Sex and Relationships in the Media
Women as Sexual Objects
Some of the worst messages about sex and relationships appear in advertising, which –because of its need to quickly grab and hold attention – often uses shocking or taboo images.[i]A study of print media researchers found half of advertisements featuring women portrayed them as sex objects; when they appeared in ads in men’s magazines, women were sexualized 76% of the time.[ii] The percentages are significant because the issue is not simply that women are presented in a sexualized way, but that they are primarily presented in a sexualized way.
Advertising, however, is by no means alone in how it portrays women and relationships: both reality TV and sports programming are also associated with men seeing women in sexually objectified ways.[iii] Mass media portrayals of relationships and sexuality communicate a “script” that tells girls to “set sexual limits, act sexually passive, use their bodies and looks to attract men, prioritize emotion and commitments over sex, and minimize their own desire.”[iv]
Media representations often model unhealthy relationships: of the 50 most popular TV programs aimed at children, nine in ten portrayed some kind of relationship violence, either between friends or romantic partners.[v] Many books, TV shows and movies popular with teen girls, such as the Twilight series, present problematic views of consent that portray women as having only a passive sexuality and men as being unable to control theirs.[vi] Men and boys get these messages, as well: one in three boys say that they see male characters in TV or movies making sexual comments or jokes about female characters,[vii] leading to an association between boys viewing traditional media and holding negative views of women.[viii]
Media representations of romantic relationships are almost exclusively through a heterosexual lens: in both teen and children’s programming, portrayals of same-sex relationships – even in fully non-sexual contexts, such as a character having two parents of the same gender – are still rare enough to attract controversy.[ix]
For both girls and boys, internalizing media views of sexuality can lead to increased dissatisfaction with their own bodies as well as feeling less in control and taking more risks in their own sexual activity.[x] As media activist Jean Kilbourne puts it, sex in the media “has far more to do with trivializing sex than with promoting it. The problem is not that it is sinful but that it is synthetic and cynical. We are offered a pseudo-sexuality that makes it far more difficult to discover our own unique and authentic sexuality.”[xi]
Friends and Frenemies
Friendships are frequently stereotyped in unhealthy ways, as well. Back-biting, undermining and other forms of relational aggression among girls is common in media portrayals of female friendship[xii] and can make youth more likely to see it as essential for getting ahead in life;[xiii] girls who believe in these stereotypes are more likely both to cyberbully others and to be cyberbullied themselves.[xiv]
Men’s friendships, on the other hand, are mostly presented as a source of comedy. While media texts about female friendships almost always portray already-established relationships, ones about men’s friendships usually focus on their beginning, an ironic reversal of the romantic-comedy genre that gives rise to the term “bromance”[xv] and derives humour from the idea that male friendships are uncomfortably close to homosexuality.[xvi] This attitude, too, carries over into their own relationships, as many young men feel the need to deflect any expressions of friendship – or, indeed, any emotional expression at all – with the hashtag “#nohomo”.[xvii]
[i] 2019. Sex Sells: The objectification of women in advertising. DW. Retrieved from https://www.dw.com/en/sex-sells-the-objectification-of-women-in-advertising/a-47282358
[ii] Rosselli, F & Stankiewicz, J. (2008) Women as sex objects and victims in print advertisements. Springer Science + Business Media. 58. P. 579-589.
[iii] Seabrook, R. C., Ward, L. M., & Giaccardi, S. (2019). Less than human? Media use, objectification of women, and men’s acceptance of sexual aggression. Psychology of Violence, 9(5), 536–545.
[iv] Collins, R et al (2017). Sexual Media and Child well-being and health. Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. 140(2).
[v] Martins N, Wilson BJ. Mean on the screen: Social aggression in programs popular with children. Journal of Communication. 2012;62(6):991–1009.
[vi] Kendal, Evie and Kendal, Zachary. Consent is sexy: Gender, sexual identity and sex positivism in MTV's young adult television series 'Teen Wolf' (2011-) [online]. Colloquy, No. 30, Nov 2015: -41.
[vii] Undem, Tressa, and Ann Wang. (2018) The State of Gender Equality for U.S Adolescents. Plan USA.
[ix] “What do we tell the kids? Children's TV struggles with LGBTQ characters.” AFP, October 14 2019.
[xi] Graydon, Shari. “The Portrayal of Women in the Media: The Good, the Bad and the Beautiful,” chapter in Communications in Canadian Society, 5th edition, Ben Singer, ed., Nelson 2001
[xii] Cecil, D. (2008). From Heathers to Mean Girls: An examination of relational aggression in film. Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 15,262–276.
[xiii] Behm-Morawitz, E., Lewallen, J., & Miller, B. (2016). Real mean girls? Reality television viewing, social aggression, and gender-related beliefs among female emerging adults. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 5(4), 340–355. https://doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000074
[xiv] Wright, M & Wachs, S. Adolescents’ Cyber Victimization: The Influence of Technologies, Gender and Gender Stereotype Traits. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2020, 17(4), 1293; https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17041293
[xv] Boyle, K., & Berridge, S. (2012). I love you, man: Gendered narratives of friendship in contemporary Hollywood comedies. Feminist Media Studies, 14(3), 353–368. doi:10.1080/14680777.2012.740494.
[xvi] Hansen-Miller, David and Gill, Rosalind. (2011) “‘Lad Flicks’: Discursive Reconstructions of Masculinity in Popular Film”, in Hilary Radner & Rebecca Stringer (eds.), Feminism at the Movies: Understanding Gender in Contemporary Popular Cinema.New York: Routledge, pp. 36--50