THE BLOG

Gender Roles in Media

05/15/2014 01:24 pm ET | Updated Jul 15, 2014

Media plays a large role in creating social norms, because various forms of media, including advertisements, television, and film, are present almost everywhere in current culture. Gender roles, as an example, exist solely because society as a whole chooses to accept them, but they are perpetuated by the media. Conspicuous viewers must be aware of what the media is presenting to them, and make sure they're not actively participating in a culture of oppression.

Even on young children, gender roles are being pushed through advertisements. My search for American advertisements with girls playing with action figures and boys using easy-bake ovens was fruitless, and even when I moved to a gender neutral product, sidewalk chalk, the advertisement was sending different messages towards boys versus girls. The girls were all coloring on the sidewalk, as the one young boy rapped, ending in a short dance routine where it was clear that the only male in the advertisement was the main character. Are consumers of sidewalk chalk actively trying to send this message of submission to their 9-year-old girls? Likely not, but the media is sending them the message without being stopped. However, Tide, a Proctor and Gamble laundry detergent, has taken its advertisement in a better direction, recently showing a clip where the leading male actor proudly proclaims "I'm a stay-at-home dad," and later goes on to braid his daughter's hair. By showing a man playing out typically "feminine" behaviors, Tide is promoting a more equal society.

Television is the most pervasive form of media, with 96.7 percent of American families owning a TV, according to The Nielsen Company, which takes TV set ownership into account when it produces ratings. This, of course, means that viewers must carefully examine the content of the programs they choose to watch, and decide if they can ethically support and promote said content.

For example, The Big Bang Theory, in its earlier seasons, had only one consistently present female lead -- Penny, played by the lovely Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting. Penny's character was that of the stereotypical female: the ditzy, attractive neighbor, who existed solely to create sexual tension between herself and one of the show's leading men, Leonard Hofstadter. As the show progressed, the characters developed and more females were introduced, but Sweeting's character still exists primarily to create romantic tension.

A better example of female representation in television can be found in the American version of the TV show The Office, which had five consistent female leads -- Pam Beesly-Halpert, Angela Martin, Phyllis Lapin-Vance, Meredith Palmer and Kelly Kapoor. There is a strong, working-class female represented in each department of the fictional paper company Dunder Mifflin, and all of these female characters are dynamic. Even though some of them did portray female gender roles, such as the character of Kelly being emotional, the characters were given enough development and background to be more than just stereotypes. The Office worked against the unfortunate statistic that men outnumber women in television two to one, and gave viewers a plethora of strong females in the workplace, helping to move the media to more accurately represent the real world, where women are 51 percent.
 
Film is less pervasive than television, which means consumers must be even more particular when choosing movies to support. Every $8 movie ticket tells the film industry to produce more movies like the ones viewers have paid to see, which is why it is disappointing that Grown Ups 2, directed by Dennis Dugan, grossed about $200,000,000 more than The Call, directed by Brad Anderson. Only about a quarter of the cast of Grown Ups 2 is female, and the movie doesn't pass the Bechdel test, a test created by Alison Bechdel, which asks only three questions: Does the piece have two or more female characters? Do they speak to each other? Do they speak of topics other than men? Although the movie has stars such as Maya Rudolph and Salma Hayek, the female characters don't have a conversation about anything other than men. The Call, starring Halle Berry and Abigail Breslin, features a strong female lead (Halle Berry) who saves a young girl (Abigail Breslin) after being kidnapped by a character played by Michael Eklund, but grossed significantly less. The message consumers are sending to filmmakers is that they should produce more films with women falling into the resigned, quiet, gender role, as opposed to films that break away from these molds.

There's nothing wrong with accepting gender roles. For example, I want to be a stay-at-home mom, but this is a personal choice, not something that I feel society or tradition is forcing me to do. The problem with gender roles is that they can cross a line and become oppressive. If a young woman wants to become a doctor, and a young man a teacher, it is the rest of the world's responsibility not to bat an eye. If a doctor can cure the sick, what does gender matter? If a teacher can educate a student, who are we to deny the pupil the right to learn, solely on the grounds of the sex of his or her teacher? If a man wants to cry, let him cry. Men feel just as women do.

Although the media isn't yet representing either gender void of stereotypes, a societal change will bring about a change in the media. Regardless of this, gender roles are just that, roles. It is up to the individual to decide whether or not they are going to fill them. The best advice that can be given is to make sure, above all else, that you are fulfilling a role you want to be fulfilling, regardless of where it fits in society's set of theoretical constructs.