Sex role stereotypes represent women and men in highly generalized, often unrealistic, ways. Such media stereotypes are important because representation plays a key role in shaping what becomes social reality. Mediated messages influence knowledge as well as what is deemed significant and interesting (Brooks & Hébert 2006).
Repeated media images shape attitudes, beliefs, and values. The media communicate to audiences the contours of current social reality while simultaneously helping to create it. Within television studies, for example, it has been argued that heavy viewers are most likely to accept stereotypical assumptions about certain groups in society.
Considerable research addresses the media’s role in perpetuating stereotypes, including sex role stereotypes. Scholars have examined a variety of media types – e.g., movies, television, radio, advertisements, newspapers, Internet – and highlighted the potential negative social influence of repeated exposure to stereotypical presentations of sex roles. Sex role stereotypes convey messages about expected appearance and behavior of women and men, shaping both our ideas and expectations of women and men. Moreover, sex role stereotyping in the media creates and perpetuates a reality that oppresses less powerful social groups.
Overview Of Research
Researchers around the world have examined sex role stereotypes in the media. In general, findings tend to be quite consistent, showing that, despite some improvements over the years toward more divergent and realistic portrayals, stereotyping continues. For example, although there are more female characters on television and women are playing increasingly varied parts, they are still underrepresented in relation to men and to their actual numbers in society. Most women who do appear are young (Eschholz et al. 2002). Older women characters tend not to be positively portrayed. Older male characters tend to be depicted as being wise and independent, whereas older women are often represented as irrational and dependent.
Across most media types, women are more often presented as emotional and sensitive and men as serious, dominant, and prone to committing violence. Men act as workforce role models, and women as domestic role models appearing more often in household situations. Various studies indicated that in the late 1990s, male television characters were more likely to be shown at work and to talk about work than female characters, who were repeatedly shown in the private sphere and tended to talk about relationships (for an overview see Ross & Byerly 2004).
Examples Of Sex Role Stereotypes
Over time, a number of common sex role stereotypes have been discussed in the literature. These include general depictions of women and men as well as more specific stereotypes based on a number of factors (e.g., gender, race, sexual orientation, context, age).
Griffin (1998) has highlighted the fact that in the US media, there are several common images of women that tend to reinforce ideas of sex difference, including hetero-sexy beauty queens, wholesome girls next door, cute pixies, and wives and mothers. According to Nelson & Paek (2005), in spite of social and economic advances US women have made in recent years, the media continue to portray them primarily as sex objects, reinforcing the “sex kitten” stereotype. They find this depiction occurs even when the target media audience is women. In assessing US advertising media, some recent findings have shown an increase in the amount of sexism, sexuality, and objectification of women. For example, approximately 50 percent of magazine ads depict women in sexualized ways. In Japanese television ads, women are significantly more often used as “attention getters” than men (Nelson & Paek 2005). Contemporary media around the world now show an abundance of images of women wearing sexy clothes posing in decorative ways. Repeated audience exposure to such images may over time cultivate the perspective that women are to be defined primarily by and valued for their sexual attractiveness to men (Lavine et al. 1999).
Stereotypical images of men are also commonly presented by the media. One avenue of research inquiry has been the examination of male heroes. Across the media, male heroes abound, ranging from traditional types (e.g., heroes in war films and Westerns) to newer forms of the warrior (e.g., Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; Donald 1992). Through these portrayals of warriors, males demonstrate aggression in ways that often receive societal validation. According to Donald (1992), the cowboy, a rugged, resilient figure, and the first hero of many men in the US, is also evident in war films, which are essentially Westerns set in other locales. Recent portrayals of masculinity include the hypermuscular male body with its sculpted shape. Like idealized female body images, this body type is nearly impossible to attain (Hatoum & Belle 2004).
Several studies have examined how women and men of different races tend to be portrayed in the media and numerous sex role stereotypes have been discussed in this work. For example, there has been considerable criticism of the mediated sex role stereotypes of African American women. Brooks & Hébert (2006) discuss several such common stereotypes, including “mammies,” “matriarchs,” “jezebels,” and “welfare mothers.” African American women’s bodies are often portrayed as “hypersexed,” leading some to assert that African American women are seen primarily as sexual, rather than romantic, characters (Brooks & Hébert 2006). Older African American women often appear in roles based on the “mammy archetype,” while younger African American women are more frequently depicted as “welfare queens” and “baby machines,” emphasizing promiscuity and greed.
African American men are also stereotyped in the media. According to Brooks & Hébert (2006), common stereotypes include “the shuffling Uncle Tom,” “the savage,” and the “childlike Sambo.” Other mediated stereotypes of African American men include “Uncle Remus” and “the magical negro.” Some US programs (e.g., Frank’s Place) have challenged traditional conceptualizations of black masculinity. However, Orbe’s (1998) assessment of black masculinity on The Real World showed that black men were portrayed as angry and aggressive. Orbe (1998) points out that such images reinforce fear of black men and that the show fails to represent black masculinity in positive ways.
Far Eastern women and Latinas are portrayed as exotic and sexual. Women from the Far East tend to be stereotyped as lotus blossoms, who are passive and the love interests of white men, or as dragon ladies, who act as partners in crime of men from their own cultures (Brooks & Hébert 2006). Latinas tend to be depicted as highly emotive, possessing hypersexual toughness, and exotic temptresses.
According to Brooks & Hébert (2006), Far Eastern men are often depicted as menacing foreigners, laborers, corrupt businessmen, and martial artists. In general, they are not shown to have dominant male characteristics. This desexualization, especially combined with portrayals of the hyperfemininity of Far Eastern women playing the love interests of white men, reinforces white male dominance and emasculates Far Eastern males. Media coverage underrepresents and misrepresents Latinos who tend to be represented in problematic work roles (e.g., drug dealers, criminals) and as prone to violence. Frequent stereotypes include the bandito and the Latin lover (Wilson & Gutiérrez 2003).
Research on depictions of Native American women and men is scant. In examining images of Native American women, Portman & Herring (2001) explore the “Pocahontas paradox,” which is responsible for the continued romanticization and vilification of Native American women. According to these authors, the US media tend to portray Native American women as having power and strength or beauty and lust, such depictions merging into the Pocahontas stereotype. The mythology surrounding Pocahontas is damaging to Native American women, in part because media discourse foregrounds Pocahontas’s love relationship with a white man, John Smith (Portman & Herring 2001; Brooks & Hébert 2006). Sex role stereotypes of Native American men include the savage, the sidekick, and the underling. Few recent studies exist on the portrayal of Native American men. One exception is analysis of the novel and film The Indian in the Cupboard, although scholars disagree on whether the book and film reinforced or combated existing stereotypes (Brooks & Hébert 2006).
Sex role stereotypes in sports coverage tend to trivialize women or exclude them altogether. Such mediated messages reinforce the stereotype that sport is a male domain and downplay the appropriateness of female competitiveness. In addition, coverage of women athletes gives more focus to attractiveness and appearance than characteristics linked to sports success for men (e.g., strength, endurance). In spite of increasing participation, women in sports have long been “underrepresented and misrepresented” in media coverage (Hardin et al. 2005). These biases in coverage bolster notions that women are less suitable for sports. Differences in media coverage also exist in sport type. For example, women’s performance in sports regarded as aesthetically pleasing (e.g., figure skating) is highlighted and women tend to show up most frequently in individualized sports (e.g., golf, tennis). Women are more often depicted in passive poses, while men are shown in action. Women engaging in male-dominated team sports, such as ice hockey or basketball, are often ignored or portrayed as masculine. In addition, the physical appearance of women is emphasized much more often than their athletic ability (Hardin et al. 2005).
Changes Over Time
Studies on sex role stereotypes in the media in different parts of the world appear to suggest that some types of stereotyping have decreased, but that other forms have taken hold, such as a greater incidence of the sexualization of violence in popular Hindi films (Ramasubramanian & Oliver 2004). Research on how women have been depicted in advertising over time indicates that obvious stereotypical images are less commonly employed but that use of subtle messages about sex roles and the power hierarchy remains frequent (Lindner 2004). In advertisements, for instance, women and girls are objectified, subordinated, and mentally withdrawn from the situation (Lindner 2004), as extremely thin, physically weak, and childlike (Kilbourne 2003), or, as in the case of US advertising images of Indian women, as exoticized (Ghosh 2003).
Thus, the reality crafted by repetition of such mediated stereotypes is one of restricted representations of women and men – representations that counteract or diminish strides made by women and minorities. Through their subtle unity, sex role stereotypes in the media reinforce patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity (Dyer 2002; Eschholz et al. 2002). Overall, study results are mixed – suggesting some, little, or no progress in ending sex role stereotypes in the media. Whatever the case, it is clear that much work needs to be done to achieve fairness and equality. Sex role stereotyping continues – as do admonitions from scholars, researchers, and activists that it perpetuates sexism and makes it less likely for social and economic equality between women and men to be imagined and made real.
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