The influence of television on children's gender role socialization.

Author: Witt, Susan D. Source: Childhood Education v. 76 no5 (annual theme issue) (2000) p. 322-4 ISSN: 0009-4056 Number: BEDI00016560 Copyright: The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission. Further reproduction of this article in violation of the copyright is prohibited.


Children often internalize gender role stereotypes from books, songs, television, and the movies (Thorne, 1993). Television, however, is perhaps the most influential form of media (Lauer & Lauer, 1994). Research on television viewing and children's socialization indicates that television has a great impact on children's lives.

Studies show preschoolers spend an average of nearly 30 hours a week watching television; some spend more time watching television than doing anything else except sleeping (Anderson, Lorch, Field, Collins, & Nathan, 1986; Aulette, 1994; Kaplan, 1991). Nielsen Media Research has found that by the time children are 16 years old, they have spent more time watching television than going to school (as cited in Basow, 1992). As a result, children are exposed to about 20,000 advertisements a year (Stoneman & Brody, 1981). By the time a child graduates from high school, he will have witnessed 13,000 violent deaths on television (Gerbner & Gross, 1976).

Television influences both children's prosocial and antisocial behaviors (Ahammer & Murray, 1979; Bandura, 1986; Comstock & Paik, 1991; Strasburger, 1995), as well as their attitudes about race and gender (Liebert & Sprafkin, 1988).

DEVELOPMENT OF CHILDRENAs children grow and develop, they take in information and acquire knowledge at a rapid pace. As they develop their cognitive abilities, they assimilate new information and accommodate it to what they already know (Piaget, 1954). Children's ideas about how the world works come from their experiences and from the attitudes and behaviors they see around them. The young child who believes that only women are nurses and only men are doctors may have developed this understanding because the first doctor he or she saw was a man, who was assisted by a female nurse. This "man as doctor, woman as nurse" idea may have been reinforced further by parents, books, conversations with friends, and television. If the child frequently meets such gender biases and gender stereotypes, this knowledge will be incorporated into future perceptions. Keeping in mind that young children with developing minds watch many hours of television, and recalling how television reinforces gender stereotypes, it is not surprising when children develop stereotyped beliefs.

Of the various factors that help shape gender-typed behaviors, role models and imitation are extremely influential (Bandura, 1977; Basow, 1992; Beal, 1994; Hargreaves & Colley, 1986). Research suggests that children who view violent programming on television will behave more aggressively with peers (Bandura, 1977; Strasburger, 1995). It is also true that children who view prosocial behaviors on television are more likely to exhibit those types of behaviors themselves. Young children will imitate and repeat behaviors they see on television. Consequently, children may exhibit these gender-biased behaviors and develop the gender-biased attitudes that they see modeled on television.

Developing autonomy, initiative, and a sense of industriousness are critical to young children's positive development (Erikson, 1964). Children who witness female characters on television programs who are passive, indecisive, and subordinate to men, and who see this reinforced by their environment, will likely believe that this is the appropriate way for females to behave. Female children are less likely to develop autonomy, initiative, and industriousness if they rarely see those traits modeled. Similarly, because male characters on television programs are more likely to be shown in leadership roles and exhibiting assertive, decisive behavior, children learn this is the appropriate way for males to behave (Cantor, 1977; Carter, 1991; Seidman, 1999).

GENDER BIAS IN TELEVISIONThe National Institute of Mental Health has determined:.

* Men are usually more dominant in male-female interactions.

* Men on television are often portrayed as rational, ambitious, smart, competitive, powerful, stable, violent, and tolerant, while women are sensitive, romantic, attractive, happy, warm, sociable, peaceful, fair, submissive, and timid.

* Television programming emphasizes male characters' strength, performance, and skill; for women, it focuses on attractiveness and desirability.

* 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 percent of the women (National Institute of Mental Health, as cited in Lauer & Lauer, 1994, p. 73).

About two-thirds of characters in television programs are male, a figure that has remained constant since the 1950s (Condry, 1989; Huston et al., 1992; Seidman, 1999). In interactions between men and women, women frequently are defined by their relationships with men (Beal, 1994).

Furthermore, television often does not reflect the reality of the work force. For example, 75 percent of the women on TV are depicted as being in the labor force, compared with the truer figure of about 56 percent (Basow, 1992; Lauer & Lauer, 1994). Most women on television are shown working in a profession. Most women in real life, however, are in low-paying, low-status jobs (Basow, 1992). Less than 10 percent of women in the United States make more than $50,000 a year (Beal, 1994).

Most females on prime time television are young, attractive, thin, and have an ornamental quality (Davis, 1990). Most of these characters are either under 35 or over 50--middle-age women are rare (Beal, 1994). Females consistently are placed in situations where looks count more than brains, and helpless and incompetent behaviors are expected of them (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 (Horovitz, as cited in Basow, 1992; Seidman, 1999).

On music television, a popular program choice among young viewers, females often are shown in degrading positions. Music videos frequently show women as sex objects, and as trying to gain the attention of a male who ignores them (Sherman & Dominick, 1986). Rap music videos, for example, frequently portray women as objects of lust (Basow, 1992; Seidman, 1999). Women are four times more likely than men to be provocatively dressed in these videos (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 a better balance of male and female characters (Bretl & Cantor, 1988). Even so, women are most often shown in the role of wife and mother, or demonstrating products for the home (Osborn, as cited in Basow, 1992). Another aspect of television advertising that is overwhelmingly a masculine province is voiceovers and narration, in which 83-90 percent of the voices are male (Basow, 1992).

WHAT CHILDREN ARE WATCHINGWhile 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 children's developmental needs. Sexism, however, can be found even among the Muppets, most of whom 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 revealed that 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 more than 25 years ago, no significant improvement is evident. Recent studies of children's Saturday morning programs feature males in dominant roles, while showing females in peripheral roles (Carter, 1991; Thompson & Zerbinos, 1995). Children's programs on the Public Broadcasting System consistently show fewer females than males. Furthermore, television programs evidence a greater range of occupations for males than females (Cantor, 1977; Thompson & Zerbinos, 1995). This discrepancy in occupations between males and females also appears in music videos, where more than nine out of 10 occupational roles that were 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 percent of the Saturday viewing audience (Watson, as cited in Basow, 1992).

Gender stereotypes are common on daytime soap operas as well; women often are shown as hopeless individuals, unable to solve problems without assistance (Basow, 1992). Children frequently watch these programs after school, reinforcing notions of women as subordinate, passive, and indecisive.

In commercials for children's programs, boys are shown more frequently and in more active roles; girls' behavior is much more likely to be passive (O'Connor, 1989). Advertisers indicate that using male models generates more product sales to children of both sexes than using female models (Schneider, 1987). It also has been suggested that girls watch male-dominated programs and commercials simply because that is what is available. Given the option, however, girls will become loyal to programming that is more gender-neutral (Schneider, 1987).

Children without television have been shown to be less stereotyped in their gender role attitudes (Kimball, 1986). Furthermore, children who view programs with non-traditional gender roles tend to have non-traditional gender role perceptions (Rosenwasser, Lingenfelter, & Harrington, 1989). Because children model the behavior they see on television, they are likely to perpetuate gender stereotypes they view (Basow, 1992; Strasburger, 1995).

SUMMARYResearch 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 about societally approved gender roles, which are often stereotyped, biased, and outdated. As children continue to develop and grow, they are exposed to more and more examples of such gender biases and stereotypes.

Traditional gender roles, wherein men are encouraged to be decisive and to show leadership qualities while women are encouraged to be deferential and dependent, do not benefit anyone, 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 that encourages everyone to fully feel a part of society.

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Susan D. Witt is Assistant Professor, School of Family and Consumer Sciences, The University of Akron, Akron, Ohio.

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