idolized, so young girls think they should model themselves after these characters. A positive outcome could be the development of a strong self-esteem, but a negative consequence that could potentially result from this may be young girls’ noticing their bodies and thinking they must be skinny since princesses are. Also reported by Golden and Jacoby (2017), spanning for just over sixty years, Disney females, like Cinderella, often were the ones who needed saving whereas the Disney males were considered the dominant figures in society who became the heroes to the female characters, and this was typically the case with most male and female Disney characters’ gender stereotypical roles up until the mid 1990s.

    Further research suggests that Disney princess movies often showcase the traditional gender roles of women as nurturing and affectionate (Coyne, Linder, Rasmussen, Nelson, & Birkbeck, 2016). Gender-role stereotypes have shifted in recent years where it is no longer as uncommon for women to now hold more power roles in society, and Disney has adapted to fit this change. Recently, Disney has begun to produce female characters that do not follow the traditional female stereotypical gender-roles, with an example being Tiana who owned her own restaurant so was considered a power figure in The Princess and the Frog (Golden & Jacoby, 2017). With these types of changes being implemented, the portrayal of gender roles in popular media could potentially have an effect on young girls that they can hold power roles, like many women in today’s society, instead of always being the one who stereotypically holds more inferior jobs while the male is the breadwinner.

    On the other hand, young boys often idolize superhero figures like Superman and Batman. Supposedly, boys’ exposure to superhero figures has been correlated to greater levels of male-stereotyped play, such as aggression (Coyne, Linder, Rasmussen, Nelson, & Collier, 2014). Aggression is often a quality that is correlated to the domination aspect of gender-role stereotypes of males in adulthood (Helgeson, 2016). Further research suggests that many young boys also watch Disney princess programs as a child and can have an effect on the levels of male-stereotyped play they engage in, while also learning different gender-role stereotypes as a result of watching such male and female characters in this capacity (Coyne et al., 2016).

    With the portrayal of characters such as Disney princess and superheroes, the media seems to influence gender-role stereotypes when associated with the types of play among boys and girls in childhood. Superheroes show many masculine traits through the aspect of being tough and powerful, whereas Disney princesses show feminine traits of nurturing qualities over toughness and beauty over power. From superhero aspect, many characters require the need to be saved or require support by powerful male figures, and this could potentially be an underlying reason why children may initially associate gender-role stereotypes in this traditional way where males are typically dominant in society. Such portrayals are consistent with males being seen as more competent, whereas women are known to express more warmth, as reported by Helgeson (2016).

    Disney princess and superheroes are often developed into toys for young children as well. Of course, there are a variety of toys, and toy commercials are another form of media that could potentially enforce gender-role stereotypes in young children. According to Kahlenburg and Hein (2009), the way in which toys are promoted and marketed to depict toys related to masculine and feminine characteristics could influence how children perceive what is acceptable to play with from a gender-role viewpoint. The researchers also suggest that the cultivation theory is very influential in altering one’s perception of socially acceptable components through the media, leading to gender-role stereotypes. Oftentimes, children’s toys are presented through commercials, specifically on networks like Nickelodeon that are dominated by viewers who are children, in such a way where girls promote toys traditionally seen for girls, and boys promote toys traditionally seen for boys (Kahlenburg & Hein, 2009). It is not too common to see unisexual promotion for toys, and as a result, children may come to associate toys based on gender. Since individuals begin to develop gender-role stereotypical mindsets as young children, they undoubtedly become more aware of gender roles as they get older.

    Nickelodeon is a network that has been explored, not only regarding gender-role stereotypes in both commercials and television shows aimed at younger children, but also through their television shows aimed at older children on the verge of adolescence. Kahlenburg and Hein (2009) also found that Nickelodeon has underwent development to incorporate television shows that promote diversity in regard to gender by allowing more females in leading roles, rather than only males. Such portrayals can affect not only popular viewing among both genders of older children but also proves that women are capable dominant positions.

    It seems probable that with ever-changing ideas and different acceptances within society today that gender-role stereotypes would change more over time as a result of the media’s portrayal. Since research suggests that gender-role stereotypes may begin to become engrained with the viewing of Disney princess and superheroes on television and in movies, children often become accustomed to traditional gender-role stereotypes at a very early age. Of course, these portrayals in the media have been changing to fit the changing societal normative, as observed with Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, but such traditional gender-role stereotypical mindsets may occur since many children still watch the older, classic movies their parents grew up on that came out decades ago, like Cinderella and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Gender-role stereotypes seem to become more developed as children grow older and deviate away more from the normative, such example being both genders watching Nickelodeon television shows with leading roles held by females which aligns with how women are often seen in more dominating roles in the workforce today when compared to several generations back.

    Ultimately, society is ever-changing and so are gender-role stereotypes, even though it may be in small increments at a time. The media does seem to have some effect on how the public views gender-role stereotypes, but it seems difficult to completely change the traditional stereotypes that society has always been accustomed to. According to Helgeson (2016), stereotypes can be difficult to alter, and this particularly proves true when analyzing the effect of the media on gender-role stereotypes.

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