The influence of
television on children's gender role socialization.
Author: Witt, Susan D. Source:
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 &
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
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
* 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
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
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.
Susan D. Witt is Assistant Professor, School of Family
and Consumer Sciences, The University of Akron, Akron, Ohio.
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