How are gender roles perpetuated? Are we doing enough to make sure boys and girls see themselves AND each other as equals? Do gender roles play out in school buildings by students, staff, and teachers? Are we understanding how our students view themselves and each other when sitting together in a classroom, lunchroom, or PE class? Do we understand teachers and teachers' expectations may be influenced by gender roles? Are ceilings imposed within the hidden curriculum (concepts informally and often unintentionally taught).
A Demonstration of Possibility and Expectation - Failing Grade
Art is to imitate life. However, in a world where we spend so much of our time in front of smartphones, computers, tablets, TVs, and movie theaters, that same art can shape or influence life. It provides exposure to what is possible in our gender roles, sets ideas, expectations, and limitations of both genders. TV and movies are to represent American life – so what are we to understand and expect, in real life, of our female and male cohorts when females are so greatly underrepresented, stereotypically typecasted, and portrayed on TV and in movies? Men appear on the screen, on average, two-to-one to women. When women are included, they are only represented in approximately one-third of the scenes and lines. This trend is unchanged for over five decades despite the advancement of women in business, politics, and social influence, and the fact that the female gender is 50.8% of the U.S. population. Additionally, women are often sexualized on screen, and their importance is placed on their appearance and youth. How does this affect boys and men, girls and women, when the roles each play in various scenarios often includes girls and women as a male reward? One problem with representing women on TV and in movies is due to the lack of women writing for women behind the scenes. A vicious cycle given the media’s powerful influence as a source for learning the possibilities and expectations of each gender. Limitations are unconsciously accepted and imposed on themselves by girls, and accepted by both genders, based on what they view as depictions as reality. That is if one never see the representation of a woman president on TV and in movies, is one ever able to fully accept it as a real-life scenario. Or, is it unknowingly scratched from the list of real possibilities?
Our young are the largest consumers of the movie industry, therefore, it’s important to understand what is watched and how it affects them. This is what led me to my research to understand how TV and movies influence gender roles in everyday life.
Hold onto Your Hat.
On a typical day, 12% of 8- to 18-year-olds report watching a film in a theater. In addition, screen time per day is approximately 30 minutes per day for movies on DVDs, videos, etc. (A. Bleakley et al, 2012). Repeated exposure to gender imbalance, the sexual depiction of women, and violent depiction of men may affect gender-related attitudes and beliefs of young men and women as well as their normative beliefs about the extent to which their peers are engaging in sexual activity and violent behavior (A. Bleakley et al, 2012). With the explosion of smartphones across all ages (including the very young), this undoubtedly has gotten worse, not better.
My Kids Only Watch Disney Movies. Well.....
Arguably, we’ve all been (at least) exposed to Disney films in our life. They’ve been entertaining us and our children for over 60 years and, thus, are one of the largest media conglomerates in the world. Many of us have happy thoughts sitting in front of the big or small screen watching the stories of Cinderella, Dumbo, 101 Dalmatians, The Little Mermaid, and so on. One would guess that with movies like that, it’s all good and kind viewing with a happy and friendly message – a safe and responsible viewing choice made by parents for their children. However, in a study of 26 full-length Disney movies, it was found that gender, racial, and cultural stereotypes have persisted over time in Disney films and that marginalized groups were portrayed negatively, rarely, or not at all (Tobin et al., 2004).
The media portrayals influence children’s developing beliefs and teach them expectations and capabilities. Bleakley et al. (2012) point out that “exposure to sex and violence in entertainment media is associated with negative social, developmental, and health outcomes in adolescents. Exposure to sexual content in media has been linked to a progression of sexual activity, earlier sex initiation, and a greater risk for an unplanned pregnancy. The average correlation between exposure to media violence and aggressive behavior is nearly as strong as the correlation between smoking and lung cancer…” In understanding the media’s likely influence on our thinking and behavior, how they are our young to think, believe, and behave when we repeatedly present skewed gender portrayals on TV and in movies? In particular, women’s portrayal in society seems as far away as possible from a typical day for most individuals, but this is normal on big and little screens.
Most females on nighttime television are young, attractive, thin, and ornamental. Most female characters are either under 35 or over 50. Middle-aged women are rare. Females are consistently placed in situations where looks count more than brains and helpless and incompetent behaviors are expected. Men are twice as likely as women to be shown as competent and able to solve problems. Gender stereotypes abound on television, with women depicted as sex objects more frequently than men, and men portrayed as inept when handling children’s needs. (Tobin et al., 2004).
In a study analyzing 26 full-length feature Disney movies, its purpose was to identify prominent themes of society and familial principles of gender and other personal identifiers. With the study information, parents could teach their children to analyze the message in the movies, and therapists could use the information to understand how children are using media messages to make sense of themselves in the world.
The results found are drastically different by gender. Five themes emerged related to what it means to be a boy/man: (a) Men primarily use physical means to express their emotions or show no emotions; (b) Men are not in control of their sexuality; (c) Men are naturally strong and heroic; (d) Men have non-domestic jobs; and (e) Overweight men have negative characteristics (Tobin et al., 2004). Four themes emerged related to what it means to be a girl/woman: (a) A woman’s appearance is valued more than her intellect; (b)Women are helpless and in need of protection; (c) Women are domestic and likely to marry; (d) Overweight women are ugly, unpleasant, and unmarried (Tobin et al., 2004). Unfortunately, these study findings are consistent with others who have also studied Disney films. It’s no wonder that eating disorders are increasing among our students today. Banks and Banks (2013) report that eating disorders among females in schools and colleges are rampant and increasing. Some boys are now also displaying body-image issues resorting to dieting and steroid abuse.
While over the years the Disney gender prescription has been less obvious, it largely still remains the same. Women’s worth is dependent on her beauty and is dependent on men, and the proper place is within the home. Many films have women, both in the human figure and as animals as overly sexual. There are disturbing messages as well, considering some of our country’s pressing issues. Does no mean no? If you take the learning from Beauty and the Beast, then a no by a female could mean yes. This is demonstrated in the scene when the male candlestick attempts to win the attention of the female broomstick. She states “no, no, no.” However, he states “yes, yes, yes.” This dialogue has the possibility of confusing the watcher that a no may mean yes, and/or ignore a female’s answer. Another disturbing message between genders is that between Belle and the Beast. Belle was his prisoner and the Beast shows great rage to her by not allowing her to eat unless with him and separating her from her father. However, she falls in love with him and her love for him changes him to a prince. This is a possibly disturbing message given domestic violence rate in the U.S (read: "you can change him)." Additionally, in Disney movies, men largely have non-domestic jobs, while women were largely seen in domestic roles. In fact, in only two movies (Tarzan and Pocahontas) marriage wasn’t the ultimate goal by women.
Times Have Changed. [Cough, Cough] Yeah, Not So Much.
One may believe that female representation on TV and in movies may be getting more realistic with time. However, in a study that included 855 top-grossing films over a 57-year period from 1950 to 2006, we can sadly conclude that this isn’t the case. The analysis of the films showed that the ratio of male to female over time has remained consistent, that is, the male characters still outnumber the female characters by more than two to one. In addition to this warped life scenario, females were twice as likely to be involved in scenes with sex than men. And, the trend is going further in this direction in that explicit sex (for women) is increasing with time, along with violence.
An increase of simply adding women more onto the screen is not the answer, as we also have to address how women are portrayed. Simply increasing the prevalence of women among characters in media might exacerbate any problematic effects of media unless the manner in which women are portrayed is also addressed (Collins, 2010, as cited in Bleakley et al., 2012). Research shows that when women are featured as main characters, the proportion of female characters engaging in sexual behavior is approximately two times greater than the proportion of male characters, regardless of whether that behavior is explicit or less so (Bleakley et al., 2012). When understanding sexual content scenes, these scene types proportionally are relatively stable over time. However, for women, explicit sex scenes are increasing as compared to men. Female characters are cast in movie roles to have sexual behavior and often wear sexually suggestive clothing and have an unrealistic ideal. Also, the casting range is often restricted to young, domestic or sexual (Smith 2009, as cited in Bleakley et al., 2012). For men, movie depiction often entails violence and that is increasing over time. Almost 90% of films used in the study sample had some sort of violent scene.
Young movie-going men and women repeatedly exposed to these portrayals of women as sexual (rewards) and men as violent in these top-grossing films may internalize these portrayals, and the implications of these trends for adolescents’ development are worrisome (Bleakley et al., 2012). We should be worried about the potential influence that the depictions may have on adolescents and theoretical models suggest exactly this concern. These models show the effect on the beliefs of the women’s role in society, the modeling of behavior that youth have seen on screen, and the ability to change adolescent beliefs which then, in turn, change their intentions and ultimately, the performance of behavior.
REWARD if Captured: Writers and More!
If working with a SAG contract, there is an obligation to portray the American Scene. However, one can see that that obligation isn’t being taken seriously when so few women are on screen and women over the age of forty are a rarity. On TV, programming is primarily providing an upper-middle-class male point of view and does not reflect the diversity of our country (Evans and Nestor, 2011). Some experts say this lack of diversity is a product of the absence of women and minorities in the writers' room and in other behind-the-scenes positions, as well as advertisers' desire for a young, white, male audience: the demographic that watches the least amount of TV yet that advertisers find the most desirable (Evans and Nestor, 2011). Viewing the 2010-11 prime-time television block, the proportion of women behind the scene is scarce. Women were only 25% of creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and director of photography. Female writers were only 15% as compared to 29% the previous season, a downward trend. Nearly 85% employed no female writers at all (Evans and Nestor, 2011). One can easily see the skewed storylines when men are consistently writing for women and women are not given the opportunity to write character lines. To excuse the lack of women on screen, producers have sometimes taken the stance that including women and other minority groups on TV would be false because they are just producing the show as was in history. However, the shows are reflecting an earlier time, when women were kept in their place. This portrayal indicates the male-dominated nature of the business; when you keep the majority of female characters young, you also tend to keep them relatively powerless (Evans and Nestor, 2011). SAG is trying to help this situation by working with many people and organizations to help increase diversity onscreen. Given the fifty years stale trend, progress has yet to be made.
Women of Color and Portrayal
On and behind the screen is even worse for African-American women. When a black woman has a role, it’s never in a completely positive light. Because so few roles in television and film are for and about African-American women, writers and actors need to be mindful of how audiences will perceive the roles that are being portrayed (Strong Black Women, 2013). Again, this is especially true for our youth and keeping in mind the power of influence of TV shows and movies; that is, consider it more than just entertainment. The media has the influence of providing an identity and some will emulate what they see on TV or in movies. Therefore, having a positive image has the ability to inspire women and men and provide a vision for what they may be, and escape the stereotype that may be placed upon them. In viewing a season finale of Scandal, ten college students were watching with complete intent only to pause and discuss when an eventful moment happened. All agreed with a statement made by one viewer that when African-American woman is cast, almost always do they have to act ghetto or be someone’s mistress. Again, a frightening observation given the influential effect that programming has.
Women of a Certain Age
I recently watched a TV show on FX called Feud: Bette and Joan. Feud is an eight-part one-hour series about rivals Joan Crawford and Bette Davis during and after the filming of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane in 1962. Both Joan and Bette were aging actresses holding onto their careers in an industry (run by men) that exploited young women and gave no value to older women. Of the many disturbing themes that ran across the series, two profoundly struck me. The first was the name and theme of the sixth episode, “Hagsploitation.” In this episode, the men responsible for film production were openly exploiting the coined, “hags,” who were well-accomplished Academy Award-winning film actresses; the most senior of the men boasted of his label which described how he would be taking advantage of the actresses beyond, what he considered, their prime years. He was dependent on them yet exploiting them for all he could in future productions (lower pay, etc.). The second stunner was the male resistance to the draw that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford still had at the box office. The series showed the internal struggle the director had with his biggest movie success having been produced with two (presumed aged and worthless) female leads. Female gender was not just an issue with the men looking down upon the female actresses, it was also an issue for the female actresses. At one point, a script came to Joan Crawford to be produced by a women director – Joan was unable to see any value in a script that was to be directed by a female. Sexism ran both ways. Not to mention the entire premise of this series is about aging women actresses.
Feud was a depiction in time of movie production in the 1960s; a more recent series taking place in current times could depict strong females in its casting given the gain in women’s rights since the 1960s. I compared Feud and the way women were shown to Billions, a TV twelve-or-so-episode multi-series shown on Showtime. The series is loosely based on the activities on a real-life scenario of a federal prosecutor and the ensuing battles with a hedge fund manager in today’s time. The casting environment allows two powerful entities to display strong women, a U.S. Attorney’s office, and a powerful hedge fund office. However, just two women are truly commanding in an array of scenes where deal after deal is made by men. Women, notably, are often the reward for hardworking men and often are in very sexual scenes. One strong, educated woman has a sexually deviant side story. Even in more current times, women are not on screen nearly as much as men, and their power is under the men’s influence. It’s important to note that all women are thin, young, and far above average attractiveness. This same fact is not true of the men, with one of the leading men being Paul Giamatti, an actor not equated with powerful looks, stature, or hunkiness.
It’s clear that the TV and movie industries have a larger social responsibility to the TV and movie-viewing population than just entertainment. What is presented for viewing to our children, adolescents, and mature audiences has been shown to influence thoughts and change behaviors; often not for the better. Knowing the impact the media portrayal has on gender roles, identification, expectation, and limitations, makes the producers responsible to provide and display an accurate gender assessment. Ignoring the influence of TV and movies on gender roles can and does have life-changing effects.
Women need to be equal to men, both in front of and behind the camera. Having women behind the camera in all different types of positions will stop the continuance of the single point of view -- the white middle-class man depiction of women in society. On screen, we need women in all different careers: running corporations, leading boardrooms, making financial gains, setting and enforcing laws, etc., and with women (not just men) superiors and/or women in the superior’s position. Both boys and girls, women and men, need to see and identify with women in powerful roles, in all shapes, sizes, and ages. For our youngest viewers, the end role for women needs to be more than to seek, find, and win-over male attention for eventual domestic bliss and/or marriage. The characters for the young can have employment outside the house just as frequently as men. And the men to show having equal domestic duties as women.
Let Our Diversity Shine
Since our art (TV and movies) influences life, we have the social responsibility to lift all groups to equal potential and stay away from stereotypes that propel one group only to let other groups stagger or suffer. With more diversity behind the scenes, a richer and more accurate depiction of women and their equal portrayal will be a welcomed, entertaining, and progressive sight.
The Null Curriculum - What we Choose Not to Teach. Our Inclusions and Omissions Send Powerful Messages
In our classrooms and in staff, teacher, parent meetings, we need to be purposeful in pushing all genders forward; that is, including all male, female, transgender, and gender fluid, students. We need to be sensitive to the limitations that have been imposed on genders by the media (and perhaps ourselves) and become conscious game-changers. Since the media isn’t portraying females correctly, we can purposely do so in our classroom, assemblies, clubs, etc. When groups or events are not taught in schools, they become part of the null curriculum…Many of today’s textbooks continue to give minimal treatment to women, depriving students of information about half of the nation’s population (Banks and Banks, 2013). Our textbooks and classroom discussions can be places that plant the necessary seeds that our students are not seeing or hearing on TV and in the movies. If our textbooks are biased, we need to be open about them in our discussions with our students so they can understand and identify biases, as well. Perhaps, with repeated experience and exposure, they can speak or identify other biases on their own as they arise.
The Impossible Standard and Self Esteem
We also need to be conscious of the girls’ self-esteem given the media portrayal of impossible standards. As girls go through school, their self-esteem often plummets, and the danger of depression increases (Banks and Banks, 2013). We need visual aids, posters, and artistic renditions of real woman and their bodies with stories of accomplishments outside that of just beauty to combat the unrealistic standards set, for the most part, by the male perspective.
Wait One Minute, Mister...
Our classrooms have been shown to be steeped in gender bias, and that goes against both genders. For the boys whom the media displays as physically aggressive, boys in the classroom also fall victim to this same stereotype. Since boys are stereotyped as more physically aggressive than girls and more difficult to control, researchers have observed that teachers more closely monitor males in the classroom and often overreact to even the potential of male misbehavior (Banks and Banks, 2013). We need to be observant of this behavior in ourselves and other professionals in the classroom.
We've Got This...Let's Get to Work
Our classrooms can break the glass ceiling for our female students by steering away from a male curriculum or contribution curriculum. If we want our students to understand and see gender as equal, and thus all opportunities as equal, then we need to teach and show them. We’re able to do so by using a bifocal curriculum or gender-balanced curriculum. In allowing exposure to the greatness had by both genders, we demonstrate that everyone has the capability to progress as they personally see fit. A standard to match or a limitation to stay within will not exist. And hopefully, more female writers, directors, photographers, scripts, etc. will be writing for our female, and male, characters. A truly new, needed, and necessary perspective, indeed!
Bleakley, A., Jamieson, P. E., & Romer, D. (2012). Trends of Sexual and Violent Content by Gender in Top-Grossing U.S. Films, 1950–2006. Journal of Adolescent Health,51(1), 73-79.
Evans, Suzy, & Nestor, Frank. "Hollywood's civil rights movement: even in 2011, women and minorities struggle to find themselves portrayed accurately on TV." Back Stage, National ed., 8 Sept. 2011, p. 2+. General OneFile.
Banks, J. A., & Banks, C. A. (2013). Multicultural Education: Issues and Perspectives. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
"Strong black women on TV still portrayed by racial stereotypes - The Collegian." UWIRE Text, 13 Dec. 2013, p. 1. Expanded Academic ASAP.
Towbin, M. A., Haddock, S. A., Zimmerman, T. S., Lund, L. K., & Tanner, L. R. (2004). Images of Gender, Race, Age, And Sexual Orientation in Disney Feature-Length Animated Films. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, 15(4), 19-44.