Children, Television and Gender Roles

How children learn about, or acquire gender roles has become an increasingly popular topic; looking at the variables which work together to influence a child’s understanding of gender. Indeed, with the increasing amount of television that children are watching (some as much as seven hours per day), one might be concerned as to whether or not television plays any part in the concepts that children grow up with so far as gender roles are concerned.

If television is found to influence children’s concepts of gender, then not only does it reflect upon the influence that television might have in other areas, but it may also have implications for the children in so far as what they come to expect as the norm, and the types of behaviour and attitudes they exhibit and expect others to.

However, television is not an isolated element. If it were the sole source of gender representations, there would be no problem measuring the extent to which it might influence children. It remains, though, that television is one possible variable among many; our parents, peers, the behaviour expected of us, perhaps even the attitudes of people that we generally come into contact with. As such, it is problematic to try to measure any possible influences.

In order to gain a relatively wide understanding of the possible effect that television might have, despite looking at the various studies conducted, we will be looking at television in the context of several theories of sex role acquisition. First, however, to understand how TV may influence it’s young viewers, we must be familiar with the content of what they see.

In an ever-changing world, television has been accused by many of representing gender in an extremely stereotyped and traditional manner which is no longer appropriate for the variety of roles taken on by the sexes. Even the percentage of time devoted to the sexes on-screen is accused of being unrepresentative of the ‘real’ world, or the world beyond the screen. Indeed, these stereotypes are generally supported by the television industry as a whole, frequently presenting women in the home via the housewife-type role, with the man as the strong, bread winning husband.

In adult television programmes, Durkin (1985) cites Butler and Paisley (1980) who reviewed thirteen studies with regard to the frequency with which men and women appear on television programmes. Resulting from this, they found that over 72% of the characters were male, with the remaining 28% female. Furthermore, over a twenty-five-year period, Dominick (1979) was reported to have found females to occupy star roles only thirty percent of the time (Durkin, 1985: 25).

In adult programmes women are not seen in high status occupations as often as men generally. Indeed, their jobs tend to be those more often associated with traditional feminine characteristics such as caring, organisation etc. and so we often see them as nurses or secretaries; those roles secondary to the man as doctor or ‘boss’. When women are shown to be successful in their career, it is often to be at the expense of their personal life, which invariably tends to be unhappy.

One area of television which has been heavily criticised for its gender representation is advertising, which is widely acknowledged to place women in more subordinate role. Indeed, even the voice-overs reinforce such gender stereotyping. For example, voice-overs which are intended to be authoritative in adverts are usually male, whereas female voice-overs tend to be used in a more seductive manner. Indeed, there are extremely limited numbers of adverts which use the female voice-over in a commanding manner.

Children’s television reaches a very high proportion of the audience it is intended for. Findings have been reported which generally comply with the example set by the adult programmes in so far as the manner in which men and women are portrayed. Durkin notes that results from studies of children’s television in Britain have found many programmes in which the main or even sole characters are male, giving a figure of approximately 70% to 85% generally (Durkin, 1985: 28). He also cites a study conducted by Dohrmann (1979) of educational programmes in the US which found males to be the leading characters 100% of the time (Durkin, 1985: 28). While this must seem somewhat shocking with regard to the implicit messages it may have been portraying to children; i.e. that men are leaders and women follow, or that men lead because they are more intelligent, one must bear in mind that in Britain today, that this is not the case, indeed, far more educational programmes are presented by women, perhaps owing to the fact that it is considered more of a woman’s area of television.

In children’s television, when women are portrayed in occupational roles, this tends to be very narrowly defined in comparison to men; in a similar way to the adult programmes. Women are generally restricted to traditional feminine, or ‘women’s’ occupations. In so far as aggression is concerned, such behaviours are displayed the vast majority of the time by the male characters.

Before analysing research conducted with such hypotheses, however, there are several schools of thought in which television might be considered to play a role in the acquisition of sex roles; the first being biological.

From the perspective of this theory, people are born with inherent gender oriented roles which are innate, and therefore, unchanging. This school of thought argues that women are born with ‘feminine identities, and are naturally suited to the roles of mothering and house-keeping, whereas men are ‘natural’ hunters whose role is one of dominance.

According to such a theory, television would play little or no part in influencing sex roles, but perhaps only serve to reflect the underlying biological processes of social behaviour as they are in ‘reality’.

Other theories focus upon environmental aspects to account for the explanation of sex role acquisition. An example of this is the Social Learning Theory, which focuses upon the relationship between certain stimuli and human behaviour. It puts forward the suggestion that there are a set of ‘learning principles’, upon which are based any forms of human behaviour. The main three principles have been noted as observation, reinforcement and imitation. In terms of acquiring the concept of gender, Social Learning theorists would argue that this occurs through children observing gender-typed behaviour, having it reinforced through attitudes and example, until the child imitates it and eventually adopts it.

The concern of the Social Learning Theory has largely rested with the behaviour modelled for children in film and television. In such a context, television becomes one of many variable factors which contribute to sex role development; although there has been little research conducted with the specific intentions of examining television’s influence in the forming of gender roles.

Of the three theories highlighted, one could argue that the cognitive developmental approach is perhaps the more realistic to consider when looking at a topic such as this, as it would take into account a wider amount of variables, including both environmental and cognitive aspects. However, not all the studies that we will be evaluating, have accounted for such a large number of possibilities. Indeed, some assumptions have been made in compliance with the Social Learning Theory, whereby the attitude has been taken that a passively receptive child can be influenced and moulded by televisions messages regarding gender stereotypes. However, this is widely accepted to be an over-generalised view of what actually goes on.

According to the developmental theory, children of approximately five or six years of age, have the ability to recognise gender as an invariant characteristic, even when changes are made superficially to hair and/or clothing.

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About ladymaggic

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