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Femininity and masculinity in the media


By Caitlin Peterkin




It is completely normal for children to play with a Barbie doll or G.I. Joe action figure.  
But, are these childhood past times actually contributing to unrealistic portrayals of women and men?

For decades, critics have condemned these toys for their potentially damaging effects on a child’s psyche.

Bradley University’s Body Project, a program designed to increase awareness and acceptance of the human body in all its shapes and sizes, cites Barbie ­(small-waisted and big-breasted) and G.I. Joe (powerful and muscular) as giving children a misconception of beautiful and idealistic physiques.

But are childhood toys exclusively to blame for negative gender stereotypes? Or is there another, more immediate catalyst propelling idealized and biased images of femininity and masculinity?

Ever since its conception, the media — including television, films, advertisements and publications — has prided itself on relaying and communicating vital information to the public quickly and accurately.

But are the images and depictions it uses, in fact, accurate?

Society is filled with idealized images of men and women. These stereotypes have become so prevalent that people might not realize they still exist, despite the images’  profound impact on society.

Origin of stereotypes

The term “stereotype” is a visually oriented word, said Colin Johnson, assistant professor of gender studies.

“It originally comes from the printing trade, where it was used to refer to a mechanically reproduced second impression of an image that could then be used for the purpose of making as many unaltered copies of that image as the printer needed,” he said.

Johnson said metaphorically, the word “stereotype” refers to an unaltered, endlessly-reproduced mental picture that circulates over time and across space.
Stereotypes have manifested themselves in our culture in many aspects of life, including race, religion and gender.

“American culture has a long history of gender bias,” said Kenny Irby, director of diversity at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. “Many colonial values really do come forward today.”

Brenda Weber, director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Gender Studies, said  mainstream entertainment contains standard gender stereotypes.

“Gender stereotypes perpetuated by the media have a tendency to strive for a status quo situation, where power systems always stay the same,” she said.

The Marilyn paradigm

The traditional stereotype of women as being domestic and docile is particularly prevalent in certain types of media.

“Women have been portrayed as overly feminine, weak and vulnerable,” Irby said. “You see that mostly in advertisement and fashion imagery.”

There are, however, several other female stereotypes that are depicted in the media. The dumb blonde, for instance.

“There is the image of the woman as sexually voluptuous, yet silly and intellectually girlish,”  Johnson said. “And then there is the image of the woman who is smart and possibly even strong or assertive, but boyish in stature or appearance. The former is usually imagined as blonde, the latter brunette.”

Johnson said that some familiar stereotypes can be traced back to specific moments in history.

For instance, Marilyn Monroe helped define the stereotype of the curvaceous blonde during the 1940s and ’50s.

Johnson said Monroe was extremely savvy and reportedly very smart.

“Smart enough, for example, to understand that Hollywood probably wasn’t going to be making a lot movies about women who didn’t necessarily want – or even need to be – dependent on men during a period when women were actively being forced out of the workplace,” he said.

Johnson traces the aforementioned sexy-versus-smart paradox to earlier beliefs.

“The ‘you can be smart or sexy, but not both’ thing has been plaguing human thought since classical antiquity, when philosophers started trying to figure out the relation between mind and body,” he said. “(These stereotypes) contribute to the profoundly sexist notion that women somehow have to choose between being smart or attractive.”

Intelligence vs. sexuality

Men have often been depicted as strong, powerful and intelligent. The common images of the cowboy, the CEO and the doctor all contribute to these perceived notions.
Many of these stereotypes have roots in early American culture.

“Male stereotypes go back to the quintessential American prototype that man is the worker, provider, who is strong and rough,”  Irby said.

Intelligence also plays an important factor in determining a man’s sexuality, Johnson said.

“There seems always to be some connection in common male stereotypes between intelligence and sexuality,” he said. “The smarter a man is, the less sexually dominant and therefore less ‘popular’ he gets to be.”

Effects of gender stereotypes

“Stereotypes help people make quick-and-dirty sense of a chaotic and sometimes disorienting world,” Johnson said. “Among other things, they help people sort both themselves and others into smaller and more manageable social groups that are defined in terms difference and similarity.”

However, stereotypes “often also cause people to make all sort of inaccurate and unfounded assumptions about other people,” she said.

This destructive behavior, research has found, includes eating disorders, steroid use and other harmful habits among teenagers.

A study by the National Institute on Media and the Family found that young women who watch TV shows emphasizing the ideal physique and who read magazines with thinner models have a higher sense of body dissatisfaction.

Stereotypes also impact college-aged students on a more subconscious level.

“Given the fact that college students often arrive on campus feeling strong pressure to define themselves, or in some cases redefine themselves ... often makes them very susceptible to what seems like simple, comparatively straight-forward strategies for achieving social success,” Johnson said.

This attitude might explain why students can excessively portray themselves in a certain way.

“If doing a particular thing or presenting oneself in a certain way seems to make certain people like you, then doing it even more will help one to stand out in a crowd,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, all this really tends to do is make everyone more intensely the same.”

Negating the biases
The media cannot simply dismantle its use of gender stereotypes overnight.

While the realization of the negative impacts these stereotypes have created might be dispelled in the future, the mainstream media must overcome a lot of injurious behavior from the past and present before that can happen.

“Because stereotypes are defined by their dogged persistence over time, altering them is extremely difficult,” Johnson said.

To dispel these misconceived images of femininity and masculinity, Weber said one must become more aware of what he or she is consuming from the media.

“Engage with media critically,” she said.

Johnson said that what society can do is try to denaturalize stereotypes by showing stereotyping for what it truly is — “basically intellectual and ethical laziness.”

“We can also try to sensitize people to how heavily what they often regard as ‘their’ perspective or opinion is actually determined by other interests which they may or may not actually admire or respect,” he said. “This can be effective because, as it turns out, most people really don’t like to think of themselves as animatronic puppets who spend their entire lives mindlessly parroting unoriginal thoughts and ideas.”

However, Irby said there is still hope.

“I see examples and causes for hope when I see TV shows that have more integrated casts and story lines that speak to a greater range of life experiences and perspectives,” he said. “This is evidence of hope and progress that we have to keep building on, instead of continually harping on the ills of the past.”

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