Resisting Stereotypes and Working for Change

Although many concerns remain about how gender is represented in media, there are signs that things are changing. Roles for women on television, in particular, have become much more varied and complex in the last decade, ranging from the conflicted Star Wars hero Ahsoka to Marvel characters such as Echo and Ms. Marvel to more realistic characters like Never Have I Ever’s Devi, while a growing number of movies and TV shows are questioning narrow definitions of masculinity.

Although many concerns remain about how gender represented in media, there are signs that things are changing. Roles for women on television, in particular, have become much more varied and complex in the last decade, ranging from the conflicted Star Wars hero Ahsoka to Marvel characters such as Echo and Ms. Marvel to more realistic characters like Never Have I Ever’s Devi, while a growing number of movies and TV shows are questioning narrow definitions of masculinity.

Overall, more than nine in 10 Canadians believe that gender equality is “very important.”[1] While media representations can be seen simply as a reflection of society’s values, the relationship between media and society is a mixture of a mirror and a mold: media does reflect values already held by society like a mirror, but representations in media pressure individuals into a fixed identity like a clay in a mold.[2]

This experience is not as passive as it sounds. Children will adapt media messages to their own needs and purposes – sometimes choosing to identify with role models of another gender if there are no appropriate ones of their own, choosing to identify with some aspects of characters but not others or rewriting stories and characters to better suit them through play or media-making.[3]

There are limits, however, to how much they can negotiate gender representation without receiving pushback from peers, parents or teachers.[4] For example, boys with stereotypically feminine traits are more likely to be cyberbullied.[5] As a result, exposure to gender stereotyping in media can have an impact on identity and behaviour that lasts into adolescence and adulthood.[6] Moreover, many professional media creators are uncritically influenced by the media portrayals they grew up with, reproducing and reinforcing their stereotypes.

Gary Barker of Promundo, an organization dedicated to promoting gender equality and healthy masculinity, argues that while the media has played a large role in creating this “Man Box,” it can also play a pivotal role in confronting it through more well-rounded male characters who express a wider range of emotions, representations of male characters nurturing and caring for others, positive examples of male friendships and stories in which seeking help is portrayed positively.[7] Recent films such as Strange World, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish and Lightyear all challenge the idea that men have to be tough and emotionless, that friendship is more important to girls than to boys or that men are always incompetent parents.[8] TV programs such as Neenawsaurs, Steven Universe and Annedroids also question stereotypes and gender identity.[9]

While the “Man Box” may in some ways be more restrictive than its female equivalent, many media texts – especially those aimed at kids – still fall prey to the “Smurfette principle” of having multiple male characters (and thus multiple acceptable ways of being a boy) but just one female character.[10] Though this is still found in shows such as Paw Patrol and the first season of Stranger Things and in movies like It and Jumanji and its sequels, more media allow the female characters to have a role other than “the girl.” The Jurassic Park spinoff Camp Cretaceous, for example, offers a range of female characters including athletic Yaz, practical Sammy and stylish vlogger Brooklynn; the thirteenth incarnation of Doctor Who was, for the first time, a woman; an entire village of female Smurfs was introduced in the 2017 film The Lost Village – and Smurfette herself has become an ambassador for gender equality in her native Belgium.[11]

Advertising is also beginning to change, if more slowly. In 2019 MotherCare released an ad campaign showing real women in their after birth bodies that state “beautiful, isn’t she”;[12] H&M came out with their “she’s a lady” campaign that broke gender barriers in fashion in 2016; and in 2013 Dove released its “Real Beauty” campaign in which women would draw a photo of themselves and compare it to a forensic artist’s drawing to highlight how much they see themselves in a negative light.[13] The #MeToo movement sparked a joint initiative between the National Advertising Benevolent Society and Women in Advertising and Communications called #timeTo, which led to a code of conduct that has been endorsed by 180 companies.[14]

Even teen magazines are getting a makeover. While many have ceased operation due to competition from the internet and social media,[15] many of those that have survived, such as Teen Vogue, are publishing content that fits girls’ demand for female empowerment. Sue Todd, CEO of Magnetic, a marketing agency for magazine media, states that the content in magazines “now reflects a general change happening in society…there’s more activism coming through.”[16]

In Sweden, movies are now rated according to the Bechdel test, which looks at whether a movie contains more than two female characters who speak to one another about something other than a man. By 2021, almost 40 percent of Swedish movies passed the test, compared to just a quarter of movies made elsewhere that played in Sweden (such as Hollywood or British movies).[17]

The media industry can deliver more balanced depictions of male characters, too. The report This is Us? How TV Does and Doesn’t Get Men’s Caregiving gives the following recommendations for portrayals of fathers and other male caregivers:

  • Break down gender stereotypes around housework
  • Disrupt the male breadwinner model
  • Show male caregivers dealing with their emotions and seeking help
  • Model male accountability
  • Show a broader diversity of male caregivers (in terms of racial or cultural background, disability, sexual orientation and identity, etc.)
  • Embrace stories about care and caring[18]

With more and more parents looking for non-stereotyped content for their children, there is hope that the industry can change. As Geena Davis put it, “on-screen media is one area of gross gender inequality that can be fixed overnight.”[19]

Resisting at home and in the classroom

Another impact of the Swedish rating system is that the Bechdel test is now discussed in schools.[20] Unfortunately, research from the UK found nearly half of teachers don’t receive any instruction about addressing gender stereotypes during their professional training, while a quarter say their training actually reinforced stereotypes.[21]

Media literacy education is key to helping young people critically engage with media representations of gender and stereotyping. The relationships between media and young people’s attitudes and behaviour are based not just on what media they consume but how they interpret it, with those who consider media portrayals to be realistic being more influenced by them.[22]

Teachers can draw on MediaSmarts’ many lessons relating to gender representation or develop lessons and activities based on the key concepts of digital media literacy:

  • media are constructions: looking at the impact of who makes media, the choices they make and the assumptions they have that they may not have thought to question
  • media have social and political implications: looking at the different representations of gender in popular texts, which behaviours are rewarded and which are punished, and whether and how gender-nonconformity is portrayed;
    • for instance, students can be shown gendered works, such as ads or influencer posts, and use them to identify the elements of gender stereotypes.[23]
  • media have commercial considerations: considering the impact of industry conventional wisdom (which may not affect actual data)
    • how the merchandising “tail” wags the media “dog” and how that influences gender portrayal
  • each medium is a unique aesthetic form: examining how broader stereotypes may last longer in media that tend to have simpler or more exaggerated images, such as animation, advertising and video games
  • audiences negotiate meaning: exploring how characters such as Disney princesses or Paw Patrol’s Skye can be both vehicles for gender stereotypes and can be appropriated to viewers’ own purposes, or looking at how a cross-gender casting such as making Doctor Who a woman might simultaneously give girls a positive model of a female scientist while depriving boys of one of the few male heroes who solves problems through curiosity and compassion
    • consider the distinct ways in which non-White men and women are stereotyped and exoticized, and how that is experienced differently by youth within and outside of those groups.
  • digital media are networked: analyzing the impact of easy access to online content such as sexual health education (both reliable and unreliable)
    • influencer content that may promote stereotyped views of gender (sometimes to the point of being hate content) and pornography
  • digital media are shareable and persistent: exploring how networked technology make it possible for girls and women to tell their own stories and find a more direct connection to their audiences
    • Tatyana Terzopolous, in her study of girls’ digital media-making, observes that “YouTube and TikTok function as key sources of informal learning about the art and craft of video-making.”[24]
  • digital media have unanticipated audiences: considering the unequal impact of issues like non-consensual sharing of sexts by girls and boys
  • digital media experiences are shaped by the tools we use: asking questions like:
    • How do video games represent and allow users to express gender when “the game itself… determines the possibilities of play through the game’s technological affordances”?[25]
    • How do digital tools like search engines and content generators reproduce (or intensify) gender stereotypes?
    • How do the affordances and defaults of digital platforms reinforce (and enforce) binary ideas of gender? (As Katta Spiel notes in this context, “every ‘technical’ constraint is better described as a socio-technical constraint given that it is the unwillingness of people to engage with an issue that constrains gendered data.”[26]
    • How do social media and other digital platforms address online harassment? What tools are provided to users and what steps do the corporations that own the platforms take to prevent and respond to it?
      • Students can be invited to imagine, and design, “a feminist internet [that] would subvert, dismantle and reimagine patriarchal structures, not reproduce them at an accelerated rate… that foster the same strength and resistance that women and gender-queer people find with each other in offline communities.”[27]
    • interactions through digital media can have a real impact: Social media have provided a more direct and effective way for audiences to push back against stereotyping and under-representation,[28] and some organizations are working to make this even easier: for instance, the YWCA offers a tool for reporting sexualized or stereotyped ads to Advertising Standards Canada, while women’s sports teams have used social media such as Instagram to push for less sexualized uniforms.[29]

Parents and trusted adults also have an essential role to play, by steering kids towards media that present a range of gender roles, being supportive when they choose media that’s outside their “gender box” and by coviewing with them so they’re able to question and challenge stereotypes when they see them. Make sure to do this with girls and boys: according to Madeline DiNonno of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, parents are more worried that their sons will be teased than their daughters for playing with toys associated with the other gender.[30] Research is making it more clear, as well, that fighting against gender stereotyping doesn’t just benefit girls: “When men are freed from the box of what a man can or cannot do… their lives dramatically improve.”[31]

It’s important to start doing so early – no later than age three, when children start to become more aware of gender identity[32] – but to do so in a way that doesn’t make them feel like you’re telling them they’re wrong to like the media they enjoy. Whether you’re leading your toddler to wonder why Skye is the only female dog in Paw Patrol (and why she has to wear pink), providing small children with toys that aren’t gender-limiting,[33] or encouraging your teenager to question the way her peers and favourite influencers carefully select and filter their photos, “try to keep your face expression-free, your tone neutral. The goal is to build trust and get them to tease through their responses and think critically.”[34]

Make sure kids understand that you’re not trying to make them feel guilty or like they’re wrong to enjoy particular media works: “creating a sense of guilt or responsibility for the patriarchal status quo runs the risk of causing boys to become defensive or non-responsive. Instead, boys need to feel empowered to challenge inequality in order to live their own lives as ‘equal persons’ and ensure girls and women enjoy the same right to be equal.“[35] Emphasize that it’s okay to like some aspects of a text but not others and encourage them to “rewrite the story” to better suit them, either in play or by making their own media. With luck, they may grow up to join a generation of media-literate media makers such as My Little Pony showrunner Lauren Faust, who resolved to make a version that reflected not the original show but “the way I had played with my toys [in which] I assigned my ponies… distinctive personalities and sent them on epic adventures to save the world.”[36]

[1] Pew Research Center, April, 2020, “Worldwide Optimism About Future of Gender Equality, Even as Many See Advantages for Men”

[2] Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: A report on gender stereotypes in advertising. (Rep.) (2019) Advertising Standards Authority. Pp. 1-64.

[3] Sturdivant, T.D. (2021). Complying and Resisting: A Qualitative Metasynthesis of the Race and Gender Discourses found in the Play of Young Children. Journal of Educational Studies and Multidisciplinary Approaches (JESMA), Vol 1 (2), Page 84-Page 104.

[4] Yu, Chunyan et al. “Marching to a Different Drummer: A Cross-Cultural Comparison of Young Adolescents Who Challenge Gender Norms.” The Journal of adolescent health : official publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine vol. 61,4S (2017): S48-S54. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2017.07.005

[5] 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;

[6] Undem, Tressa, and Ann Wang. (2018) The State of Gender Equality for U.S Adolescents. Plan USA.

[7] Breaking Free From Boyhood Stereotypes: Action Steps for Parents & Content Creators. (Rep.) (n.d.) Promundo.

[8] Bahr, Robyn. “How Animated Film is Indicting Toxic Masculinity.” The Hollywood Reporter, March 1 2019.

[9] Dickson, Jeremy “What little boys are made of.” Kidscreen, March 28 2018. Retrieved from

[10] Pollitt, Katha. “The Smurfette Princple.” The New York Times, April 7 1991. Retrieved from

[11] “UN and Smurfette to fight for women’s rights in Atomium.” The Brussels Times, March 3 2020.

[12] Cooke, R (2019) Sexism in advertising: they talk about diversity but they don’t want to change. The Guardian. Retrieved from

[13] Econsultancy (2017) 17 marketing campaigns with a positive message for women. Retrieved from

[14] Roderick, L (2017) How the portrayal of women in media has changed. Marketing Week. Retrieved from

[15] Ilyashov, A. (2016) 15 industry experts on the state of the teen magazine in 2016. Refinery29. Retrieved from

[16] Schlack, Julie Wittes. Not Your Mother’s Feminism: Teen Vogue and the Next Wave of Activism. WBUR, February 23 2017. Retrieved from

[17] Statista. (2022) Film industry in Sweden – statistics & facts.

[18] Ashton, D., et al. (2022) This is Us? How TV Does and Doesn’t Get Men’s Caregiving. Geena David Institute on Gender in Media.

[19] Mascots Matter: Gender and Race Representation in Consumer Packaged Goods Mascots. (2018) (Rep.) Geena Davis Institute on Gender & Media. Retrieved from

[20] Kang, Inkoo. “What Happened After Swedish Theaters Introduced a Bechdel Rating for Its Movies?” IndieWire, February 17 2016

[21] ‘Tying Pencils to Dinosaurs’: Gender Stereotyping in Initial Teacher Training and Continuing Professional Development. (2020) (Rep.) Let Toys Be Toys. Retrieved from

[22] Taylor, L. D. (2005). Effects of visual and verbal sexual television content and perceived realism on attitude­ sand beliefs. The Journal of Sex Research, 42(2), 130-137.

[23] Puchner, L., Markowitz, L., & Hedley, M. (2015). Critical media literacy and gender: Teaching middle school students about gender stereotypes and occupations. Journal of Media Literacy Education, 7(2), 23-34.

[24] Terzopoulos, T. Z. (2022). Centering Girls'(Media-Making) Stories: A Pandemic Exploration of Video-Storytellers and their Practices, Personas, and Projects.

[25] Kagen, M. (2018, June). Glory to Trumpland! Misplay as Protest in Immigration Games. In 1968| 2018-Protest, Performance and the Public Sphere.

[26] Spiel, K. (2021, June). ” Why are they all obsessed with Gender?”—(Non) binary Navigations through Technological Infrastructures. In Designing Interactive Systems Conference 2021 (pp. 478-494).

[27] Satija, D. (2023) An internet that women want? It looks like this. CNN.

[28] Brown, J. A. (2018). # wheresRey: feminism, protest, and merchandising sexism in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Feminist media studies, 18(3), 335-348.

[29] National Post Staff. (2023) “Girls dropping out of sports at 'alarming rates' due to gendered uniforms: study.” National Post.

[30] Russell, H. (2021) “Lego to remove gender bias from its toys after findings of child survey.” The Guardian

[31] Plank, L. (2019). For the love of men: From toxic to a more mindful masculinity. St. Martin's Press.

[32] Miller, Claire Cain. “How to Raise a Feminist Son.” The New York Times, June 2 2017. Retrieved from

[33] Spinner, L., Cameron, L., & Calogero, R. (2018). Peer toy play as a gateway to children’s gender flexibility: The effect of (counter) stereotypic portrayals of peers in children’s magazines. Sex roles, 79(5), 314-328.

[34] Cove, Michelle. “It’s Time for Girls to Make Over Media.” HundrEd, January 22 2020. Retrieved from

[35] Sahni, U. (2018) What about the boys? Educating boys for gender justice. Brookings.

[36] Faust, Lauren. “My Little NON-Homophobic, NON-Racist, NON-Smart-Shaming Pony: A Rebuttal.” Ms., December 24 2010.