Challenging gender stereotypes
Seeing your future self
At some point every child is asked the question, what do you want to be when you grow up?
To be able to answer freely and truthfully, 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.
Representation matters, and not just for groups that are under-represented or mis-represented in the media.
The way males and females are portrayed in the media plays a central role in how we develop a picture of what it means to be male or female. Gendered stereotypes are harmful for everyone because they limit our imaginations and eventually our choices:
- the male can be anything, except something that’s usually what a female would be encouraged to do
- the female can be anything, except something that’s usually what a male would be encouraged to do
- 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. For many, this is harmful for their sense of well-being and their developing identity.
Most TV shows and movies have male characters portrayed as the characters with the power, who take control of the situation and play the role of the hero who saves the day.
Females are often portrayed in movies as secondary characters. They don’t play an active role in the storyline of the movie and exist to be a romantic interest, or to help the male lead character achieve their goals.
Rigid gender stereotypes affect everyone negatively—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. But 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.
The importance of critical viewing
Not only does media often reinforce conventional gender stereotypes, but it also depicts many negative gendered attitudes and behaviours.
A person playing a character that’s abusive or violent or belittles women is no hero. Their behaviour should never be viewed as acceptable or something to imitate. The hero’s determination to get the girl should always be grounded in respecting her as a person who can make up her own mind. Disrespectful behaviours include:
- waiting around outside her house
- following her as she goes about her life
- persistent calls and texts
- breaking into an apartment to fill it with flowers
- turning up unannounced as a ‘surprise’.
None of these behaviours recognise a woman’s ability to make her own choices. The media might portray these behaviours as romantic, but they are not. Harassment is an abusive behaviour and stalking is a crime.
A social media influencer who attempts to reinforce gendered stereotypes to get more likes and followers is acting in a way that feeds their own motivations and ambition. Maybe their ‘brand’ is to be deliberately provocative and make their viewers outraged:
- she’s hot, but she’s horrible
- he’s a total boss, but he’s so sexist
- this person is the worst, but I have to keep watching to see what they’ll do next.
The more extreme a ‘character’ seems, the more you can assume they are deliberately playing up their worst side for attention and fame. It might be entertaining, but it’s not real. It’s not behaviour to imitate.
Take it personally
You are you. If the way your gender is portrayed in the media aligns with how you see yourself that’s great. That is you, at least, it’s you for now.
But it’s also common for media depictions to feel at odds with how you see yourself.
Remember, gendered stereotypes are generalised beliefs or ideas about a group or class of people. They are general assumptions that take no account of an individual person:
- women do this
- men do that
- men like this
- women like that.
To presume that half the population is so alike in their wants and needs, and the other half equally similar, is just silly. Look around at your friends, your family. All are different in their own unique ways. They are Sam and Chris and Mum and Becka and Pa and Maddy and Vika and Marty and …
Narrow gender stereotyping hurts everyone. It confines females and males into rigid gendered roles.
Gendered roles hold that males and females are not equally deserving of respect. And when someone is seen to be undeserving of respect, it can be easier to excuse when violence is committed against them.