Role Models in Media: Girls Go on Dates, Boys Go to Work

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

If teenage girls are looking for positive images of girls and women, they won't necessarily find them in television shows, movies, and teen magazines, a new study shows.

Too often, say researchers, media messages to girls focus heavily on beauty and romance. They depict a limited world where looks and success with men are what are important to women, while work and career are what matter to men.

The report, released Wednesday, is the first to look at gender roles in a range of media used by teenage girls. Commissioned by Children Now, an advocacy group, and the Kaiser Family Foundation, it analyzed the content of television programs and commercials, movies, and music videos, plus teen magazine articles and advertisements.

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"In TV, movies, and commercials, we saw men depicted more often as being on the job, or having a job, whereas women were seen as dating," says Lois Salisbury, president of Children Now. Across all media, she adds, "Men were more often seen in business clothes and uniforms than women were, whereas women much more often than men were seen in underwear, lingerie, or night clothes."

Yet while the media reinforce some gender stereotypes, they also send positive messages, the research finds. In movies, even more than in TV shows, many women and girls are shown actively using their intelligence and exerting their independence to achieve goals.

"The media did make a connection that women and girls first turn to themselves to solve their problems," explains Ms. Salisbury. "That's counter-stereotype. The classic stereotype is that they turn to others for help." Commercials, she adds, also encourage women to be in control.

Another major finding is the media's under-representation of women and girls. In movies, nearly two-thirds of characters were male, while just more than one-third were female. In TV shows, 45 percent of characters were female and 55 percent were male. Only one-fifth of those shown in music videos were female performers, compared with four-fifths who were male performers or actors. Among other findings:

* In television shows, 41 percent of male characters were seen working, compared with just over a quarter of females. In movies, men were almost twice as likely to be shown at work as women.

* Men in TV shows and movies were also more likely to talk about work than women were. Women, by contrast, were more likely than men in both TV programs and films to talk about romantic relationships.

* In teen magazines, which are targeted at girls, more than a third of articles focused on dating. Only 12 percent discussed either school or careers. They also ran more articles about famous men than famous women.

Teen magazines, Salisbury notes, do treat important issues facing young people - friendship, self-confidence, sex, drugs, smoking - but with less overall frequency.

Salisbury describes the problem by saying, "If it were any one of these messages appearing in just any one of these media, they might not have the impact. But what we're seeing is a consistency, a cumulative effect. These messages surround American girls."

The research has been the basis of a three-day conference in Los Angeles, "Reflections of Girls in the Media," which ends today. Sponsored by Children Now, the meeting has drawn television network executives, movie producers, advertisers, magazine editors, and product designers.

Salisbury hopes the findings will encourage industry leaders to strengthen and broaden their portrayals of women and girls. In all entertainment media, she says, "A different kind of balance needs to be brought to bear on this picture."

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