Overall, almost three-quarters of Canadians feel that society should move to less rigid ideas of gender.[i] 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.[ii]
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.[iii]
There are limits, however, to how much they can negotiate gender representation without receiving pushback from peers, parents or teachers.[iv] For example, boys with stereotypically feminine traits are more likely to be cyberbullied.[v] A a result, exposure to gender stereotyping in media can have an impact on identity and behaviour that lasts into adolescence and adulthood.[vi] 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 hold a pivotal role in confronting it, as well, 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.[vii] Recent films such as The Lego Movie 2, Ralph Breaks the Internet and The Incredibles 2 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.[viii] TV programs such as Neenawsaurs and Annedroids also question stereotypes and gender identity.[ix]
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.[x] 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 and more media allow the female characters to have a role other than “the girl”: the rebooted My Little Pony, for example, offers a range of female characters including competitive Rainbow Dash, tough Applejack, mischievous Pinkie Pie and bookish Twilight Sparkle (without stigmatizing fashion-mad Rarity); the thirteenth incarnation of Doctor Who is, 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.[xi]
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”;[xii] 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.[xiii] 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.[xiv]
Even teen magazines are getting a makeover. While many have ceased operation due to competition from the internet and social media,[xv] the ones that have survived, such as Teen Vogue, are those publishing content that fits girls’ demand for female empowerment.[xvi] 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.” Look magazine published its first cover with a plus size model, which “three years ago… would not have happened… so it’s a positive move in terms of being reflective of their audience.”[xvii]
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. Over three years, this led to more than twice as many Swedish films passing the test.[xviii]
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.”[xix]
Resisting at Home and in the Classroom
Another impact of the Swedish rating system is that the Bechdel test is now discussed in schools. [xx] Unfortunately, research from the UK found nearly half of teachers do not receive any instruction about addressing gender stereotypes during their professional training, while a quarter say their training actually reinforced stereotypes.[xxi]
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.[xxii]
- media are constructions: looking at the impact of who makes media, the choices they make and the assumptions they have that they may not 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;
- media have commercial considerations: considering 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;
- and 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; considering 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.
Parents and trusted adults also have an essential role to play, by steering kids towards media that present a range of gender roles, by being supportive when they choose media that’s outside their “gender box” and by coviewing with them so that they’re able to question and challenge stereotypes when you see them.
It’s important to start doing so early – no later than age three, when children start to become more aware of gender identity[xxiii] – 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) or encouraging your teenager to question the way her peers and her 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.”[xxiv]
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.”[xxv]
[i] Holliday, I. (2016) Transgender in Canada: Canadians say accept, accommodate, and move on. (Rep.) Angus Reid Institute. http://angusreid.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/2016.09.06-transgender-issues.pdf
[ii] Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: A report on gender stereotypes in advertising. (Rep.) (2019) Advertising Standards Authority. Pp. 1-64.
[iii] Wohlwend, K.E. (2009) Damsels in Discourse: Girls Producing and Consuming Identity Texts Through Disney Princess Play. Reading Research Quarterly, 44(1), 57-83.
[iv] 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
[v] 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
[vi] Undem, Tressa, and Ann Wang. (2018) The State of Gender Equality for U.S Adolescents. Plan USA.
[vii] Breaking Free From Boyhood Stereotypes: Action Steps for Parents & Content Creators. (Rep.) (n.d.) Promundo.
[viii] Bahr, Robyn. “How Animated Film is Indicting Toxic Masculinity.” The Hollywood Reporter, March 1 2019.
[ix] Dickson, Jeremy “What little boys are made of.” Kidscreen, March 28 2018. Retrieved from https://kidscreen.com/2018/03/28/what-little-boys-are-made-of/
[x] Pollitt, Katha. “The Smurfette Princple.” The New York Times, April 7 1991. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1991/04/07/magazine/hers-the-smurfette-principle.html
[xi] “UN and Smurfette to fight for women’s rights in Atomium.” The Brussels Times, March 3 2020.
[xii] Cooke, R (2019) Sexism in advertising: they talk about diversity but they don’t want to change. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/media/2019/apr/14/sexism-in-advertising-industry-gender-pay-gap-diversity
[xiii] Econsultancy (2017) 17 marketing campaigns with a positive message for women. Retrieved from https://econsultancy.com/17-marketing-campaigns-with-a-positive-message-for-women/
[xiv] Roderick, L (2017) How the portrayal of women in media has changed. Marketing Week. Retrieved from https://www.marketingweek.com/portrayal-women-media/
[xv] Ilyashov, A. (2016) 15 industry experts on the state of the teen magazine in 2016. Refinery29. Retrieved from https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2016/08/119065/teen-magazines-nostalgia-seventeen-ym#slide-1
[xvi] Schlack, Julie Wittes. Not Your Mother’s Feminism: Teen Vogue and the Next Wave of Activism. WBUR, February 23 2017. Retrieved from https://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2017/02/23/teen-vogue-activism-julie-wittes-schlack
[xvii] Roderick, L (2017) How the portrayal of women in media has changed. Marketing Week. Retrieved from https://www.marketingweek.com/portrayal-women-media/
[xviii] Kang, Inkoo. “What Happened After Swedish Theaters Introduced a Bechdel Rating for Its Movies?” IndieWire, February 17 2016
[xix] Mascots Matter: Gender and Race Representation in Consumer Packaged Goods Mascots. (2018) (Rep.) Geena Davis Institute on Gender & Media. Retrieved from https://seejane.org/wp-content/uploads/mascots-matter-full-report.pdf
[xx] Kang, Inkoo. “What Happened After Swedish Theaters Introduced a Bechdel Rating for Its Movies?” IndieWire, February 17 2016
[xxi] ‘Tying Pencils to Dinosaurs’: Gender Stereotyping in Initial Teacher Training and Continuing Professional Development. (2020) (Rep.) Let Toys Be Toys. Retrieved from http://lettoysbetoys.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/LTBT-ITT-survey-report.pdf
[xxii] Taylor, L. D. (2005). Effects of visual and verbal sexual television content and perceived realism on attitudesand beliefs. The Journal of Sex Research, 42(2), 130-137.
[xxiii] Miller, Claire Cain. “How to Raise a Feminist Son.” The New York Times, June 2 2017. Retrieved from < https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/02/upshot/how-to-raise-a-feminist-son.html>
[xxiv] Cove, Michelle. “It’s Time for Girls to Make Over Media.” HundrEd, January 22 2020. Retrieved from https://hundred.org/en/articles/it-s-time-for-girls-to-make-over-the-media
[xxv] Faust, Lauren. “My Little NON-Homophobic, NON-Racist, NON-Smart-Shaming Pony: A Rebuttal.” Ms., December 24 2010.