A survey of adolescents’ perceptions of gender role portrayals on television conducted in 1997 sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicated that they are attending to these messages related to body weight:
Both girls (61%) and boys (53%) say the female characters they see on television are thinner than women in real life, but that male characters on television are about the same weight as the men in real life (61% of girls and 58% of boys). Older girls (71% of girls ages 16-17) are more likely to think women television characters are thinner than women they know in real life than do younger girls (51% of girls ages 10-12).
Kids notice an emphasis on attractiveness, especially for women and girls, in television shows: 57 percent of girls and 59 percent of boys say the female characters in the television shows they watch are "better looking" than the women and girls they know in real life.
Worrying about appearance or weight, crying or whining, weakness, and flirting are all qualities both girls and boys say they associate more with a female character on television than a male character. Playing sports, being a leader, and wanting to be kissed or have sex, on the other hand, are thought of as characteristics displayed more often by male characters.
Both girls (62%) and boys (58%) say the female characters they see on television usually rely on someone else to solve their problems, whereas male characters tend to solve their own problems (53% of girls and 50% of boys agree).
Girls want to look like the characters they see on television:
Seven out of ten (69%) of girls -- and 40 percent of boys -- say they have wanted to look like, dress, or fix their hair like a character(s) on television. Furthermore, almost a third of girls (31%) and 22% of boys say they changed something about their appearance to be more like a television character. Only 16% of girls and 12% of boys say they have ever dieted or exercised to look like a television character.
As documented in the video, Playing Unfair, sports coverage women’s sport also frequently represent female athletes in ways that emphasize their femininity and sexuality--as being married, or as mothers, or even as sex objects. In contrast, male athletes are represented more in terms of their physical strength and skills:
For example, an article in Golf for Women, examined the degree to which sex appeal was being used by the LPGA to attract attention to women’s golf. Some promoters of the sport suggested that increased focus on the physical appearance of female golfers would enhance attention to golfing, currently dominated by Tiger Woods and the PGA.
The article raises the question as to whether sexual appearance necessarily attracts more attention:
"Everybody keeps saying sex sells," says Mary Jo Kane, professor of sport sociology at the University of Minnesota and director of the Tucker Center for Research on Women and Sport. "Sells what? Maybe it gets a blip in terms of people who write about it in the sports world, but does it translate to more sales on the ground? Does it make the purses bigger? Do corporate sponsorship and TV coverage go up? Show me the data that says that. Show me the research, the marketing studies. Show me a conversation where a person says, 'I want to buy season tickets to a team because the players are sexy.'"
Media Awareness Project: Sex in Advertising lesson
To study media representations of female athletes, students could examine descriptions and images employed in sports magazine articles about female athletes, noting, for example, the type of adjectives or categories employed in describing these athletes. Students could also examine the discourses of sports, competition, gender, or bonding employed in these representations.
Femininity is also represented in the media as fulfilled almost exclusively through heterosexual relationships. For example, traditional Hollywood comedy or romance films, as well as the romance novel, portrayed females in the role of the nurturer who transformed the impersonal, distanced male into a more loving character (Radway, 1987). Adolescent females in films such as She's All That conveys the message that popularity is achieved primarily by adopting feminine social practices:
Similarly, females on soap opera or drama are often represented as primarily concerned about relationships, family, personal matters, home, and talk, while males are more concerned with business, institutions, self, and competition outside of the home. Female audiences are positioned to be engaged as part of being “in the home” focusing on domestic or interpersonal conflicts. The Children Now study indicated that women were represented more in terms of being in relationships while males were represented more in terms of being in careers:
* Women are most often portrayed in the context of relationships. Men, on the other hand, are most often seen in the context of careers.
* More women than men are seen dating across a range of media - on TV 23% of women compared to 17% of men, in movies 27% of women compared to 16% of men, and in commercials 9% of the women compared to 4% of the men.
* In contrast, men are seen spending their time "on the job" far more often than women in all media - on TV 41% of men compared to 28% of women, in movies 60% of men and 35% of women, in commercials 17% of men and 9% of women.
* Women are also more likely to be motivated by the desire to have a romantic relationship - on TV 32% of women and in the movies 35% of women, compared to 20% of men in each instance.
* In contrast, on TV 32% of men are motivated by the desire to get or succeed in a job compared to 24% of women. In movies 53% of men were motivated by their career compared to 31% of women.
* Magazine articles reinforce this message by focusing much more on "dating" (35% of their articles) than they do on subjects like "school" or "careers" (12%).
Magazines for females focus primarily on topics related to creating and establishing heterosexual relationships. Topics include focus on fashions, cosmetics, flirtation, tips for attracting males, romance, marriage, etc. Much of these magazines is devoted to advertising of products associated with these topics, so it is difficult to distinguish between the articles and the ads—both are attempting to promote or sell the idea of being appealing to males as constituted by a discourse of romance and sexuality. Students could analyze the most prominent topics/themes in these magazines, as well as the relationships between the content of the magazines that promote certain social practices associated with consumerism, and the advertising that does the same thing, creating blur between the two:
Adolescents are often socialized or positioned to adopt certain stances and beliefs about femininity through “quizzes” in these magazines. The questions employed often presuppose certain attitudes associated with adopting an identity defined by being outgoing, appealing to males, using certain products, or adopting practices associated with the idealized role models portrayed in the magazine. By answering questions in a certain manner, females are then scored on the degree to which they adopt the desired beliefs. For example, in a quiz in Seventeen Magazine, entitled, “Are You Hot?” readers were given the following quiz:
Do you ooze sex appeal or play it cool? Forget posting your picture on HotOrNot.com, take our quiz and find out! By Melissa Daly
Questions 1-3 of 10
At a long-awaited party in your best friend's basement, a group decides to start up a game of Spin the Bottle. Everyone else is playing. Are you in?
- Duh! The game was your suggestion.
- Doubtful. You're not very keen on exchanging spit with any random guy.
- Sure, why not? As long as you can rig that Coke bottle to point to your buddy's big brother across the circle...
You're taking a breather at the spring dance when the reggae version of "Sexual Healing" comes on:
- You grab your friends and start grooving -- it's too good a song to sit still.
- Shoot your boy a come-hither glance while lip-synching the suggestive lyrics.
- Break from the girls to go grind with the nearest guy -- it's a couples' tune!
A candid photo taken at the cast party for the play you were just in is being passed around class. You're in the background leaning against the set with your arms folded, talking to crew members perched on the stage, legs crossed and one shoe dangling off your toe, standing with friends, holding a cup of punch and laughing hysterically. The guy at the locker next to yours compliments you on the great new angora sweater you're wearing. You reply:
- "Oh, you like it? It's very soft ... wanna feel?"
- "Really? I don't know, I think the fuzziness adds a few pounds."
- "Thanks! It's new."
After receiving a score, reader were then given the following advice:
Feeling the Heat
You know what boys want -- you! There's a definite sexual energy that confident girls give off and you've got it. "When a woman thinks she's attractive or desirable, it adds to her sex appeal," says Rebecca Curtis, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. But while you're always game to cha-cha with the cute kid in gym class, your value as a person doesn't depend on whether you can successfully proposition him. "You've got power to wait until someone appealing comes along," explains Curtis. Keep being your alluring self -- and it won't be long till he shows up.
For other Seventeen quizzes:
These practices related to a discourse of heterosexual romance are also reflected in advice books. For example, Ellen Fein's "The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right" advertise and encourage the idea that a women's mission in life is to find a "keeper."
Females are also represented in television commercials and magazine ads as consumers, particularly in terms of assuming domestic family roles as homemaker, cook, mom, cleaner, laundry person, and as finding satisfaction through shopping. Or, teachers are assumed to be middle-class, white females. Students could draw pictures of what they envision “homemakers” or “teachers” and then discuss how and why they portrayed these roles as they did
In a Campbell SoupTM ad, the mother is shown preparing the Supper Bake with a voice over stating that "Any GOOD mom knows that a quick meal is a good one." The following ads from the 1960s portray the housewife as obsessed with cleanliness—through use of Liquid Ajax or Man From Glad (with its male image of power which needs to used by the female):
These representations continue today, in the image of a female housewife in the following ads that presupposes that it is the female who is responsible for cleaning the house:
It is also important to study counter-examples that challenge or interrogate these traditional roles of femininity as evident in representations of females in non-traditional magazines:
These include New Moon (for younger females)
Although, as Lisa Featherstone argues, some of the these magazines are not all that much different from the more traditional magazines:
On the other hand, there are also many websites devoted to examining women’s issues in more non-traditional ways:
and films about and by women:
In summary, there is considerable interest in the influence of media representations of women on cultural constructions of female identities. The following sites focus on critiquing gendered media representations:
Gender roles in Disney films
And, Adbusters has included some spoofs on gender ads, for example, on thinness on an Obsession ad.
Chavanu, B. (1999). Seventeen, self-Image, and stereotypes. Rethinking schools, 14(2).
unit on advertising and media literacy
Espinosa, L. (2003). Seventh graders and sexism. Rethinking schools, 17(3).
Media Awareness Project: Gender and Tobacco
Unit: Alison Zimbalist and Javaid Khan, The New York Times lessons: Sex, Guise, and Video Games: Assessing the Portrayal of Women in Video Games and Across Entertainment Media