Gender and the Media

views updated


The importance of gender in Western culture is illustrated throughout almost all forms of popular communication. From nursery rhymes that provide children with lessons on what boys and girls are made of, to bestsellers that claim that men and women are from different planets, media images are thought to reflect and, in some instances, perpetuate or exaggerate differences between the sexes. The important role that the media play in representing and affecting attitudes and beliefs about gender has been documented in a long history of research that has explored not only the ways in which gender is portrayed, but also the ways in which viewers respond to and are influenced by images of males and females.

Gender Portrayals in Media

Although portrayals of gender have shown considerable changes over the years, media content continues to feature disparities in the ways in which males and females are represented. This characterization applies to both sheer numbers, or "head counts," and to the manner in which males and females are characterized.

Frequency of Male Versus Female Portrayals

Although the underrepresentation of females in television programming is a phenomenon that researchers have long noted, recent analyses suggest that the proportion of female characters has increased over the years. For example, the content analysis by Nancy Signorielli and Aaron Bacue (1999) of prime-time programming reported trends toward greater representation of female characters between 1967 and 1998, though females continue to represent only 40 percent of the characters in programs aired during the 1990s (up from previous figures of approximately 34 percent).

Of course, the representation of gender varies widely as a function of the genre in question. For example, daytime soap operas, prime-time situation comedies, and prime-time dramas tend to feature more equitable gender representations. However, these genres appear to be the exception rather than the norm. For example, many researchers have noted that programming for children is particularly likely to feature an overabundance of male versus female characters. The analysis by Teresa Thompson and Eugenia Zerbinos (1995) of television cartoons found that among major characters, males outnumbered females more than three to one, and that among minor characters, males outnumbered females almost five to one. Similarly, Signorielli and Bacue (1999) reported that in prime-time programming, action adventure programs feature only 30 percent females (up from 20 percent during the 1960s).

Nonfiction programming also continues to underplay the appearance of females. For example, the content analysis by Dhyana Ziegler and Alisa White (1990) of network newscasts found that only 12 percent of the news correspondents were female. Similarly, television and newspaper reports of sporting events continue to vastly ignore participation by females. Susan Tyler Eastman and Andrew Billings (2000) content analyzed sports reporting on two television programs (ESPN's Sports Center and CNN's Sports Tonight) and two newspapers (The New York Times and USA Today) over a five-month period in 1998. Coverage of women's sports accounted for only 17 percent of sports coverage in USA Today, 9 percent in The New York Times, 6 percent on SportsCenter, and 4 percent on Sports Tonight.

The Nature of Gender Portrayals

In addition to the frequency of representation, numerous studies have pointed out that the manner in which males and females are portrayed is often very stereotypical. For example, the Thompson and Zerbinos (1995) analysis of children's cartoons showed that male characters were more likely than female characters to show ingenuity, to use aggression, to show leadership, to express opinions, to issue threats, and to show anger. In contrast, female characters were more likely than male characters to show affection, to ask for advice or protection, and to engage in routine services.

These behavioral differences found in children's programming parallel other studies concerning portrayals of marital status and occupational roles. Signorielli and Bacue (1999) reported that although a majority of both male and female prime-time characters were portrayed as working outside of the home, working status was evident for a larger percentage of male (76%) than female (60%) characters. Similarly, content analyses of marital and parental roles suggest that the family lives of female characters are portrayed as more important than those of male characters. For example, the content analysis by Donald Davis (1990) of prime-time programs found that among male characters, 60 percent had an unknown marital status and 71 percent had an unknown parental status. For women, these figures were only 31 percent and 48 percent for marital and parental status, respectively.

In addition to noting behavioral and occupational characteristics of media characters, media portrayals of females tend to focus on appearance and sexuality much more than do portrayals of males. This differential attention to appearance can be seen across a number of different types of characteristics. In general, female television characters are younger than male characters, are more likely to be shown displaying sexual behaviors, more likely to be portrayed as thin or physically fit, and are more likely to be shown in revealing or "skimpy" clothing. Similarly, Amy Malkin, Kimberlie Wornian, and Joan Chrisler (1999) found that media that are targeted specifically toward women, such as women's magazines, are much more likely to feature stories concerning dieting, appearance, and fitness than are media targeted toward men.

Uses of Media

Do these differential portrayals of gender translate into different patterns of media consumption for males and females? In some respects, the answer to this question is "no." According to Nielsen Media Research (1998), although females tend to watch slightly more television than do males, these differences vary substantially by the time of day in question and by the age of the viewer. However, the most striking gender differences in media use pertain not to overall consumption, but to differential liking of and reaction to specific types of programming or media portrayals.

Many of the gender differences in media preferences documented in the literature are consistent with stereotypical notions of what males and females should be expected to enjoy. In general, males express greater enjoyment than females for sporting events and sports-related news, for action-adventure programming, and for sexually explicit adult entertainment. In contrast, females tend to report greater enjoyment of entertainment best characterized as drama or romance, including sad films and soap operas. In addition, Tracy Collins-Standley, Su-lin Gan, Hsin-Ju Jessy Yu, and Dolf Zillmann (1996) found that these types of gender differences that are typical among adult media consumers are also evident among children as early as nursery school, though they do appear to increase as children age.

Possible explanations for why these gender differences exist are numerous and complex. Some research has focused on different aspects of media content that may help to explain the differential preferences of males and females. For example, some researchers have explored the idea that viewers respond more favorably to programming that features same-sex characters. Consistent with this idea, entertainment generally enjoyed more by females than males, such as soap operas and "tear-jerkers," tends to focus more on female characters, while typical male-oriented fare such as sports and action adventures tends to focus more on male than female characters. In addition to the gender of the characters, other researchers have pointed out that many differences in the media preferences of males and females may reflect differential responses to images of violence. In general, males have a greater affinity than do females for portrayals of aggression featured in a wide range of entertainment including sports, cartoons, horror films, and war films.

In addition to focusing on media content, other researchers have focused on aspects of gender role socialization that may help explain the media preferences of males and females. For example, given that boys are taught from a very early age that displays of sadness are inappropriate for males, whereas girls are taught that displays of anger and aggression are inappropriate for females, viewers may be less likely to enjoy entertainment that elicits emotional responses that are deemed "inappropriate" for one's gender. Furthermore, from this perspective, viewers who do not strongly internalize societal standards of gender-role expectations should be less likely than more-traditional viewers to show typical patterns of gender differences in media preferences. Support for this position has been reported in several studies showing that, in some instances, gender-role self-perceptions (i.e., masculinity and femininity) predict media preferences beyond that explained by biological sex alone.

Effects of Gender Portrayals on Viewers

In addition to examining the differential viewing preferences of males and females, a sizable amount of research has also examined the ways in which images of gender influence the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of viewers. Many of these studies have explored the idea that television viewing may lead to greater gender stereotyping, particularly among younger viewers. Although some researchers such as Kevin Durkin (1985) have argued that other social influences, such as parents and peers, overwhelm the influence that the media play in gender-role development, many studies employing a variety of methodologies have reported small to moderate relationships between television viewing and endorsement of traditional gender-role attitudes.

Some researchers have also voiced concerns that unrealistic media images of women focusing on appearance and body size may serve to set a standard of female beauty that is unnaturally thin. From this perspective, media consumption may lead to very harmful behavioral consequences, such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa. Consistent with these concerns, Kristin Harrison and Joanne Cantor (1997) reported that among women in their sample, media use (and particularly magazine reading) predicted an increased drive for thinness and a greater level of body dissatisfaction.

Finally, some research on media and gender has focused attention specifically on male viewers and the ways in which media images of gender influence their attitudes and beliefs about women. In particular, numerous studies have suggested that some portrayals of females (particularly sexual portrayals) may lead to increased acceptance of sexual aggression or sexual callousness. Although most of the research in this area has focused on the effects of pornography, a sizable amount of research has explored more mainstream entertainment fare, such as R-rated movies. For example, Daniel Linz, Edward Donnerstein, and Steven Penrod (1987) have conducted a series of studies showing that long-term exposure to R-rated horror films, such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre, quickly desensitize viewers to sexual aggression, leading to lower levels of concern about actual instances of victimization.

Given the evidence suggesting that media images of gender may lead to harmful or negative effects, some research has explored the possibility that media content may be used to affect the attitudes of viewers in prosocial or beneficial ways. In this regard, research suggests that in some cases, media portrayals may be successful in reducing sex-role stereotyping. For example, Robert Liebert and Joyce Sprafkin (1988) reported that nine-to twelve-year-old children expressed greater acceptance of nontraditional gender-role behaviors (e.g., careers for girls, nurturant behavior for boys) after viewing Freestyle, a thirteen-part television series featuring nontraditional gender portrayals. Also, Joyce Jennings, Florence Geis, and Virginia Brown (1980) showed that exposure to commercials featuring women in nontraditional roles increased the self-confidence of women.

Despite this success, other studies have suggested that gender-role attitudes and beliefs may be so firmly entrenched for some viewers that attempts at counter-stereotyping may meet with considerable challenges. For example, Ronald Drabman and his colleagues (1981) showed children a video that featured a female physician (Dr. Mary Nancy) and a male nurse (Dr. David Gregory). When asked to recall the video, more than 95 percent of the first-and second-graders in the sample incorrectly identified the physician as male and the nurse as female. Similarly, Suzanne Pingree (1978) found that eighth-grade boys in her sample reported more gender stereotyping after viewing commercials featuring nontraditional portrayals of women than after viewing traditional portrayals. These results should not be interpreted as suggesting that positive media images of gender are inconsequential. Rather, they point to the importance of considering how the existing attitudes and beliefs of viewers about gender play a role in their interpretation of nontraditional portrayals.


The portrayal of gender has shown considerable changes over the years, with female characters now receiving greater and more-favorable representation. However, traditional portrayals of gender are still prevalent, with these differences reflected both in terms of the preferences of viewers and in the ways in which viewers are affected by media content. As media images of men and women continue to progress and as researchers devote more attention to the ways in which media content can be used for prosocial ends, popular images of males and females may move away from reflecting or perpetuating gender stereotypes, and move toward celebrating differences and enhancing equality.

See also:Body Image, Media Effect on; Pornography; Soap Operas; Television Broadcasting, Programming and; Violence in the Media, Attraction to; Violence in the Media, History of Research on.


Collins-Standley, Tracy; Gan, Su-lin; Yu, Hsin-Ju Jessy; and Zillmann, Dolf. (1996). "Choice of Romantic, Violent, and Scary Fairy-Tale Books by Preschool Girls and Boys." Child Study Journal 26:279-302.

Davis, Donald M. (1990). "Portrayals of Women in Prime-Time Network Television: Some Demographic Characteristics." Sex Roles 23:325-333.

Drabman, Ronald S.; Robertson, Stephen J.; Patterson, Jana N.; Jarvie, Gregory J.; Hammer, David; and Cordua, Glenn. (1981). "Children's Perception of Media-Portrayed Sex Roles." Sex Roles 7:379-389.

Durkin, Kevin. (1985). "Television and Sex-Role Acquisition: 2. Effects." British Journal of Social Psychology 24:191-210.

Eastman, Susan Tyler, and Billings, Andrew C. (2000). "Sportscasting and Sports Reporting: The Power of Gender Bias." Journal of Sports & Social Issues 24:192-213.

Harrison, Kristen, and Cantor, Joanne. (1997). "The Relationship Between Media Consumption and Eating Disorders." Journal of Communication 47:40-67.

Jennings, Joyce (Walstedt); Geis, Florence L.; and Brown, Virginia. (1980). "Influence of Television Commercials on Women's Self-Confidence and Independence of Judgment." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 38:203-210.

Liebert, Robert M., and Sprafkin, Joyce. (1988). The Early Window: Effects of Television on Children and Youth, 3rd edition. New York: Pergamon Press.

Linz, Daniel; Donnerstein, Edward; and Penrod, Steven. (1987). "Sexual Violence in the Mass Media: Social Psychological Implications." In Review of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 7: Sex and Gender, eds. Phillip Shaver and Clyde Hendrick. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.

Malkin, Amy R.; Wornian, Kimberlie; and Chrisler, Joan C. (1999). "Women and Weight: Gendered Messages on Magazine Covers." Sex Roles 40:647-655.

Nielsen Media Research. (1998). 1998 Report On Television. New York: Nielsen Media Research.

Pingree, Suzanne. (1978). "The Effects of Nonsexist Television Commercials and Perceptions of Reality on Children's Attitudes about Women." Psychology of Women Quarterly 2:262-277.

Signorielli, Nancy, and Bacue, Aaron. (1999). "Recognition and Respect: A Content Analysis of Prime-Time Television Characters Across Three Decades." Sex Roles 40:527-544.

Thompson, Teresa L., and Zerbinos, Eugenia. (1995). "Gender Roles in Animated Cartoons: Has the Picture Changed in 20 Years?" Sex Roles 32:651-673.

Ziegler, Dhyana, and White, Alisa. (1990). "Women and Minorities on Network Television News: An Examination of Correspondents and Newsmakers." Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 34:215-223.

Mary Beth Oliver

Chad Mahood

About this article

Gender and the Media

Updated About content Print Article


Gender and the Media