Sunday, May 16, 2010

Gender Stereotypes in Commercials, Television & Film

Gender stereotypes are not as prevalent in television with adults; yet, children are still confined to the roles of their specific gender. Commercials, and other forms of media continue to show men, women, boys and girls portraying gender roles which are planting in the fetus by society at large. Children learn from a very early age how they should behave, dress, speak, and what toys to play with.

One must understand the term, gender, to grasp the concept of stereotyping among boys and girls. According to Margaret Mooney Marini, “Scholars now use the term sex to refer to biological based distinctions between the sexes and the term gender to refer to the social construction of differences between women and men” (Marini 95).

Basically, gender means what society believes are the functions of men and women. For example; women wear pink, while a heterosexual man is called soft, and subject to having his sexuality challenged. Certain actions are associated with the female gender, such as cleaning, cooking, and taking care of children. The male gender is thought to be the one who is interested in cars and competition.

This love of cars and competing against other boys is one type of gender based toy advertising. Most commercials are, either, aimed to sell to boys or girls, rarely both, (unless it is some type of board game). Many women, especially feminist, will say the girls get the short end of the diversity stick. Ayen Bakir and Kay M. Palan explain that, “One aspect that may play a significant role in how a child responds to a television advertisement is the degree to which the execution of the ad evokes his or her understanding of gender, that is, the degree to which the ad makes gender salient to the child” (Bakir, Palan 35).

Children respond to what they feel is important in maintaining the fact that they are a boy or a girl. If a girl, for example, associates a beautiful pink dollhouse with being a prerequisite for being who she is, a girl, than she wants that dollhouse, because she wants to be a normal part of her society. Sense a great deal of society, especially children, receive their gender identification from outside sources, such as television, it is a win win for the advertiser. They sell their product, and keep little girls from thinking outside the box. Thus, making the job of the copywriter an easy, albeit lazy, occupation.

The Barbie commercial below is an example of gender stereotyping. All of the girls are dressed in pretty, pastel colors, indicating the soft and sweetness of little girls. Most adults are wise enough to know that all little girls are not the saccharine images portrayed in this commercial. However, most commercial appear to indicate this to be so, leaving a confused bunch of soccer, and softball loving young girls. While, girls playing sports is much more common now than it used to be, some girls are still called tomboys if they play them. Being competitive is associated with the male gender.

The music on the commercial even evokes certain gentleness because children (they sound like girls, but one should not assume squeaky voices only belong to girls) are singing. Naturally, the dollhouse in which they are advertising is also made up of different light shades of pink, purple, and blue. They are also inside the house, which is also a common trait with girls. The characteristics of this commercial, definitely, do not belong to the advertising of little boy products.

This commercial for Monster Trucks displays a, decidedly different method for reaching its audience of boys. In accordance with gender stereotypes, this thirty second commercial is loud. Most boys, let us face it, are perceived as loud. Therefore, the narrator or voiceover person presents a deep, commanding voice. It is violent because, right from the beginning, a huge monster hand tears down a mountain of dirt.

The music in this commercial resembles one of a platoon marching with a drill Sergeant. This, of course, is exactly the point. Boys associate the military with manliness, because this is what society tells them males do. It evokes power for boys and men. The advertisement, even, uses the words big and powerful throughout.

However, just because boys are often seen as the powerful of the genders, it is not always a good thing. Lois J. Smith notes that, “It is easy to see the limitations for girls’ behaviors in existing television commercials, but the boys also have limitations. Ads do not portray them as nurturing or sharing. Commercial messages often show them as aggressive, physically active, and needing to win. What of the boy who could play a different role? Just as girls should not be limited to their homes, boys should be allowed to be kind and sharing” (Smith 15).

Confining one’s child to the activities specific to what society says male and female genders should do is doing a disservice to both sexes. When, as Jennifer J. Pike and Nancy A. Jennings say, “Commercials present gender stereotypes through overt factors, such as activities and language, as well as through more subtle features, such as voiceovers and production features” (1195), it is hard to do away with what a child believes he/she is capable of. The ramification of these images stays in the mind of girls and boys well into their adulthood. This explains why men always tend to want to be seen as the stronger sex, and women are eager to let them believe they are.

Most of society believes that women are the physically weaker sex, while men are the emotional weaker sex because of the way the sexes are tied to gender specifications. Yes, there is truth in the fact that most men are stronger; yet, some women can hold their own against a man. Perhaps, not with brute force, but with other forms of combat, such as martial arts, and other self-defense tactics. Yet, until recently, one would never believe this to be true.

This type of female empowerment usually reserved for adult women to play. Strong women are portrayed in films like The Matrix franchise and various movies staring Angelina Jolie. There are also movies showing men in a more sensitive light such as American Beauty with Kevin Spacey, and Revolutionary Road with Leonardo DiCaprio. These types of films show men and women representing characteristics which are opposite of what society says their gender should represent.

The scene below represents ashift towards changing the gender roles in which women and men are chained to. The first scene shows Angelina Jolie’s character of Mrs. Smith is seen kicking some serious behind in the movie, Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Not only does she shoot at the bad guys, she is a bad guy, herself. Jolie plays an assassin who can drive a car just as a man is thought to be able to do. She can handle several firearms at once. She is fearlessly, fierce, and performing all of the action movies in which most men, including Brad Pitt, himself, is able to perform. These are the kind of roles she is famous for.

In contrast there are male parts which may remind people more of how society thinks women should be. Women are thought to be the more emotional of the two sexes, as far as gender functions in this society, particularly, American Society. Usually, men do not make a habit of showing their feelings and anguish. Yet, as shown below, in the movie Revolutionary Road, Leonardo DiCaprio portrays anguish to perfection.

In the movie, (a decent clip was difficult to find) he portrays a man confused about his options in life. Although, he has a good job, somehow he stills feels empty. So when his wife, portrayed by the magnificent, Kate Winslet, wants to move to Paris, he, uncharacteristically of a male, agrees to pack up all of their belongings and move. Most of the time the male gender would choose to be sensible in movies and television. Usually it is the woman, who is happens to be confined to the gender role of only being a wife and a mother, wants a change.

Although, in the end of the movie he decides because of a promotion, it was refreshing to see him, at least, think about another alternative of living. Yet, the movie reverts back to what a typical male, especially during the 1950s, would do. He got a promotion and changed his mind. However, when the wife finds out she is pregnant with their third child, in another reversal of gender roles, he is the one who wants to keep the baby. While, Winslet does not.

The movie, although tragic in the end, presents what is seen as gender specific, and the tragedy of those stereotypes. Women may not have necessarily wanted many children, because of America’s history of oppression of women, and gender stereotypes which have taught them it is wrong to not want babies. This movie is a perfect example of what this type of discourse can occur as a result of gender blindness. Because she felt trapped in motherhood she kills herself with a botched self-inflicted abortion.

While, this movie presents the worst thing which could happen because of gender biased, the reality for this kind of tragedy still exist. Yet, all is not gloom and doom for the outcome of America’s stereotypes and its affect on children, as well as adults.

There are some glimpses of hope for young men and women of the future to get past the hurdles of gender based advertisements and television shows. As Sarah Banet-Weiser says, “In the past decade the representation of girls on television has been influenced by the more general mainstreaming of feminist rhetoric, and Nickelodeon has led the way in terms of children’s television” (Banet-Weiser 125).

Many shows on Nickelodeon feature teenagers who are empowered, and have the same type of confidence and outspokenness, generally, associated with boys. Shows such as, I Carly, Hannah Montana (whether one likes it or not), and a few others of the same caliber express young women in a variety of ways.

The character of Carly, played by teen, Miranda Cosgrove, on I Carly has her own web show. She produces her own show with the help of another female teen character, Sam, who is portrayed by Jennette McCurdy. Sam’s character truly steps out of the boundaries of gender assumptions. She is tough and does not take anyone disrespecting her. McCurdy plays her with such tenacity one does not think about her being a female character pretending to be tough, she is tough on her own merit. Usually in the media the teenage boy is thought to be the aggressor. She blows this stereotype out of the water.

This montage of clips featuring McCurdy says it all.

Who would not want their little girl to be able to stand up for herself in this manner? She is not waiting on the typical male, according to stereotypical gender roles, to bail her out of any situation. Sam is her own hero. Even, if one is not a feminist this kind of chutzpa from a young girl or boy is to be admired. So, hats off to the kid. Society can only hope that one day we will get past such stereotypes in the near future.

The media has a way of making us believe what we are watching, listening too, and reading. It is up to the individual, and individual parents, to let their children understand that they do not ever have to be trapped by what this society tells them they should act, or be. Who knows if we will ever get there, but television stations like Nickelodeon will help the cause. One can see Jennette McCurdy as the next female action hero. And when she does become one it will not be an issue. What a day that will be.

Works Cited:
Baker, Aysen and Kay M. Paylan. “How are Children’s Attitudes Towards Ads and Brands Affected by Gender-Related Content in Advertising.” Journal of Advertising.
(Spring 2010) V39 1, p35.

Banet-Weiser, Sarah. “Girls Rule!! Gender, Feminism and Nickelodeon.” Critical Studies in Media Communication. (June 2004) V21,N.2. Pp 119-139.

Mooney-Marini, Margaret. “Sex and Gender: What Do We Know.” Sociological Forum.
(Mar. 1990) V5,1. Pp 95-120.

Pike, Jennifer J. and Nancy A. Jennings. “The Effects on Commercials on Children’s Perceptions of Gender Appropriate Toy Use.” Sex Roles. (January 2005) V.52, No ½. Pp 83-91.

Smith, Lois J. “A Content Analysis of Gender Differences in Children’s Advertising.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media. (Summer 1994), V.38 I 3, p323.

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