Sobering look at male stereotypes in the media

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A friend who volunteers at a science center in Pittsburgh describes an exhibit featuring huge plastic-foam building logs. "You can build a house big enough for a first-grader," he says enthusiastically, noting that the logs are nearly five feet long.

But there's just one problem. "The first thing the kids do when they discover the logs is start hitting each other with them," he says, likening the logs to "foam swords." Boys tend to start the melee, prompting girls to join in self-defense. He adds, "I'm glad I don't watch TV, or I guess I'd be violent, too."

He jokes, of course. But his comment comes at a time when mounting evidence continues to document the violent behavior depicted in entertainment media. The latest findings appear in a report being released today by Children Now, titled "Boys to Men: Media Messages About Masculinity."

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In a national poll from the study, almost three-fourths of children between the ages of 10 and 17 describe males on television as violent. More than two-thirds also describe them as angry. Those perceptions are confirmed by the study's independent analysis of how men act in the most popular programs boys watch.

Some level of violence appears in over half the sample of prime-time television shows and in virtually all the movies most popular among adolescent boys. As Lois Salisbury, president of Children Now, explains, "Boys are exposed relentlessly to a narrow, confining picture of masculinity in America, one that reinforces anger and violence as the way to solve problems." She calls the levels of movie violence "startling."

In what Ms. Salisbury describes as an "unprecedented" study, the group also analyzed sports programming, a favorite among boys. With their fundamentally male "cast" - athletes and anchors, coaches and commentators - sports programs send "uniquely powerful messages" about masculine behavior.

Sportscasters consistently use the language of war and weaponry to describe sports action, with terms such as "battle," "kill," "ammunition," "weapons," and "fighting." Announcers also portray athletes who compete while injured as "heroes." Sports commercials further reinforce male stereotypes, the study finds. Many ads repeatedly use traditionally masculine images of speed, danger, and aggression to sell products.

Even when violence isn't present, other influences subtly shape young viewers' attitudes. In movies and television, men are more closely identified with the working world and high-prestige positions, while women are identified more often with their domestic status. Over one-third of children polled say they never see men on television performing domestic chores such as cooking or cleaning. Female characters are more likely to be cast in traditionally female occupations such as teacher, student, clerical worker, or homemaker.

These portrayals become not just an issue for boys, but one that affects girls, too. "Girls are getting messages not only about femininity but about masculinity - what is valued and what is not," Salisbury says. "That certainly will have an influence on their expectations for the men who will be part of their lives."

Beginning today, nearly 150 entertainment industry executives will gather in Beverly Hills to discuss the findings of the Children Now study. They'll also consider ways to portray a greater range of options for men. Interest in the topic is running high, Salisbury says. This is not a time for defensiveness, she adds, but for stepping back and asking, "How can we do things better that serve our industry and the well-being of America's children?"

The much-touted V-chip may serve a purpose in blocking obviously violent programming. But even the most sophisticated V-chip can't screen out macho stereotypes, blatant or subtle, and what the study calls "gender straitjackets." Changing that media culture will depend on self-examination by Hollywood and pressure on networks and advertisers by parents.

Given enough change, parents might even dare hope for a time, still far off, when a giant foam log will once again be a building block rather than a make-believe sword in the hands of youthful warrior-wannabes.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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