The mass media, particularly television, influence childhood development by providing opportunities for modeling and information-seeking outside family and school. Americans in all age groups tend to spend more time watching television than any activity other than sleeping. The average American child has been estimated to watch over 20,000 television commercials per year in addition to the commercial programming interspersed between them. In 2000, children two to five years old watched 40 hours of television per week and children six to eleven years old watched 50-60 hours per week. Thus the messages that television conveys not only represents the culture in which they appear but are also a large part of it.
Stereotypical behavior by females and males characterizes both children’s and adult’s programming, as well as commercials. For example, a study of Saturday morning children’s programs found that 68% of the major characters were male and that male characters engaged in more activity than female characters. Boys thereby had the greater opportunity to imitate same-sex models than girls. Also, the sexes tended to appear in different roles. Females were more often presented in relationships with others such as family or friends, while males were more often portrayed in roles independent of others or at work. In commercials, males were presented as more knowledgeable and females as more bewildered. Here we see the familiar pattern of males seeming more important, deserving of more attention, and more in command of themselves and the situation. Not surprisingly, both children and adults who watch more television tend to be more aware of gender stereotypes, see themselves in more stereotypical terms and hold more traditional attitudes toward men’s and women’s roles.
Magazine advertising has conveyed similar messages. Until recently, ads rarely showed women in working roles and never showed them as executives or professional. Several stereotypes of women’s roles occurred regularly
a. Women’s place as in the home
b. Women as not making important decisions
c. Women as dependent and in need of men’s protection
d. Men regarding women as sex objects, not as people.
Women most often were portrayed as happy and diligent homemakers, beautiful and dependent social companions, or most concerned with being blonde, thin, or having other physical characteristics they did not possess.
Television has made some attempts to adjust to the reality of women in the workplace, but not without difficulty. The Wall Street Journal observed in 1984 that, while most advertisers agreed that they should no longer portray mothers as dim-witted housewives aiming to please, they didn’t know what should replace those images. As a result, fewer commercials and programs were showing married mothers at all and Dad was instructing the kids about the virtues of toothpaste, instant rice, and the like. Television’s stay-at-home mothers have been replaced by single women, divorced women sharing homes. These changes suggest that television may contribute less to the formation and reinforcement of gender stereotypes than in the past. It has contributed greatly to gender stereotyping by present-day parents, however, who are passing on what they have learned about male and female roles to their children.
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