While traveling recently, I stopped at a fast food restaurant with my 6-year-old daughter. When we sat down at the table to eat, she disappointedly pulled a pink care bear out of her cheeseburger meal. When I asked her what was wrong she asked why the woman had given her a care bear when she wanted a transformer. She went on to explain to me that she liked boy’s toys because she was a tom boy. Why did the fast food worker assume that my daughter wanted the care bear? Why is the transformer considered a boy toy?
While traveling recently, I stopped at a fast food restaurant with my 6-year-old daughter. When we sat down at the table to eat, she disappointedly pulled a pink care bear out of her cheeseburger meal. When I asked her what was wrong she asked why the woman had given her a care bear when she wanted a transformer. She went on to explain to me that she liked boy’s toys because she was a tom boy. Why did the fast food worker assume that my daughter wanted the care bear? Why is the transformer considered a boy toy? Why does my daughter label herself a tomboy? The answer is gender stereotypes. But where are these stereotypes learned? Research indicates that the media, particularly advertising, has played a role in the perpetuation of gender stereotypes in our culture. Of particular interest and concern are the gender portrayals found in advertisements targeting children.
When children view advertisements, what are the images that they are exposed to? The majority of the time children see stereotypical representations. Girls are presented in traditional roles such as playing house and cooking. Girls are also shown playing with dolls and being concerned with being popular and beautiful. Girls are also portrayed as being cooperative and more passive and less aggressive and competitive than boys. Boys on the other hand are shown seeking power, speed and physical action. Aggressive behavior is almost exclusively limited to advertisements targeting boys. Boys are also shown as being more independent than girls.
One needs to look no further than the advertisements during Saturday morning cartoons to find evidence of these stereotypes. Commercial after commercial shows girls playing with dolls or makeup and boys playing sports, racing cars or battling action figures. Among the more popular toys for girls are Barbie dolls, Bratz dolls, stuffed pets to care for and make up. The girls in these advertisements are seldom pictured away from their homes, instead they are contently playing inside in their bedrooms or in their on backyards. The boys in the advertisements are allowed more freedom to roam the world. They are more mobile and active. The popular toys for boys involve more action. They actively battle each other through play with sports, transformers or Star Wars action figures. It is important to note that a clear distinction between a doll and an action figure has been created. Although an action figure would seem to resemble a doll, it has carefully been defined as a toy suitable for a boy to play with. Because of gender stereotypes, it is unacceptable for boys to play with dolls, but perfectly fine for them to play with action figures. The emphasis being on action rather than the caring and nurturing associated with dolls.
An episode of the popular television show Friends illustrates the gender stereotype surrounding dolls. One of the male characters, Ross, had recently become a father. He was divorced from his wife, who had taken a lesbian lover. During one of the episodes, Ross’ ex-wife dropped the baby off for him to spend some time with. Much to his dismay his son was hugging a Barbie doll. The rest of the episode centered around his efforts to interest his son in GI Joe instead of the Barbie doll which is stereotypically associated with girls. The GI Joe doll is stereotypically associated with boys, because he is an “action figure”. When confronted by another character that GI Joe is a doll, Ross quickly counters that he isn’t a doll he is an action figure. Thus, somehow making him more appropriate for boys. This example illustrates the stereotypes surrounding dolls. Girls play with dolls and boys play with action figures. By calling the doll an action figure it makes is an appropriate boy toy, because of the emphasis on action. This example also illustrates the influence of parents in reinforcing gender stereotypes. Apparently Ross’ son was young enough not to be aware of gender differences and was willing to play with anything. Ross, however, was uncomfortable with his son playing with a Barbie and reverted to gender stereotypes by encouraging the boy to play with an action figure instead. Another thing that this example shows is that television programs as well as advertising can be influential in perpetuating traditional gender stereotypes.
A study by Browne (1998) provides further evidence of the substantial gender stereotyping that is found in advertisements. According to Browne,
Boys appeared in greater numbers, assumed more dominant roles, and were more active and aggressive than girls. (p. 12) In commercials containing both boys and girls, boys were significantly more likely to demonstrate and/or explain the product even when the product used was not sex-typed. Girls were never shown using products designed for boys (e.g., guns or trucks), and no commercials showed boys using products targeted for girls (p. 6-7). Gender role reinforcement was observed at the level of body language and facial expression; girls were portrayed as shyer, giggly, unlikely to assert control, and less instrumental (p.12).
A print advertisement for a play castle exemplifies the type of gender stereotyping researchers have found in advertisements. In the two page advertisement a boy and girl are playing with the pop up castle. The boy is shown standing inside the castle looking out while the girl is depicted as cowering outside the gate of the castle as if in fear of something unseen. The boy seems to possess the power as he looks down on the girl. This advertisement further perpetuates gender stereotypes by containing a picture of a pink castle in the right hand corner of the advertisement. Apparently, the gray castle is intended for boys and a pink one is available for girls. The use of color to indicate the appropriateness of a toy for a girl or boy is found in many advertisements. Another example of this is Leap Pad, a popular learning toy. The original Leap Pad was blue and green. However, last Christmas a pink Leap Pad appeared in ads and on the shelves of stores. Because of gender stereotypes, the pink Leap Pad rather than the blue one was intended for use by girls.
At this point some of you may be saying so what. What’s the big deal if a toy is blue or pink or if it’s a doll or an action figure? Isn’t it just advertising trying to sell a product? The problem is that within these messages of consumption are lessons about gender roles and expectations. These advertisements specifically target children with a message of what is and isn’t appropriate for boys and girls. Although these may be “just advertisements” they are also one of the places that children learn about gender roles.
According to Bandura’s social learning theory, children formulate gender role concepts through observations as well as through rewards and punishment (Bandura, 1969). As the definition of social learning has expanded , the focus has included both imitation of others and expectancies of reinforcement for that imitative behavior (Rotter, 1982). The media have become a focus of study related to social learning, because the most readily available sources of models for children to emulate aside from their parents are movies, books and especially television (Mayes & Valentine, 1979). Considering the number of hours of television that children watch, their exposure to televised models through programs and advertisements may even be greater than their exposure to their own parents’ behaviors (Bandura, 1969).
It could be argued that children learn all sorts of behaviors from television that either sex could perform. However, research has indicated that children tend to imitate same-sex models with greater frequency than opposite-sex models (Courtney & Whipple, 1983). According to Smith (1994), “one argument for this occurrence is that peers and parents are more likely to reward children when they imitate same-sex models. Children also generally recall more about same-sex models than opposite sex models. This sex bias is especially true of boys and also especially pronounced when male models behave in sex-stereotyped ways (p.324).
The concern that behaviors observed and internalized from television advertisements may have considerable influence in shaping gender role concepts of young children is reflected in the number of studies in this area (Kolbe & Muehling, 1995; Smith, 1994). Expectations of sex roles and self-labeling processes have the potential to influence many aspects of a child’s life from social interaction to occupational plans, and even to cognitive functioning (Macklin & Kolbe, 1984). Basically, children’s social learning from television advertisements result in the advertisements showing children how they should behave. As has been discussed, the behavior taught by these advertisements to children is stereotypical gender roles and behavior. This is important because many gender role development theorists believe that despite intervention from influential adults like parents and teachers, children often remain very specific in their judgments about the gender appropriateness of behaviors, occupations and play objects (Katz, 1979; Bettelheim, 1987). For example, several studies have demonstrated that heavy viewers of television hold more traditional gender-stereotyped notions of proper role behavior than light viewers of television (Signorelli, 1989; Signorelli & Lears, 1991).
In terms of the social learning theory, girls continue to see models of domesticity. Limitations for girls’ behavior as well as boys’ behavior exist in television commercials. It is often easy to point out the limitations for girls’ behavior, and this has received a lot of research attention. However, it must be remembered that boys are also limited in their behavior by gender role stereotypes. For example, advertisements often show boys as aggressive, physically active, and needing to win rather than nurturing or sharing.
In fact Larson (2001) has found an increase in the occurrence of violence and aggression in the commercials. According to Larson, more then 34% of the commercials featuring children and targeting young children included aggression (p.9). He compares his findings to the 12.5% found by Macklin and Kolbe in 1984 and argues that there has been a nearly three-fold increase in less than 15 years (p. 9).
Klinger, Hamilton and Cantrell (2001) have recently studied the relationship between children and violence and/or aggression in toy commercials. The commercials in their study were rated as demonstrating stereotypic sex-role behavior. Male-focused commercials and imagined toy play with the boy-toys were rated as more aggressive than were female-focused and neutral commercials, and their respective toys. Based on their research Klinger, Hamilton and Cantrell suggest that boys are particular targets of aggressive content in marketing and more desensitized to aggressive content than are girls. According to Deborah Tannen (1990), aggressive behavior is stereotypically associated with males. Therefore, by depicting aggressive boys but not girls these advertisements are reinforcing gender stereotypes. Klinger, Hamilton and Cantrell cautioned that since children’s programming is saturated with toy commercials, young viewers are at best reinforced by stereotypic sex-role behavior, and at worst, inundated with violent content.
Children do not acknowledge a difference in gender roles and gender appropriateness of toys until they understand the concept of gender constancy. Gender constancy means that the child is aware that he or she will always be male or female regardless of superficial changes such as haircuts or clothing (Smith, p.325). The development of this awareness is generally achieved by age seven (Browne, 1998). Once children have reached the cognitive stage of gender constancy, they become more attentive to same sex models and they are more willing to model the character’s behaviors. Prior of gender constancy, children do not differentiate the sexes and are more willing to model behavior regardless of the models sex.
Past studies suggest that children as young as four years of age are likely to choose gender-typed toys when they have seen them modeled on television by same-sex children (Ruble, Balaban, and Cooper, 1981). Hence, most children tend to accept sex stereotypes, identify with the stereotypical role of their gender, and punish other children, especially boys, who exhibit cross-gender behaviors and traits. This punishment of other children can be especially harsh. If a boy prefers “girl toys” or exhibits girl behaviors or traits such as being kind and caring, he can expect to be teased and called a sissy or gay. Girls who prefer to play sports, be active and play with “boy toys” are often times labeled as tom boys or as being butch. Being labeled as a tom boy may or may not lead to punishment by other children. When I joined my daughter for lunch at school one day, I noticed that she sat with the boys while most of the girls in the class sat at another table. The boys told me that my daughter was a tom boy because she liked boy things. They accepted her as “one of the boys.” As I have experienced with my daughter, six and seven-year old children are able to identify gender behaviors and traits and quickly label those children who exhibit cross-gender behaviors and traits. As a young child, my daughter didn’t differentiate the sexes, was willing to model behavior regardless of the models sex and developed a preference for “boy toys” and more active play. As she has begun to understand the concept of gender constancy, she is able to identify gender roles and acknowledge her “deviance” from what is considered gender appropriate by accepting the label of tom boy.
However, research by Kolbe and Muehling (1995) indicates that the evaluation of gender appropriateness can be altered through non-stereotypical advertisements. They found that, boys who viewed ads with a female actor were more likely to indicate that the toy was appropriate for both genders than boys who saw male actor only ads. The boys who saw the male actor ads said that the advertised toy would be preferred by boys only. Girls who say the female actor ads also indicated that the toy was less appropriate for boys only.
This finding is significant because it indicates that males may not respond negatively to female models in advertisements. Nontraditional presentations appear to have the capability of altering the gender-appropriateness classifications of an advertised product. Kolbe and Muehling argue that this finding is important from a social influence perspective, because boys who saw counter-stereotyped ads were more likely to indicate that the toy was for both genders than were stereotyped ad treatment males. Overall, their study suggests that some changes in gender appropriateness are possible, but are limited by the already strongly held beliefs by children about gender and the lack of counter stereotypical advertisements presented on television.
Based on the research, it would seem that gender role portrayals in advertisements continue to be stereotypical. Although there are more representations of girls in advertisements creating more equity in comparison to boys, these portrayals continue to be largely stereotypical for both the girls and boys. This is disturbing because, these advertisements have the potential to reinforce for children conventional sex-role definitions, meaning that children may come to believe life is supposed to be like it is portrayed in commercials (Ivy & Backlund, 1994,p.116). Advertising may also influence how children develop an identity for themselves, relative to their own sex and gender, and how they come to expect certain behavior from men and women (Macklin & Kolbe, 1984). Another disturbing finding is that change in gender portrayals to less stereotypical ones has been slow to occur in advertisements, yet portrayals of violence and aggression have increased.
It should be kept in mind, that although it has been shown that gender portrayals in advertisements tend to be stereotypical, the presence of advertising is not the problem. As Smith (1994) notes, advertising brings a wealth of information to children at the same time as it financially supports programming aimed at them (p.335). Advertising is a part of our culture that will not go away. Advertising needs to adjust its messages concerning gender roles to reflect a non-stereotypical portrayal. Just as advertising can teach children stereotypical roles and behavior, it can teach them non-stereotypical roles and behavior. Advertising and the media can be useful in teaching change and discouraging stereotypes. Although things have changed, they have not changed that much. Advertising and the media need to reflect the changes that have occurred and possibly encourage more change by depicting non-stereotypical gender portrayals.
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About the Author: Chairperson & Associate Professor Department of Communication The College at Brockport