Millions of tweens will plop down down to watch a show on the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon this afternoon or this weekend. Tween views do so figuring they will get some laughs or excitement from their favorite shows, but researchers just released a study finding that tweens may be getting some less than stellar messages about gender roles, too.
The study, published in the journal Sex Roles, examined characters from 40 American tween television programs aired in 2011 on Disney Channel, Disney XD, Nickelodeon and the Turner Cartoon Network and the shows were characterized as either teen scene (geared towards girls) or action-adventure (geared towards boys).
Researchers focused on 8 to 12 year olds in part because of the large amount of hours tweens spend in front of the TV and also because they believe that "during this important developmental stage, social and intellectual schema are established and identity and gender are explored."
They determined that men and boys were stereotypically portrayed as brave in action-adventure programs and that “[g]irls can participate in everything that boys can, but while doing so they should be attractive.”
When compared to the American population, females were underrepresented in the action adventure genre.
“The messages inherent in the action adventure programs are that males and females mostly participate in and do the same things, but that males are more important than females because they vastly outnumber them,” says Gerding.
Gender distribution in the teen scene genre, however, mirrored the male-female distribution in the U.S. population. Even where girl were equally represented, though, there was a different in appearance between male and female characters: all the girls on the shows were pretty.
Tween programs had no so-called “unattractive females” in them, but the shows did feature males with varying levels of attractiveness and unattractiveness.
Researchers Ashton Lee Gerding of the University of Missouri and Nancy Signorielli of the University of Delaware believe this may send the message that even though females can participate in everything that men can, they should be attractive while doing so and should work to keep this up.
This issue is not confined to just tween television. The study finding very much align with the message from Emily Graslie, the Chief Curiosity Correspondent at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History delivered in her recent episode of The Brain Show, a science show on YouTube.
She said that women feel overwhelming pressure "to be the whole package - not only do you have to be intelligent and articulate, but you also have to be attractive." Check out her great video here:
So what can parents of tweens do?
* Find great shows like The Brian Show on YouTube featuring awesome women like Emily just so kids of both genders have great role models.
* Limit television. I'm not saying ban it, but really, how many episodes of Austin & Ally or Dog with a Blog are needed for a happy childhood?
* Talk to your kids. Discuss media literacy. Talk about hair and make-up and what's reasonable to expect (no one is camera ready like Disney Channel stars). Ask them if girls can do amazing things with less than perfect hair. Can spending more time on creating something, anything, be it music, a story, a STEM project, be a better use of time than spending hours on a hairdo?
* Think about the body image messages you send as parents.
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