Sunday, August 26, 2012

Gendered Constructs in Children's Mass Media

            Nearly all theoretical approaches will admit that a person’s identities, beliefs, and attitudes are linked to experiences and influences in childhood. From a very early age, children develop and solidify their own ideas of just who and what they are. In fact, studies have shown that “by three years of age, children begin to develop their own preferences and desires for certain characters/toys and actively seek them out to broaden their knowledge of them” (Cordy, 2003, p. 37). Perhaps the greatest influence on children is not social learning within parental modeling, but rather the dominating messages of the mass media in popular culture. For children, popular culture consists of television, books, movies, magazines, coloring and activity books, advertising, clothing trends, toys and characters. In my research I will conduct a literary analysis on the impact of children’s popular culture messages and the development of gender schemas.
            Shooting to the core of popular culture, these gender roles, or specifically, the “expectations for behavior and attitudes that the culture defines as appropriate for women and men” (Anderson and Witham, 2011, p. 33) have been a subject of feminist contention in my lifetime. “Women's studies has produced a dramatic outpouring of studies and theories about women in society. These studies have questioned the assumptions and biases of existing work in almost every field” (Anderson and Witham, 2011, p. 12). So it is with feminist theoretical application that I investigate the impact of media messages on young girls and research the implications of these messages in the development of gender schemas.
            Gender role stereotypes and a general under-representation of female characters are widely present in most popular and award-winning children’s picture books. Hamilton, Anderson, Broaddus & Young (2006) performed comparison research on this category of popular children’s titles, comparing the occurrences of sexism and gender stereotyping in books today with those in popular circulation in the 1980s. Surprisingly, Hamilton, et al (2006) concluded “the male-to-female ratios of title and main characters and pictures remain poor” and that “nurturant behaviors are even more likely now…to be performed exclusively by girls and women” (pp.764). The big issue is in how these sexist messages are damaging. “Social Cognitive Theory posits that the observation of role models prompts the formation of beliefs that will govern future behaviors” (Winham & Hampl, 2008, pp.121). This point resonates poignantly when one considers the ultimate effect on core beliefs within the individual, and how the behaviors attached to these beliefs are damaging to society.
            Further compounding the issue, media messages are as prevalent and unavoidable for children as they are for adults. Fitzpatrick & McPherson (2010) have found it important to investigate coloring books as well as popular children’s literature on the premise that coloring books are frequently “part of the merchandising associated with the release of major movie and television cartoon series” (pp.130). Fitzpatrick &McPherson’s (2010) findings report incredibly similar gender role stereotypes and disproportionate portrayal of male characters to that of Hamilton, et al’s findings on literature books. This subjection to gender role stereotypes can be subtle. Clearly, young children are being sent an unfair message. These hegemonic marketing practices seem to be a purposeful extension of patriarchy, rather than an innocent matter of imperception on behalf of the publishing companies.
            The mass media messages targeting young children and adolescents are highly gendered and seemingly trapped in age-old stereotypes of performed gender. This, coupled with the under-representation of female characters as a whole, is sending a patriarchal and pervasive message to young girls. Researchers continue to report on the occurrences of such messages, with findings showing negligible improvement over the last thirty years. It is also clear, based on research findings, that these messages are damaging to society in that they contribute to gender stratification, perpetuation of gender stereotypes, and sexism. By changing the character roles, story lines, and performed gender activities within children’s literature, televised media, and child-targeted marketing campaigns, perhaps we can begin to cultivate a new generation of equality-minded youth.
Anderson, M.L., and Witham, D.H. (2011). Thinking about women: Sociological perspectives on sex and gender (9th ed.). Boston, Massachusetts: Pearson Education, Inc.
Cordy, D., (2004) "Marketing to children (and mums) through children’s magazines", Young Consumers: Insight and Ideas for Responsible Marketers, 5(1), 35 – 44.
Fitzpatrick, M. J. and McPherson, B. J. (2010). Coloring within the lines: Gender stereotypes in contemporary coloring books. Sex Roles, 62(1-2), 127-137.
Hamilton, M. C., Anderson, D., Broaddus, M. and Young, K. Gender Stereotyping and Under-representation of Female Characters in 200 Popular Children’s Picture Books: A Twenty-first Century Update.  Sex Roles, 55, 757-765.
Winham, D., & Hampl, J. S. (2008). Adolescents report television characters do not influence their self-perceptions of body image, weight, clothing choices or food habits. Young Consumers, 9(2), 121-130. doi:10.1108/17473610810879693

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Reproductive Justice: The Tentacle of the Abortion Octopus

Andrea Smith’s “Beyond Pro-Choice Versus Pro-Life…” seeks to “reject the pro-life versus pro-choice model for understanding reproductive justice” (2009, p. 454). Smith points out this model’s deficiency in relating to, and including, the woman of intersectional disadvantage. Smith suggests:
The pro-life position supports a criminalization approach that depends on a racist political system that will necessarily impact poor women and women of color who are less likely to have alternative strategies for addressing unwanted pregnancies. Meanwhile, the pro-choice position often supports population control policies and the development of dangerous contraceptives that are generally targeted toward communities of color. And both positions do not question the capitalist system – they focus solely on the decision of whether or not a woman should have an abortion without addressing the economic, political, and social conditions that put women in this position in the first place (2009, p. 454).
I was struck by the author’s verbiage: “dangerous contraceptives.” In response, Planned Parenthood reported in 2000:
            At the dawn of a new century and new millennium:
  • Ninety-eight percent of American women use birth control at some point in their lives.
  • Eighty-nine percent of Americans favor more access to information about birth control.
  • Eighty-one percent think birth control access is a good way to prevent abortions. (2010).
I can hardly understand how a population of women in favor of more access to birth control, and open to new forms of birth control, should be concerned about dangerous contraceptives. In general, I really agree with Smith’s main point: we need a new model to encompass an enlightened society’s intersectional perspectives on the issue of abortion. Speaking to Smith’s report on the avoidance of questioning the capitalist system, I ask why we would need to question something that cannot and will not be affectively changed? Of course we must consider the environment of the individuals of our society in every way. Kavanaugh finds:
…sexual expression and reproduction are never merely private choices. These choices themselves influence and are influenced by our social and economic environment. People who trumpet capitalism and individualism fail to realize that those very forces drive human choices about sex and child-bearing (2004, p.7).

Clearly, this is an issue that I could research and cite and expound on for days on end. I do firmly believe, however, that the more we know, the closer we come to a middle ground. I do not personally see the issue of abortion as a yin and yang. Instead, like Smith notes, “both [sides of the abortion debate] depend on similar operating assumptions that do nothing to support either life or real choice for women of color” (2009, p. 447). This is certainly a tentacle of the abortion octopus that we can do something about.
Kavanaugh, J. (2004). The values vote. America, 191 (17), 7.
Planned Parenthood (2010). History and successes. General format. Retrieved from
Smith, A. (2009). Beyond pro-choice versus pro-life: Women of color and reproductive justice. In V. Taylor, N. Whittier & L. Rupp (Eds.) Feminist Frontiers (pp.389-399). New York, NY: McGraw Hill, p. 446-457.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"I'm a Feminist or a Fruitcake"

To be a female means I am supposed to be pretty. I should be kind, lady-like, motherly, and a great hostess. I should be intelligent enough to manipulate others, and add a dash of demure to get away with it all. I must work a job like everyone else, raise my children, support my family, keep up a house, volunteer, and encourage never-ending quests for knowledge. I do not find my tasks in life to be easy, nor is my situation always fair – but I am a woman, and most importantly I believe that means I am here to endure, to encourage, and to enlighten.  Where some women may feel objectified by the female figure in art and sculpture, I find flattery and honor in the adoration of the feminine figure. While I wince at ridiculous western societal norms regarding feminine hygiene and hair removal, I can’t deny the irresistibility of the smooth, sweet-smelling female form. I have never been denied schooling at an institution based on my race, gender, or religion. I was challenged to accept masculine qualities as an athlete and performer, just as I was pressured to fulfill the most womanly and feminine attributes of a Southern lady. I experience gender privilege when men open most doors I enter; I experience white privilege when given the benefit of the doubt. However, I most often experience social misconceptions regarding my age, my religion, and my sexuality. Zinn & Dill (2009) say “the matrix of domination seeks to account for the multiple ways that women experience themselves as gendered, raced, classed, and sexualized” (p.92). This is the basis of multiracial feminism.
Under the heading of “third wave feminism” work can begin to level out the playing field; to give women a chance to understand the responsibilities inherent in their earned freedoms. Now is the time.  Multiracial feminism, however, has roots throughout every “wave” of historical feminism (Berger & Bettez, 2007). Personally, I would really like to take the time to reestablish what it means to be a woman in the ebb and flow of a third wave of feminism. Are cultural differences becoming simply an explanation for societal groupings, or is there still a lingering disadvantage tied to cultural and ethnic misconceptions? I have yet to personally witness any injustice in my life based on race or gender, but does that warrant my belief that all is well? I am, in fact, a woman who remembers Designing Women’s electrically charged episode The Strange Case of Clarence and Anita, where they donned black shirts with white letters: “He Lied.” I remember the words of second wave feminism ringing loud and clear, though I did not understand from my own perspective. Perhaps there is much to learn from the past, but I’d like the chance to reflect on just how far we’ve come. In Mary Jo’s Bette Davis-style monologue (Bloodworth 1991) I Encourage you to see the lengths we have grown.
Mary Jo: All we want is to be treated with equality and respect. Is that asking too much? I'm sorry, I don't mean to be strident and overbearing, but you know nice just doesn't cut it anymore. I'm mad because we're 51 percent of the population and only two percent of the United States Senate. I'm mad because 406 men in the House of Representatives have a pool, a sauna and a gym, and we have six hairdryers and a ping pong table. I'm mad because in a Seminole, Oklahoma police station; there's a poster of a naked woman that says 'Women make bad cops.' I'm mad because in spite of the fact that we scrub the nation's floors, wash the dishes, have all the babies and commit very little of the crime, we still only make 58 cents on the dollar. And I don't know about the rest of you women out there, but I don't give a damn if people think I'm a feminist or a fruitcake! What I'm going to do is get in my car and drive to the centermost part of the United States of America and climb the tallest tower and yell; Hey, don't get me wrong, we love ya, but who the hell do you men think you are?!!”
Berger, M. & Bettez, S. (2007). Multicultural Feminism. In G. Ritzer (Ed.), Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Retrieved from
Bloodworth-Thomason, L. (Writer), & Steinberg, D. (Director). (1991). The Strange Case of Clarence and Anita [television series episode]. In (Producer), Designing Women. Los Angeles, CA: Studio. Retrieved from;summary
Zinn, M. & Dill, B. (2009). Theorizing Difference from Multiracial Feminism. In V. Taylor, N. Whittier & L. Rupp (Eds.), Feminist Frontiers (pp. 89-94). New York, NY; McGraw Hill.