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Sexism in the Media and their Effects

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar) 2006 34 Seiten



1. Introduction
1.1 Goals of this work
1.2 Sex and Sexism

2. Research Traditions
2.1 The Women’s Movement
2.2 Findings on Cultivation and Bias

3. Gender-Role Stereotyping/Gender Bias in the Media

4. Sexual Content in the Mass Media

5. Effects/Impact of Sexism in the Media
5.1 Sexual Socialization
5.2 Cultivation Effects
5.3 What do People can know about Sexual issues?
5.4 The Effects of Internet on Sexuality

6. Pornography
6.1 Definition: Pornography
6.2 Sex Research and Pornography
6.2.1 Feminist Influence on Research on Pornography
6.2.2 Pornography Commissions
6.3 Watching Pornography: Effects
6.3.1 Sexual Excitement
6.3.2 Influence on values, attitudes and behavior
6.3.3 Pornography and Personality
6.4 Sexual Violence
6.4.1 Slasher Films
6.4.2 Sexual Violence – does it differ across media?
6.5 Pornography and the World Wide Web

7. Conclusion

8. Discussion

9. Literature

1. Introduction

The discussion about sexuality and the relationship between the sexes is as old as world itself. But since the days of modern mass media the debate on the presentation of gender, gender bias and sexual explicit content in the mass media as well as the effects they can have on one’s mind has become a field of significant concern. Due to the fact that our society is a media and consumer society, mass media is omnipresent in our daily lives and has become the main source for nearly every kind of information and entertainment. Especially television “cultivates from infancy the very predispositions and preferences that used to be acquired from other prime sources” Gerbner et al., 1986, p.18). Mass media provide us with materials “out of which we forge our very identities,” among them our idea “of what it means to be male or female” or the idea of how we define our sexuality. Thus, mass media have become the main source in teaching us “how to be men and women”, how to behave in society, “to dress, look, and consume […] and how to conform to the dominant system of norms, values, practices and institutions” (Kellner, 1995, p.5). Already in 1922, Walter Lippmann was talking about “about the world as known was the world as it was. And that individual trust in pictures in their heads because “in the individual person the limited messages from outside, formed into a pattern of stereotypes, are identified with his own interests as he feels and conceives them.”[1]

Everybody who reads a magazine, watches television or goes to the movies realizes that sex is omnipresent across all media. The messages about sex and sexual issues transmitted to the people can have positive or negative themes and they raise questions about the effects they can have on the behaviours and attitudes of the recipients. Especially for young persons, the media are an important source of information about sexual issues, but sexual messages can also have a negative impact on their mind. In comparison to research on the impact of violence in the media, research on the impact of sexual portrayals and sexual content is little.

A strange fact, especially by reason of the discussions risen by political or religious groups, who often stated critical opinions about sexual content in the entertainment media.

1.1 Goals of this work

The discussion about sex and sexism in the media, research on sexism and the effects and impact which sexual messages can have on one’s mind will be the focus of this work. It is important to distinguish three main fields of research of sexism in the mass media. One great field of concern is research on gender-stereotyping and gender-bias in the media. The second great area of research is focusing on the effects that (verbal or visual) sexism in the media can have on one’s mind. The third field at least focuses on more explicit media contents such as erotica or even pornography. This work in the following is structured on these three areas of research.

1.2 Sex and Sexism

One the one hand there is sex, which is a “biologically-given facet of human nature.

Sexual behaviour and sexual sensations are common all over our lives. They have the potential for positive as well as negative physical and psychological consequences. Sex can strengthen our most intimate personal relationships but can also become violent, coercive or distorted and can both, lead to life-disrupting and life-threatening outcomes as well as to the enhancement of psychological and physical health (Kaiser Family Foundation, 1998, p.5). On the other hand, sexism is defined as „attitudes of behaviour based on traditional stereotypes of sexual roles“ or „discrimination or devaluation based on a person’s sex“ and can refer to three subtly different beliefs or attitudes: (1) that one sex is superior to the other, (2) that men and women are very different and that this should be strongly reflected in society, language, the right to have sex, and the law, and (3) can also refer to simply hatred of women or hatred of men.[2] The word sexism was modelled after the word racism, and came into usage during the 1960s.[3]

2. Research Traditions

The discussion about the influence of the media came up closely after the introduction of communication technologies. The issue of the harmful and degrading effects of sexism in the print media erupted well before the twentieth century. The banning of sexual literature happened also in countries in which freedom of the press is constitutionally guaranteed (e.g. in the United States) and although print is centuries old, researchers are still concerned with the novel ways in which sex shows up in print (Steven & Handel, 2001)[4]. Movies are the form of media that have produces most concern. At the beginning of the twentieth century, critics against the depiction of sexism in the media were massive, especially from those who worried about the demoralizing influences, especially on children, that movies could have on one’s mind. Alice Miller Mitchell’s Children and Movies (1929) was one of the first scientific efforts which came up through the discussion of the influence of sexism in the media. However, due to the fact that the presence of body nudity and sex in major motion pictures has risen dramatically, there is still concern focusing on the sexual content of movies. The US government was even concerned with obscenity on the radio, although there was and is little data on its impact. A lot more attention focused on television, and with the upcoming of this medium, a new wave of criticism came up which “was generated by those most threatened by innovation, that is, the existing traditional power elite of family, church, education and government.”[5] The portrayal of sexuality as well as the effects caused by sexuality on television is a great field of concern since decades – “although sexuality on television is rarely explicit in comparison to what is available on the Internet” (Steven & Handel, 2001) – I will focus on both, the effects on television and the internet in a later part of this work.

2.1 The Women’s Movement

The Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 1970s brought up considerable research in this field of communication. Research from a feminist perspective can be divided into two main fields: on the one the depiction of women in the media, thus how are women portrayed in the media, and what are the effects female audiences learn from this portrayals. On the other hand research is occupied with the “difficulties of women in profession” (Gallagher, 1992, p.2).

Even though the two dimensions have come together steadily over the years,

developing “a complex analysis of the structure and process of representation […], Gallagher argues that the core of the cultural politics of feminism is the “critique of the media content and its implication in the construction of gender” (Gallagher, 1992, p.4). Feminist scholarships of the 1970s were characterized by the analyses of “sex-roles and media stereotypes.” They showed up the leaving out of women from the media content as well as the “silencing in many media forms” and demonstrated “how media images underscore received notions of ‘difference’ between women and men” (Gallagher, 1992, p.2). This research was and is still continued by media researchers (e.g. Koivula, 1999; Lindner, 2002).

Feminist Approaches to Media Content

There are different perspectives of feminism such as the radical, liberal, Marxist, socialist and French feminism perspective, each of them postulating a different point of view about the role of mass media in society (Steeves, 1987, p.97). Steeves emphasizes that the line between mass media theory and feminist theory seems to be invisible respectively hard to discern, due to the fact that feminist studies “exhibit the same theoretical and methodological differences as found in other critical and mainstream communication studies.” Especially liberal feminist media studies focused on analysing the appearance, non-appearance, stereotyping or devaluating of women in mass media (Steeves, 1987, p. 97).

One point to admit is that mass communication theory constitutes the base of most research, a fact which is not specified by liberal feminism research. However, lots of research is based on agenda setting or cultivation effects, as well as uses and gratifications approaches and social learning theory (Steeves, 1987, p.112 f). I will specify some of these theories and their contribution to research in the field of sexism and sex-role stereotyping in a following part of this work.

Research regarding Masculinity

Although the field of research focusing on the representation of masculinity is considered as being “underdeveloped” or “still in the baby shoes” (e.g. Weimann, 2002; Fejes, 1989), it focuses on the same issues than research on women: the depiction of men in the media, and the effects these contents can have on the male audience (see e.g. Garst & V. Bodenhausen, 1997). However, it is important to state that there is one area of media research “in which the discourse is undeniable about the male and masculinity”, thus research focusing on pornography (Fejes, 1989, p.217). This topic will be mentioned in detail in a later part of this work.

2.2 Findings on Cultivation and Bias

The investigative research which emerged during the late 1960s and early 1970s led to convincing findings on cultivation and bias within the domain of sex role stereotyping, gender bias and sexism in the media. These findings led to suggestions that contents of sexism in the media have to have an impact on people’s attitudes, values and behaviours (Weimann, 2002, p.123). I will focus on this finding in a later part of this work.

3. Gender-Role Stereotyping/Gender Bias in the Media

Although the power of television on the viewers' beliefs and behaviours is probably the greatest field of concern, research on the portrayal of gender and gender -bias in the entertainment media is important and has a long research tradition. Gender-stereotyping as well as gender bias can be found in nearly any kind of media and especially in advertisements. Due to the fact that this field of research is huge, I will mainly concentrate on gender-stereotyping and gender bias in television and magazines, putting a special focus on advertisements in these kinds of media.


There has been and there is still a lot of research in the field of sex role stereotyping in television. During the last decades, research from a communication perspective focused very much on soaps, sitcoms, prime-time television as well as music videos.

For example, a study examining 182 MTV music videos observed, that about one-third of the characters were female, while the other 64% were male characters. While male characters were depicted as more adventuresome, aggressive, violent, and domineering than women, female characters were presented as dependent, nurturing, affectionate and fearful. Both female and male characters were shown in sex-typed occupations, but just a large percentage of female characters wore revealing clothes. It was also the female character who initiated and received sexual advances more often than men. Due to the fact that music videos help socialize teenagers and young adolescents by communicating ideas about proper behaviour and the selection of career paths, it is quite surprising that this kind of entertainment media still hold on gender-stereotypes, thus influencing males and females to develop distinct personality characteristics (Seidmann, 1992, p.209ff.).

TV Commercials

There is also lots of research on sex-role stereotyping and gender bias in TV commercials since decades. These studies focused their research on the general stereotyping and gender bias of males and females in TV advertisings from the presentation of domestic and non-domestic products as well as on gender-role stereotypes in commercials for particular products (Furnham & Mak, 1999). In a next step, I will show up the latest results of research on sex-role stereotyping and gender bias in TV commercials distinguishing between analyses on adults and children, which mean two different areas of research in this field.


The portrayal of men and women in television commercials has been interesting for researchers, especially in the United States, for about 30 years. McArthur and Resko (1975) published one of the first content analytic studies of the portrayal of men and women in television commercials (Furnham & Mak, 1999, p.1).[6] Studies are numerous, but they have one thing in common: there is still unequal gender representation in TV-commercials. Males are overrepresented as product representatives for non-domestic products, females are overrepresented as product representatives for domestic products. Compared to commercials some years ago, there is a trend of greater gender-bias in product representatives for domestic products. This indicates that commercials “may have taken a step backwards in some areas from becoming gender neutral” (Bartsch et. al., 2000).[7]

Signorelli (1994) conducted research on gender stereotypes in MTV commercials and found out, that even though a large percentage of commercials geared towards men as well as women, the commercials on MTV were “filled with stereotypical information about gender roles.” For example, there were twice as many only male commercials than only female commercials and males were far more likely to handle or control the advertised object than women. While male oriented commercial were mainly entertainment related, female oriented commercials contained mainly personal products. Whereas commercials presenting only female characters focused on beauty, commercials presenting only male characters presented products reflecting fun and action. Due to the MTV’s status as a “cutting edge” genre of television, stereotyped images and appeals appear in their commercials. Women’s primary effort is to “look good” and to be the object of the visual attention of others. According to Signorelli (1994) MTV transmits messages about gender roles which adolescents might learn – thus would lead to the up hold of traditional restrictive views of men and women (Signorelli, 1994, p.91ff.).


Whereas early research indicated that boys outnumber girls in television commercials directed towards children, research in the late 1990s indicated a much more equitable distribution – 49% boys and 51% girls (Pike & Jennings, 2005, p.1).[8] However, boys and girls in commercials often are still portrayed in stereotypical roles. “Activities portrayed in commercials often signify traditional gender roles.” Girls for example engage in shopping, boys do not – but only boys showed up antisocial behaviours, such as fighting or stealing. Commercials that feature boys contain more aggressive behaviour than those featuring girls. Former research suggested that commercials featuring girls contain lots of fades and dissolves, smooth transitions, soft music and a greater deal of talking. Boys’ commercials instead contain higher rates of cuts, more rough cuts, highly active toys, louder noises and less talking. In the 1990s research implied that “voiceovers were used to match the orientation of the target for the toy such that boy-oriented commercials featured a male voiceover and girl-oriented commercials featured a female voiceover because researcher suggest that these factors “tend to serve as signifiers of appropriate gendered behaviour and toy selection” (Pike & Jennings, 2005, p.1).


While during the 1950s and 1960s the classical image of women in the movies was on the one hand ‘the brainless sexy women’ such as Marilyn Monroe, on the other hand the ‘feminist homebody’ such as Doris Day, the 1970s presented (strongly influenced by the women’s movement) some strong and credible female characters.

Nevertheless, the two classical types of female characters – the saint and the whore - that appeared in the last decades still exist in numerous films. Women are also presented in stereotypical manner with the characteristics of passivity and domesticity. But not just women images hold strong stereotypes; even images of men and masculinity do so. Aggression, moral superiority and intelligence are the classic male characteristics (Weimann, 2002, p.134ff.). An important fact to note is that men and boys in their teens and 20s are slightly underrepresented in popular films, but overrepresented in their 30s and 40s. Women instead are overrepresented in their 20s and 30s, but underrepresented in their 50s and 60s. Thus, movies still provide a distorted picture of gender and age in movies in which women “enjoy a shorter screen life than men” because in fact they disappear from the screen at an early age. Thus leading to the reinforcement of cultural believes “that women’s value continues to reside in their youthful appearance” (Lauzen & Dosier, 2005, p.3).[9]

Print Media

Gender stereotypes appear in television as well as in magazines, newspapers and books. According to Weimann (2002), children books as well as books aimed at an adult audience describe women and men in classical traditional roles. Gender-based stereotypes appear in magazines as well. For example, one study observed that in magazines targeted at upwardly heterosexual men, women were depicted in highly idealized and sexualized manner (Weimann, 2002, p.136). Even daily newspaper comics contain gender stereotypes. Glascock et al. (2004) observed, that in four daily newspapers in an upper mid-west state, 61% out of 1077 characters were male characters, whereas 28& were female characters. Even animal male characters outnumbered female animal characters 6 to 1 (Glascock & Preston-Schreck, 2004, p.2).[10]




[3] Harper, Karen: Sexism in the Media, Oakland LMV, Jan, 2005


[5] p olsky/ sexinmed/Readings/MassMediaSexSocialization.DOC







ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
571 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Technische Universität Dresden – Institut für Kommunikationswissenschaft
Sexism Media Effects



Titel: Sexism in the Media and their Effects