Restrictive representations of gender (to narrow, or stereotypical, depictions) have been a source of concern for many years. It has been argued that depictions of women as wives and mothers in children’s books, advertising and television drama makes it difficult for girls to imagine less traditional futures for themselves. Similarly it is claimed that stereotypes of men as strong providers limit the capacity of boys and men to develop a personality which includes soft and caring qualities. There are also concerns about the ways in which the constant reinforcement of a binary gender system (that people are either masculine men or feminine women) might impact on those who don’t experience themselves as fitting easily within that binary.
From the research that has been conducted it is clear that narrow and negative stereotypes do impact on people in various ways – their self esteem and cognitive abilities, for example. Psychological research on gender stereotyping suggests that these are related to people’s perceptions of themselves and other people, their confidence and ability, and their interest in certain activities over others. For example, young people inflate their perceptions of their ability in gender stereotyped subjects (maths for boys, arts for girls) after reading about gender stereotypes or even just ticking a gender box. Exposure to gender stereotypes that disadvantage one’s own gender diminishes confidence and interest as well as actual performance on tasks.
Given the gender segregation of clothing, toys, advertising, stories and television programmes from an early age, it has been argued that children are constantly primed regarding such stereotypes. As they learn gender labels and identities they shift into gender-stereotyped play and begin to police their own, and each others, behaviours, developing conventionally gendered interests (technology and action for boys, care and beauty for girls). Counter-stereotyping through toys and stories, however, results in girls playing with more ‘boyish toys’ and vice versa, and such possibilities can be opened up in the early years when gendered toy and clothing choices are not so heavily policed, due to the fluidity of gender at this point.
There is evidence that the context of viewing stereotypical depictions influences how these are understood, as does the increasing existence of more diverse representations and counter-stereotypical possibilities. There are many examples of stereotypes being ridiculed and criticized by media at the same time that they are reproduced unquestioningly in other places. For example, Madonna and Lady Gaga demonstrate a mixture of feminine and masculine images in their public performances that make it difficult to pin them down as performing one particular gender stereotype. Television drama shows numerous independent working women who don’t comply to the stereotype of socially competent, ‘nice’ femininity.
The explosion of texts and images resulting from the widespread diffusion of the internet has made it possible to find all kinds of gender representations. Because of this it is difficult to know if the particular ‘diet’ of images that an individual consumes is stereotypical, how media are read by any particular individual, or to what extent that person sees and engages with other contradictory images as well.
In addition, people do not consume media in isolation as they do in experiments: they are part of real group such as a family watching television, or an online fan club. These groups constitute a network of interpretation through which they make sense of images. The importance of context for the way people engage with media is confirmed by evidence that victims of online grooming often have a history of problems and abuse, either in the family or in the peer group. There are also particular problems for vulnerable groups like young people from socially and psychologically unstable backgrounds.
Media research has also cast doubt on the idea that images act as a kind of simple ‘stimulus’ that produces an effect on an individual. While short term ‘effects’ may be found in studies, these are usually small and it is unclear how long the effect lasts, especially in a visual culture where different images succeed each other at a rapid pace. A long tradition of research suggests that people are active recipients of culture, not only accepting images but also resisting them when they do not fit their own views and experiences. Fans, subcultures and a range of communities may be particularly active in creating their own media. With the development of new technologies a more participatory culture has emerged in which there is less distinction between those who produce and those who consume media, where user-generated content is increasingly evident and where media are much more integrated into people’s every day lives than in the past.
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