November 24, 2010

Toy Ads and Learning Gender

Originally posted at Feminist Frequency. Cross-posted with permission. Created for Bitch Magazine’s Mad World Virtual Symposium.

I recently watched afternoon cartoons on Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network and I was shocked to find a flood of highly gendered toy commercials. These ads not only market toys to children but it also promotes and encourages gender specific values that are very limiting to boys and girls in different ways.  The values and skills promoted in these commercials can play a critical role in the socalization of youth and their development of emotional expression, conflict resolution, the confidence to pursue various careers and the ability to maintain healthy relationships as adults.

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NOTE from Melanie Klein on additional articles related to gender socialization in childhood:

April 30, 2009

Sex and 17

Elizabeth Banks posted a great article on the Huffington Post yesterday.  She drools over Zac Efron while simultaneously acknowledging the awesome power of the mass media and teen icons to influence public consciousness and the construction of norms. Zac Efron is hugely popular with teens (and, apparently 3?-something women, according to Banks). In the same way that Rihanna and Chris Brown are role models, so is Zac Efron. 

I had a huge problem with Knocked Up! even though I had a few chuckles and, overall, I like Seth Rogen. That film basically presents the possibility of a pregnancy as the result of a one-night stand with a loser working out and the couple falling in love.  Yeah, right. 17 Again makes teen parenting seem Ok. It doesn’t take the opportunity to send a realistic message about teen parenting albeit a brief comment from Margaret Cho. Shit, I’m 36, I have a career and an incredible man that is committed to our relationship and our child and parenting is STILL hard for both of us. I can’t even imagine being a teenager in high school. Holy smokes.

I can ( and do, quite often, thanks) enjoy the (eye) candy that the popular culture churns out in the same way Banks can while acknowledging the fact that too much of it can make you sick.

Here’s the thing though — the message of the movie seemed to be (and again, I may just be reading too much into the twirling fingers thing): knocking up your high school sweetheart is A-OK! Especially if you give up that Syracuse scholarship to marry her! F College!

Now, I am all for taking responsibility. I am. Which is why I wish this flick had dealt more directly with this little situation that served as the jumping off point for a PG-13 movie (attended by lots of kids not yet in the double digits). It tries to make up for it with a scene in which Margaret Cho tells us that “abstinence is best but let’s get real: just use condoms when you’re screwing around with each other.” Now, that statement at least gets close to something: if you are going to have sex, be safe. (Question: Why didn’t Hunter Parrish also take his shirt off in this flick?)

Unfortunately, this scene would have had a lot more impact if Zac Efron’s character not only acknowledged that sex can lead to babies but also that having a kid when you’re 18 is hard, hard, hard. (Spoiler alert: he should know, see, ‘cuz that’s what got him into this crazy mess!) Also, he doesn’t want his daughter (again, born when he was 18) to have sex with her high-school sweetheart yet his most powerful argument against it — HAVING A KID WHEN YOU ARE JUST GRADUATING HIGH SCHOOL IS HARD — I KNOW, I’M REALLY YOUR DAD! — never comes up. He’s just like, “fingers crossed!” Now, of course, the daughter does not have sex (totally unrealistically) and ends up lusting after Mr. Efron (totally realistically, who wouldn’t) and it’s creepy and weird.

My point here (sorry, I was looking up “image Hunter Parrish” on Google and got off-track) is that this movie pretty much glamorizes teenage parenting. It basically says: Go for it! Have a kid when you’re 18. Throw another one in for good measure right after and you’ll get a nice house, deck and hammock included, your baby mama apparently won’t need to work, your kids will eventually have iPods and get into Georgetown and the person you picked (when you were 17) is actually your soulmate! Don’t worry if the condom breaks — it’s cool! It’s totally worked out for Bristol, ya’ll! (Is it me or is Levi cute?)

The problem with this message is that, according to unreliable online sources and my own anecdotal evidence collected over my 3?-something years: this is crap. It’s a great Hollywood story (I really enjoyed this movie, did I say that?) but in reality, teenage parents (mothers, especially) face increased levels of poverty, lower education rates, and higher chances that their daughters will also end up teenage moms and their sons will end up in jail. (I would like to see Zac Efron and Hunter Parrish fight Channing Tatum in a jail flick).

In many ways, popular culture is seen as superficial, silly, stupid, “just entertainment,” and, if you critique it, you’re “too serious” and you need “to lighten up.”  Well, considering the amount of romantic comedies I have ingested and ridiculous sitcoms I have thoroughly enjoyed, I’m not trying to be a stick in the mud or take away anyone’s viewing pleasure. I love romantic comedies.  I’m a freakin’ sucker for them.  But, I also know that these romantic comedies have had and continue to have an influence  my own expectations and desires. Shit, who wouldn’t want some hot guy like Ryan Gosling wait for you for 8 years, build you a house and then make love to you in the rain. No wonder I have complained about the men in my past.  That really set the bar high.  A house?!

But, considering the level of mediation we are exposed to, we are foolish to dismiss the content of popular culture as irrelevant.  The mass media does shape and actively construct culture.  With that said, it’s irresponsible to make teen parenting seem fun considering the adverse side effects of teen parenting in 2009.

December 16, 2008

The Notebook isn't good for you

Filed under: Gender,Media — Tags: , , , , — Melanie @ 10:34 pm

A recent study blames romantic comedies for unrealitisc relationship expectations. FINALLY!

Rom-coms have been blamed by relationship experts at Heriot Watt University for promoting unrealistic expectations when it comes to love.

They found fans of films such as Runaway Bride and Notting Hill often fail to communicate with their partner.

Many held the view if someone is meant to be with you, then they should know what you want without you telling them.

Psychologists at the family and personal relationships laboratory at the university studied 40 top box office hits between 1995 and 2005, and identified common themes which they believed were unrealistic…

“We now have some emerging evidence that suggests popular media play a role in perpetuating these ideas in people’s minds.

“The problem is that while most of us know that the idea of a perfect relationship is unrealistic, some of us are still more influenced by media portrayals than we realise.”

I’ve been lecturing on this very topic for years. It became evident in my own life many years ago when I went to see Kate and Leopold. Here’s an excerpt from a piece I wrote in 2002:

I did it again…thinking about the movie I saw last night- “Kate and Leopold.”

I don’t think these romantic movies are good for me. Entertainment inventing reality. Cold, eternal winter, heart frozen, walking to my car alone, sitting in the theater alone, feeling disappointed with my own experiences, my lack of quality experiences with men, yearning for Leopold. Hoping I’ll meet a man like that or have a situation like that. Dreaming. Feet hitting the ground evenly, beat of heart and step of feet in unison.

I’m pissed for thinking about this, because I feel like that’s so much of what women do…fret over, discuss men, scenarios, fairytale meetings, fairytale marriages, mystical connections, unborn babies, and none of it is real. It is not happening right now. I don’t know if it ever happens, if I want it to happen, if it could happen. Why does this matter? It shouldn’t matter. Spoon-fed illusions, unrealistic images of what I should be, what we should be, and what relationships should be, what we should hope for, what I should expect. Dangerous expectations. Manufactured dissidence, manufactured bliss built on a delusion.

Romantic comedies are like heroin.  I know it’s bad for me but I keep shooting up with the latest installation. It’s not surprising, really.  Romantic comedies or “chick flicks” simply reinforce the same themes, messages, images and heterosexual story lines that we’re socialized to adore and believe in as young girls. Rarely, do I feel better about my love life or my romantic relationships after one of these films.

The Notebook has got to be one of the worst films ever.  I realize this is not a romantic comedy but it serves the same function.  It creates a set of expectations about what heterosexual relationships should look like. I always advise my students, women and men, to view this film critically. Shit, this guy builds the love of his life a house!  A freakin’ house! Talk about unrealistic.

And, we (women, specifically) watch film after film, year after year and the we wonder why we aren’t satisfied or why we compare our relationships and ourselves to characters and plot lines from films.

October 5, 2008

Gender Socialization in the Media from Childhood to Adulthood

Geena Davis has been a long-standing advocate for the analysis of media images and gender socialization.  She founded the See Jane Project in 2004 and the Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media (GDIGM).

In 2005, Geena Davis and her institute partnered with the esteemed media analyst, Dr. Stacy Smith at the Annenberg School of Communication at USC. Prompted by Davis’ informal observations regarding the portrayals of gender in media directed at children, GDIGM and the research team organized under the direction of Dr. Smith watched over 5oo hours of children’s programming that summer.

Research showed that in 101 top-grossing G-rated movies released between 1990 and 2005, three out of four characters were male. Girls accounted for only 17 percent of the film’s narrators and 17 percent of the characters in crowd scenes. Only seven of the 101 movies were nearly gender-balanced, with a ratio of less than 1.5 males per 1 female character. “Although many people would argue that things seem to be getting better, our data shows that this is not the case,” says the principal investigator, Stacy L. Smith, an associate professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, where the research was carried out.

What was revealed was not only the disparity of images between male and female characters but the typical gender socialization that continues throughout adulthood.  As media analyst George Gerbner pointed out many years ago, it is not the introduction of one image or message that causes a change in one’s attitude of one’s self or the worl they inhabit that is worth noting.  It is the repetitive and continuous stream of images that consistently reinforce the same values and norms from our earliest years throughout the life course.  This concept is know as cultivation.  Cultivation refers to the stability of these prolific messages versus the change-oriented model.

When one considers the process of cultivation in a media saturated culture, it is the seemingly benign, obvious messages that we don’t consciously take note of that constructs our sense of reality.  In turn, this framework informs and shapes our expectations of who we and others should be and we consider these attitudes and behaviors as normative and natural.

Considering the work of Stacy Smith, Jackson Katz, Byron Hurt, Sut Jhally, Jean Kilbourne and many others that have actively studied gender and the media, it is not surprising that media directed at children hardly differs from media directed at adult men and women.  Cartoons aimed at girls and boys carry the same messages/plots/themes/characters that “chick flicks” and “dick flicks” reinforce in adulthood.

Girls/women are encouraged to focus on beauty and relationships with men,  After all, you must be beautiful to get a guy.  Boys/men are encouraged to be tough, adventurous and independent.  Considering the prolific and ubiquitous nature of the contemporary media, it is no surprise that young girls strive to be beautiful through more and more extreme measures.  They are repeatedly told early on that girls/women must be beautiful in order to be validated in order to be considered worthy of a relationship.  Boys/men are told repeatedly that real boys/men are tough and independent or they are considered weak and effeminate.

Essentialism, the notion that gendered behavior is inherent and “natural,” is not surprising considering a climate that cultivates attitudes, behaviors and expectations of girls/women and boys/men within a structured environment that provides a steady stream of images that constantly reinforce themselves.  The images become unremarkable or un-noteworthy.

In this mediated cultural climate, negative sanctions in the form of derogatory names and physical punishment is also unsurprising.  If gendered characteristics and their expected behaviors are sen as inevitable and natural, punishment for one’s transgression is seen as inevitable.  And, that’s where the danger resides.