Susan D. Witt, Ph.D.
The University of Akron
School of Family and Consumer Sciences
     As children move through childhood and adolescence, television is an important influence on their gender role socialization.  The gender biased and gender stereotyped behaviors and attitudes that developing young people are exposed to on television will have an impact on their perception of male and female roles in our society. An overview of literature dealing with the influence of television on children’s gender role socialization suggests strict adherence to traditional gender roles, despite being limiting to children and adolescents as they grow into adulthood.
     Children internalize gender role stereotypes from books, songs, television, and the movies (Thorne, 1993).  Television, however, is perhaps the form of media most influential in shaping ideas of appropriate sex roles (Lauer & Lauer, 1994).  Research on television viewing and the socialization of children indicates television has a great impact on the lives of children.  Studies have shown preschoolers spend an average of nearly 30 hours a week watching television; it is suggested children spend more time watching television than they spend on anything else except sleeping (Aulette, 1994; Kaplan, 1991; Anderson, Lorch, Field, Collins & Nathan, 1986).  Nielsen Media Research has found that by the time children are sixteen years old, they have spent more time watching television than going to school (Nielsen Media Research as cited in Basow, 1992).
    Children are exposed to about 20,000 advertisements a year (Stoneman & Brody, 1981).  By the time children graduate from high school, they have witnessed 13,000 violent deaths on television (Gerbner & Gross, 1980).  Prosocial and antisocial behaviors are influenced by television (Strasburger, 1995; Comstock & Paik, 1991; Bandura, 1986; Ahammer & Murray, 1979).  Also, television influences attitudes about race and gender (Liebert & Sprafkin, 1988).

Development of Children

     As children grow and develop, they are taking in information and acquiring knowledge at a rapid pace.  As children develop their cognitive abilities, they assimilate new information into their existing knowledge base and adjust to the new information by
accommodating it to what they already know (Piaget, 1954).  Children’s ideas about how the world works come from the experiences they have and the attitudes and behaviors they see around them.  The young child who comes to understand women are nurses and men are doctors may have come to the realization because the first doctor he or she saw was a man, and he was assisted by a female nurse.  This  man as doctor, woman as nurse  idea may have reinforced by parents reading books; conversations with friends and television may reinforce also.   If the child frequently is faced with gender biases and gender stereotypes, this knowledge will be incorporated and influence perceptions regarding men and women.  Keeping in mind young children with developing minds watch many hours of television, and recalling television reinforces gender stereotypes, it is not surprising children come away from this television experience with firmly held beliefs.  Frequently these beliefs are stereotyped  with regard to gender.
    Of the various factors which help shape gender-typed behaviors, role models and imitation are extremely influential (Beal, 1994; Basow, 1992, Hargreaves & Colley, 1986; Bandura, 1977).  Children are exposed to models throughout their environment, including those on television.  Research suggests children who view violent programming on television will behave more aggressively with peers (Strasburg, 1995;  Bandura, 1977).  It is also true children who view prosocial behaviors on television are likely to  exhibit those types of behaviors themselves.  Young children will imitate and repeat behaviors they see on television.   Because children are influenced by gender stereotyped role models they see on television, they will also exhibit gender biased behaviors and develop gender biased attitudes that they see modeled on television.
    Positive developmental outcomes for young children during their growing-up years include developing autonomy, initiative, and a sense of industriousness (Erikson, 1964).   Children who witness female characters on television programs who are passive, indecisive, and subordinate to men (and see this reinforced by the environment around them) come to understand this is the appropriate way for females to behave.  It is less likely for female children to develop autonomy, initiative and industriousness when they rarely see it modeled in those around them.  Similarly, because male characters on television programs are more likely to be shown in leadership roles and exhibit assertive, decisive behavior, children learn this is the appropriate way for males to behave (Seidman, 1999; Carter, 1991; Cantor, 1977).

What Children are Watching

     Regarding gender role development on television, the National Institute of Mental Health has determined:

              1) In male-female interaction, men are usually more dominant.
              2) Men on television are rational, ambitious, smart, competitive,
              powerful, stable, violent, and tolerant, while women are sensitive,
              romantic, attractive, happy, warm, sociable, peaceful, fair,
              submissive, and timid.
              3) For men, the emphasis is on strength, performance, and skill;
              for women, it is on attractiveness and desirability.
              4) Marriage and family are not important to television’s men.  One
              study found that for nearly half the men, it wasn’t possible to tell if
              they were married, a fact that was true for only 11% of the women
              (National Institute of Mental Health as cited in Lauer & Lauer, 1994, p. 73).
    While some children’s programming has come under attack for being violent, irrelevant, or sexist (Carter, 1991; Streicher, 1974), other programs for children, such as Sesame Street, are regularly lauded for attempting to meet the developmental needsof children.  Sexism, however,  can be found even among the Muppets, who all have male names or male voices (Cobb, Stevens-Long, & Goldstein, 1982).  Even Miss Piggy, a female character, is voiced by a male.
    A study of Saturday morning cartoons found females were pictured less often than males,  were less active than males, played fewer roles than males, played fewer lead roles than males, and worked primarily in the home (Streicher, 1974).  Although these findings were obtained two decades ago, there has been no improvement.  Females are not more fairly represented in children’s programming.   Recent studies of Saturday morning programs for children demonstrated males are featured in dominant roles, while females are shown in peripheral roles (Zerbinos, 1995; Carter, 1991).  Children’s programs on the Public Broadcasting System have consistently shown fewer females than males. Further, television programs evidence a greater range of occupations for males than females (Zerbinos, 1995; Cantor, 1977).  This discrepancy in occupations between males and females is shown on music television, where it was found that more than nine out of ten occupational roles classified as stereotypically male (e.g., physician, mechanic, firefighter) were played by male actors (Seidman, 1999).
    It has been suggested the preferences of boys are given precedence over those of girls because boys represent 53% of the Saturday viewing audience.  Those who make decisions regarding children’s programming have determined action and violence should dominate children’s television (Watson as cited in Basow, 1992).

Gender Bias in Television
    Gender stereotypes occur with frequency on daytime soap operas; women are often shown as hopeless individuals, unable to solve problems without assistance (Basow, 1992).  Both males and females are shown in gender stereotypic roles on many music television programs (Seidman, 1999).  Children frequently watch these programs after school, and receive reinforcement for the notion women are subordinate, passive, and indecisive.
    About two-thirds of characters in television programs are male.  From the 1950s through the 1990s, this figure has remained stable (Seidman, 1999; Huston, Donnerstein, Fairchild, Feshbach, Katz, Murray, Rubenstein, Wilcox, & Zuckerman, 1992; Condry, 1989).  There is more interaction shown with men (with both men and women) than there is with women (Lott, 1989).  Further, interactions between men and women frequently indicate women are defined by their relationships with men (Beal, 1994).
    Television often does not reflect reality when it deals with the occupations of men and women.  For example, programs depict 75% of women as being in the labor force, compared with the truer figure of about 56% (Lauer & Lauer, 1994; Basow, 1992).  The primary job setting for most women on television is as a professional. Most women in real life, however, are in low paying, low status jobs (Basow, 1992).  Lessthan 10% of women in the United States make more than $50,000 a year (Beal, 1994).
    Most females on nighttime television are young, attractive, thin, and ornamental (Davis, 1990).  Most female characters are either under 35 or over 50.  Middle-aged women are rare (Beal, 1994).  Females are consistently placed in situations where looks count more than brains, and helpless and incompetent behaviors are expected (Boyer, 1986).  Men are twice as likely as women to be shown as competent and able to solve problems (Boyer, 1986).  Gender stereotypes abound on television, with women being depicted as sex objects more frequently than men, and men portrayed as inept when handling children’s needs (Seidman, 1999; Horovitz as cited in Basow, 1992).
    On music television, a popular program choice among young viewers, females are often shown in degrading positions.  Music videos frequently show women as sex objects.  Females are also shown as trying to gain the attention of a male who ignores them (Sherman & Dominick, 1986).  Rap music videos are also popular with young television viewers.  Frequently women are portrayed as objects of lust (Seidman, 1999; Basow, 1992).  Women are four times more likely than men to be provocatively dressed (Atkin, Moorman, & Lin, 1991); while men are almost always fully clothed (Tavris & Wade, 1984).
    While early television commercials were criticized for being overwhelmingly biased in favor of males, a study of commercials broadcast between 1971 and 1985 indicated improvement regarding numbers of male and female main characters (Bretl & Cantor, 1988).  However, even though there is currently more equity in the number of men and women appearing in commercials, women are most often shown in the role of wife and mother, or in demonstrating products for the home (Osborn as cited in Basow, 1992).  Another aspect of television advertising which is overwhelmingly a masculine province is voiceovers and narration, in which 83-90% of the voices are male (Basow, 1992).
    In commercials for children’s programs, boys are shown more frequently and in active roles; girls’ behavior is much more likely to be passive (O’Connor, 1989).  Advertisers indicate male models generate more product sales to children of both sexes than female models (Schneider, 1987).  It has also been suggested girls watch male-dominated programs and commercials because there are few other options.  Girls will become loyal to programming that is more gender fair (Schneider, 1987).
    Interestingly, children without television have been shown to be less stereotyped in their gender role attitudes (Kimball, 1986).  Children who view programs with non-traditional gender roles tend to have non-traditional gender role perceptions
(Rosenwasser, Lingenfelter, & Harrington, 1989).  Because children model behavior they see on television, they are likely to perpetuate gender stereotypes they view (Strasburger, 1995; Basow, 1992).

    Research indicates that television has a socializing influence on children regarding their attitudes toward gender roles.  Gender role stereotypes seen on television are, in turn, reinforced by parents, friends, and school, contributing to the child’s sense of what it means to be male or female in society.  Television sends forceful and compelling messages to children about the societally-approved roles for boys and girls and men and women.  These messages are often stereotyped, biased, and outdated yet continue to persist and influence the behavior of children.  As children continue to develop and grow, they are exposed to more and more examples of gender biases and stereotypes, and thus children perpetuate similar unfair attitudes and behaviors.
    Traditional gender roles, wherein men are encouraged to be decisive and to show leadership qualities and women are encouraged to be deferential and dependent do not benefit individuals, particularly women.  Traditional gender roles discourage the full range of expression and accomplishment.  Children should be allowed to develop a sense of self in a gender fair environment which encourages both boys and girls to feel  they are a force in the society.


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