Children's Perceptions of Male Stereotypes

In 1999, the research group Children Now asked boys between the ages of 10 and 17 about their perceptions of the male characters they saw on television, in music videos and in movies.

From the study, the group concluded that the media do not reflect the changing work and family experiences of most men today—and that this fact is not lost on the boys who noticed the discrepancies between the media portrayals and the reality they knew. [1]

Some of the study’s main observations:

  • on television, most men and boys usually keep their attention focused largely just on women and girls
  • many males on TV are violent and angry
  • men are generally leaders and problem-solvers
  • males are funny, confident, successful and athletic
  • it’s rare to see men or boys crying or otherwise showing vulnerability
  • male characters on TV could not be described as “sensitive”
  • male characters are mostly shown in the workplace and only rarely at home
  • more than a third of the boys had never seen a man on TV doing domestic chores

The study also revealed that the boys were quite aware that these male characters on television differed from their own friends and fathers, and from themselves. They had also noticed that media portrayals of success do not necessarily reflect their own ideas of real-life success.

However, more recent research on girls and boys on television that asked what boys like in a character showed that male characters do not have to conform to these stereotypes to be successful – and, in fact, some boys actively disliked elements of these portrayals. While boys admired characters who were able to master challenges and solve problems, and generally disliked characters they saw as victims, being violent or angry was not part of the characters’ appeal. Rather, boys like seeing characters that solve problems through action of any kind, [2] even in traditionally female activities such as cooking (which explains the popularity of shows such as Iron Chef among young boys). [3] Characters also do not have to be portrayed as leaders or perfect heroes to appeal to boys: so long as they are portrayed as being problem-solvers, whether by “getting over” hurdles in the traditional way or by subverting challenges by “getting under” them. [4] Moreover, boys in the study complained about media portrayals that showed them as being stupid, aggressive, violent or criminal. [5]

This research, and the Children Now study, both suggest that the media should take the opportunity to reach beyond these stereotypes – and to present more creative, multi-dimensional male (and female) characters who overcome challenges without violence or aggression.

 


[1] Boys to Men: Media Messages About Masculinity. Children Now, 1999.
[2] Gotz, Maya. Girls and Boys on Television. International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television, 2008.
[3] Newman, Andrew Adam. Toy Pitches Half-Baked. Adweek, March 14 2010.
[4] Winter, Reinhard and Gunter Neubauer. Cool heroes or funny freaks: Why certain programmes and TV characters appeal to boys. Televizion, No.1, 2008.
[5] Gotz, Maya. Girls and Boys on Television. International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Televizion, No.1, 2008.