Children, Television and Gender Roles

A critical review of the available evidence concerning what influence television may have on the development of children's understanding of gender roles and of their own gender identity

Elena Beasley

The society in which we live plays an enormous role in shaping the attitudes and behaviour of all those who are a part of it. Humans, as social beings, are constantly being bombarded with information from the environment which can influence the way we perceive the world and also shape our attitudes and beliefs, gradually moulding each and everyone of us into an 'accepted' member of society. In the past these influences which dictate how we should behave in a 'normal' society have emanated from sources such as the community, family and school. However, in today's world, the influences these institutions have seem to be declining as our changing society adapts to a more technological age. The growth of the mass media has had a significant impact on the lives of everyone, with specifically television becoming an enormously powerful medium.

In society today the television set, which is so prominent in so many households, is not only a means of entertainment, but is also an important source of information. With recent research indicating that, on average, children spend 3.3 hours a day in front of the television (B.A.R.B., 1987), it seems inevitable that, as a learning source, it has an important role in helping the 'vulnerable and impressionable' minds of children to develop certain social roles and behaviour traits.

Television presents to its attentive audience a certain image of the world, providing a framework for what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in society, and also sends out implicit and explicit messages of what the world is like. In its portrayal of 'normal' life, it reflects many important social roles, one of the most important and pervasive of these being 'gender'. Television has the potential to teach children about how men and women act in society, and to mould their views of what is expected of them in society as either a man or a woman. Although Gunter and McAleer (1990) are dubious in stating that television alone is "moulding innocent young viewers' conceptions of gender," (page 61) , it is widely accepted that what children see on television can, and sometimes does, influence their attitudes and behaviour in the area of gender.

Extensive studies of television have indicated that it is males who dominate the television medium, outnumbering women, on average, by 3:1. In this sense, television is reflecting a very 'male world', and as Hodge and Tripp state, it reflects the 'importance of maleness'. This has worrying implications for how women perceive the world to be. The fact that a majority of voice-overs on television are male, that there are more male news readers on television and that many of the major film directors are men indicates that it is the male who has the authority and the control of the world of television. It also means that men have the opportunity to portray a world which suits them, which has been labelled as 'The Male Gaze'. This term relates to the fact that what is shown on television is often seen through the eyes of the men who are in control, often resulting in the portrayal of a dominant man and a submissive woman. This is commonly seen in movies and in advertisements, for example in an independent study of the film The Silence of the Lambs, Jodie Foster plays a powerful F.B.I. Agent, but she is still frequently put into positions where she is made to feel inferior to men. This is often seen as a physical representation, such as in the scene where she meets Hannibal Lecter for the first time, she is told to sit down while he stands and 'dominates' over her. What is significant here is the implicit messages this type of portrayal is sending out to young and impressionable viewers - that men are superior and authoritative while women are inferior and submissive.

However, as well as implicit messages, television also sends out many explicit messages of how men and women act in society. This is mainly through the way that television still seems to adopt a very traditional view of society, and in doing so tends to under represent women and portray men as dominant figures. Studies have indicated that television still adheres to sex-role stereotypes presenting women as dependent, emotional, domestic care-givers, while men are the supporting 'bread winners'. Depicting a society in this way has disturbing implications of what kind of world children believe they are living in. Portraying the sexes in dated and 'traditional' roles can not only influence a child's choice of toys or clothes, but more importantly than that, television can "strongly influence what opportunities children see for future work and what sense of self respect and pride they have" (Van Evra, 1990 , page 112). Van Evra also states that the representation of sex roles on television is very pervasive and that it is inevitable that it will influence young children's views.

These kind of statements indicate the importance of television, as a learning medium, to provide a balanced , positive, equal opportunities world. Although recently television portrayals have been seen to change, it still refuses to adapt fully to the changing world and continues to reflect traditional, stereotyped roles for males and females in many areas, such as soap operas and, especially, advertisements. As children have a relatively short attention span, advertisements tend to grab their attention and appeal to them more so than lengthy programmes. In this way, they can be seen to have an even stronger influence on them. A lot of research was undertaken into the area of television commercials during the 1960's and 1970's, and studies such as the one conducted by Hennesse and Nicholson (1972) have shown that "many observers felt that the images of women in the ads were demeaning and one sided...women were shown almost exclusively as housewives and as 'dependent on men'." (Condry, 1989, page 190). Another extensive study by Scheibe (1983) who examined over two thousand commercials, illustrated that she found the world of television to depict men advertising cars and financial services while women were restricted to beauty products and cleaning equipment. From her observations she also found that women were often portrayed as "powerless, helpless or seeking approval or reward" (Condry, 1989, page 192) . This representation of women doing mundane domestic tasks and demonstrating household products is common in many adverts. For example in the 'Daz Doorstep Challenge' commercials we never see a man opening the door holding a baby and telling us 'how white his whites' are. Van Evra states that

This type of evidence is disturbing as children who see the sexes depicted in this way are assimilating the information they observe and picking up cues about how they should behave and act, unaware that what they are observing is a biased and distorted view of the world. Atkin and Miller (1975) are just one set of researchers who have found that television commercials and their portrayals can shape children's views of gender roles. In their study they found that after children had been exposed to commercials depicting women in non-traditional roles, they later perceived these roles to be more appropriate and suited to women than the children who not seen the commercials. This suggests that television does have an impact on children's perceptions of the real world, and is also significant when considering the impact these stereotypical portrayals have on the career prospects of those who observe them.

It has been identified that television presents a "distorted and stereotypic picture of occupational choice for women" (Van Evra, 1990, page 118). Cherey (1983) identified the main occupations she observed for women on television as being a model, nurse, maid or secretary, and they also often seen as sales assistants or care workers. This representation is not socially realistic and is generally very limited, and the C.R.T.C. (1982) state that it is the "cumulative effect of the many repetitions of such images which is of concern to many." It has been recognised that television can provide an important and powerful source of knowledge of occupational status, more so than general culture or personal contact. Defleur and Defleur (1967) believe that, without a doubt, "children do derive significant occupational information from television" (Van Evra, 1990, page 118). This indicates how important television is in determining the choices that children make about their future, and studies such as that by Beuf (1974) support this. The results of this study indicated that heavier viewers of television preferred more stereotypical choices of occupations than lighter viewers. Rothschild (1983) also found that school children who watched more television had more stereotypical views of gender roles in terms of the activities they participated in and the values and attitudes they held. The evidence from these kind of studies supports the 'cultivation theory' which argues that heavy viewers of television perceive the world they see portrayed on the screen to be the world in real life. In this way, children will be observing the biased representations on television and assimilating them as the norm, thereby developing a stereotypic attitude and outlook to life and the society in which they live.

There is much evidence to support the cultivation theory, which indicates that children accept the roles they see portrayed on the screen as the norm.

Michael Morgan (1982) conducted a longitudinal study to investigate if there was a meaningful link between television viewing and sex-role attitudes over a period of time. He collected data from a group of teenagers about the amount of television they watched, their acceptance of sex role stereotypes and their occupational aspirations over a period of two years. His results were shown to "support the view that television cultivates certain sex role views" (Gunter and McAleer, 1990, page 64), although he found that this mostly occurred amongst middle class girls. He found that heavy female viewers tended to adopt the traditional roles they had seen more than men.

Tannis McBeth Williams (1985) conducted a study in Canada to examine the impact of television on a community which had previously had no television reception. She tested the sex role attitudes of a number of children who lived in a community where they had no television reception shortly before television was introduced to the community, and again two years after. He found that children in a community where there already was television were more sex stereotyped than the children in the community who had no television reception, and also found that those who had been introduced to television were, two years later, significantly more stereotyped in their attitudes towards the sexes than they had been before. This type of evidence suggests that, "in the long term, television has the potential to shape children's sex-role attitudes." (Gunter and McAleer, 1990, page 64).

The premise that television can influence children to adopt stereotyped gender roles has lead many researchers to investigate whether children will adopt counter stereotypical views if they were exposed to that kind of information. In America, a programme called Freestyle was introduced to some schools, which mainly depicted women participating in non-traditional occupational roles. In one study, a group of nine to twelve year olds were exposed to the series and their sex role attitudes were tested afterwards. The study indicated that the males in the group had more acceptable attitudes towards women in non traditional roles, and that the girls in the group were more interested in the counter stereotypical roles they had seen.

Kevin Durkin (1983) also attempted a small-scale experimental study attempting to change the sex role beliefs of a group of children. There were fifty-two children in his experiment, who he split into three groups. One group saw a video about the weather, one saw no video at all and one group watched a video of a programme called Rainbow which told a story about a family man who lost his job and had to stay at home to look after the house and the children while his wife went to work. He questioned the children's sex role beliefs both before and after the video by presenting them with a series of stereotypical male and female roles and asking them whether a man or woman would be more likely to perform them. The results of the study indicated that both the boys and the girls in the group who had seen the 'Rainbow' programme changed their views substantially, indicating a 'short term shift of opinion away from stereotyping'. However, there are many problems associated with a study of this kind. It does not tell us if the programme had any long-term effect on the children's sex-role attitudes, and the fact that it was a small-scale study does not allow us to generalise from the findings. Also, the fact that it was an experimental situation poses problems, as the children are in an artificial situation where they would not normally be watching television, and they are also likely to pick up certain 'cues' from the experimenter about what the study is about, and so answer in a way they think the experimenter wants them to.

Research into gender by cognitive development theorists has suggested that the influence that television can have on gender roles depends upon the age of the child and also on what stage of cognitive development they are at. The 'gender constancy' stage - where children understand that their gender is consistent and unchangeable over time - is said to be reached at the age of six or seven years, and it is at this point when children know the appropriate sex role behaviour for their gender, and seek information to support it. An interesting study by Cordua et al. (1974) indicated that children of seven and eight already have fixed gender role ideas. In this study, a group of children were shown a film which portrayed a male and a female in occupations characteristic of the opposite gender - a male nurse and a female doctor. After the film when the children were asked who had been the doctor and who had been the nurse, he found that there was a tendency for the children to report the male as the doctor an the female as the nurse. This shows how they had actively reversed what they had seen, and that their memory was distorted in the direction of stereotyped roles. This indicates that children are perceptive to stereotypes from an early age, and a study by Van Evra (1984) also supports this. The results of this study indicated that younger children perceived the stereotypical portrayals on television as similar to real life, whereas older children tended to recognise the stereotypes. However, the fact that younger children believed the roles they saw on television indicates the need for good sex-role models on television. Slaby and Frey (1975) found that children of six years of age were more likely to attend to the same sex models in films, and Kholberg (1966) states that at the time of 'gender constancy' children begin to imitate same sex models. He attributes this to being an effect of acquiring gender constancy, rather than the imitation of same sex models leading to gender constancy.

This is, however, what the social learning school of thought believe. These theorists believe that all aspects of behaviour are acquired as a result of observation and reinforcement, with imitation and modelling playing an important role. Bandura (1966) concluded that, from a series of experiments that children were more likely to imitate same-sex models, and that the imitation was intensified if reward was given. This theory runs along the lines of a child observing a character of the same sex as them on television acting in a particular way, (i.e., "Girls caring for their dolls and toy ponies, boys acting out a super hero adventure": Fleming, 1996, page 59) and imitates it which is then met with approval from others in the environment, which encourages the child to do it again. However, evidence relating to this theory is rather contradictory. Wolf (1973) did find evidence to support Bandura when he found that children were more likely to imitate the same sex model, even when the model's behaviour was sex inappropriate. This indicates gender to be an identifying factor rather than behaviour. Barkley et al. (1972) found the reverse to be true. From their study they concluded that children imitate behaviour appropriate to their own sex regardless of the sex of the model - relying on the fact that children have already learned sex-appropriate behaviour. Grusac and Brinker (1972) found that children attend equally to all models, but imitate the same-sex models because they are reinforced for doing so. Gross, however, states that this is unlikely because in real life "there is little evidence that children are actually rewarded for imitating models of the same sex." (1993, page 689).

Therefore, the available evidence on the influence of television on sex-role behaviour is inconclusive. Much of it seems to point to the fact that it has the potential to reflect a certain image of the sexes, which does seem to have an effect, if only short term, on the attitudes of children. However, what needs to be taken into consideration is the amount of influence television has weighed against other factors available to the child in the environment. Durkin (1985) feels that the studies into the effect of television on gender roles are over estimated when considering the impact of influences such as the school, books, siblings and peers. He also emphasises the point that children cannot be seen as merely 'passive vessels', and that

Many of the studies have also neglected the influence that the family can have on the gender role development of their children. Apart from the fact that they are around the children constantly, providing them with specific role models, they can also have an influence on what the child understands from what they see on television. The input that the parents and siblings can give to children whilst watching television can often be even more important than the programme itself. If parents are constantly praising the actions of 'traditional' gender role characters, it is likely that the child will also adopt these beliefs and behave in that manner. Also, Gerbner and Signorielli (1979) state that individual family's social perceptions can directly effect how 'traditional' they see the representations on television to be. They propose the theory that some families will see television to present a more traditional world than the one that they live in, whilst others will perceive it as less traditional. This means that the influence television can have depends on individuals' lifestyles and interpretations, and so no overall generalisations can be made.

Much of the evidence discussed in this essay is taken from the era of the 1960's and 1970's, which may seem to be dated now. The stereotypical portrayals of gender roles on television have gradually changed over the years, although not to the extent that society still sees as realistic. Although women are beginning to be depicted in more occupational roles, men are rarely in 'traditional' female roles such as child care and housework. Also, women who are shown as having a successful career are regularly portrayed as being unhappy or as 'neglecting' their responsibilities as a wife or mother, as Signorielli (1985) states "television does not recognise that women can successfully mix marriage, homemaking, and raising children with careers" (cited by Condry, 1990, page 70). Television can still be seen, therefore, as representing a distorted view of society, which the perceptive minds of children may pick up with ease.


April 1997