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

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