The Message Around Us
Turn on the television, watch a video, read a book, browse through a toy store, and even blow some steam at an arcade game—most messages about women are the same and soaked up like sponges by our daughters. Child and family advocacy organization, Children NOW, has conducted many studies on the effects of media on children's development. A survey conducted in 1997 of children 10-17 looked at girls' and boys' perceptions about gender roles in television. One of many noteworthy findings show: "Worrying about appearance or weight, crying or whining, and weakness are all things both girls and boys say they associate more with female characters on television than male characters. Playing sports and wanting to be kissed or have sex, on the other hand, are more often thought of in association with male characters than female."
It's easy to point fingers, but can the media play another role by offering examples of women as strong, capable, positive individuals? "Absolutely," says Patti Miller, Director of Children and the Media Program at Children NOW, in Oakland, CA. "Our 1997 study on Media, Girls and Gender Roles looked at a range of media that influence teenage girls, including television shows, commercials, movies, music videos, teen magazine articles and printed advertisements. The findings show that children today are likely to get conflicting messages about the role of women," says Miller. "While there are more positive role models of women in the media as independent, honest, intelligent problem solvers, there are still many examples of stereotypes being reinforced—depicting women in terms of their appearance and their relationships."
That half an hour of down time while a child is absorbed in a video or television show does not need to be deleted from our lives. Like everything else, parents need to be aware of what their kids are watching and the messages the programs send. "Grace seems to prefer videos and TV shows that I would associate with boys, for instance Dinosaur, Tarzan and anything having to do with horses," says Mimi Towle a mom of two daughters, one three years old and another due any day now, in Mill Valley, Califorina, and who makes it a point to sit and watch programs with her daughter. "I recently bought her Pocahontas thinking it would introduce her to a strong female character, but I felt the violence and cruelty of the characters overshadowed the strength of the main character. She loves the video, but seems more interested in the raccoon and hummingbird than the humans." Miller adds, "The media is a very powerful tool that can reinforce negative stereotypes for girls and boys. It's important that parents talk to their children about the negative gender messages they see on television. Parents should also select shows for their children that contain positive messages about gender, race and class. It's important that they think about their children's media consumption in the same way they would think about a healthy diet for their children."