Gender and the media
The majority of Australian teenagers have their own mobile screen-based device and spend upwards of forty hours each week communicating, learning and being entertained online.
Online services have evolved from largely text-based websites to massive streaming video and game platforms and image-based social media, all of which come with advertisements.
With the sheer volume of TV and videos available to watch online, how do we choose? What makes a person choose one and not another?
Seeing your future self
At some point every child is asked, what do you want to be when you grow up?
To be able to answer this question freely and without constraint, a child needs to be able to imagine all possible futures. How else could they point to the ones that speak to their passions and obsessions?
A child’s imagined future is modelled and inspired by their family, their community, the people they see on the television and internet, including news coverage and advertisements, and characters in books, in TV shows and movies.
- I’d love to do this, but I’ve only ever seen boys do it.
- It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, but I’ve only ever seen girls do it.
- Could I really start my own company?
- Could I manage my family’s farm?
- Could I ever build a house with my own hands?
- Could I ever be Prime Minister of Australia?
It’s impossible to overstate the influence media has on framing the future we dare to dream for ourselves.
The importance of role models
The X-Files is an American science fiction drama TV show that first aired in 1993 and originally ran for 9 seasons. Recently rebooted for two more seasons, the show continues to have a cult following with storylines blending super-smart detective work, evidence-based science and the paranormal.
The lead characters are FBI Special Agent Dana Scully, a forensic scientist who relies on cold hard facts and Special Agent Fox Mulder, a true believer in the supernatural. Both are portrayed as highly skilled professionals.
The enduring popularity of the show has been much studied and in particular, the impact of having a lead female character with expertise in a profession typically dominated by males. Universities registered a significant increase in women enrolling in science, medicine and law enforcement after being inspired by Scully – a curious, intelligent, strong minded and capable professional.
Researchers have now called this the Scully Effect - females seeking careers in STEM inspired by a fictional role model.
Because young women could see it, they could aspire to it, and imagine becoming it.
Representation matters, and not just for groups that are under-represented or mis-represented in the media.
But, for every realistic and multi-dimensional Dana Scully type character, there are many more that fall back on conventional gender stereotypes.
- a male can be anything, except things females are 'supposed' or 'expected' to be
- a female can be anything, except things males are 'supposed' or 'expected' to be
- anyone other than obviously male or female is often sidelined.
These stereotypes reinforce the belief that our gender identity determines how we should look and behave, what work we should do, and what our future ambitions should be.
Gendered stereotypes are harmful for everyone because they limit our imaginations and eventually our choices:
- As a male, what do you want to be when you grow up?
- As a female, what do you want to be when you grow up?
Not everyone has the aptitude to be a doctor or a politician or a farmer or a teacher or in business or an artist or actor or musician or soldier. When considering aptitude and interest, gender plays no part.
Aptitude and interest are specific to an individual person – what are you good at, what contribution do you want to make, what brings you joy, what sort of life do you want to live for yourself, and with others?
Sometimes gendered stereotypes align to how a person sees themselves and their hopes and dreams. Sometimes gendered stereotypes attempt to skew a young person into a future that’s at odds with how they see themselves, now and in the future.
Rigid gender stereotypes affect everyone - girls and boys, young women and men, adult women and men.
There is still a long way to go and progress is slow against entrenched stereotypes. Most forms of media are recognising the importance of showing diversity of people and situations, and the many and varied options for people in these situations.
Heroes are now not always male, and the emotional characters not always female. In mainstream media, gendered stereotypes are being challenged, and that’s good and healthy for everyone.
Stereotypes and norms tend to be sticky and not easily changed, but they can and should be challenged. The changes that have occurred in representation in the media have been as a result of public pressure, campaigns and frequent and repeated calling out.
Stereotypes and norms change when it becomes important to enough people to make the change necessary.
We all want to see people like ourselves represented in the media, and also people that reflect our dreams and ambitions.