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Sex role stereotypes represent women and men in highly generalized, unrealistic ways. Media stereotypes are important because representation plays a key role in shaping social reality. Mediated messages influence knowledge and what is deemed significant (Brooks & Hйbert 2006). Repeated media images shape attitudes, beliefs, and values. Media communicate current social reality while simultaneously shaping it. Considerable research addresses the media’s role in perpetuating stereotypes. Scholars have examined a variety of media types – e.g., movies, television, radio, advertisements, newspapers, Internet – and highlighted the negative social influence of repeated exposure to stereotypes. Sex role stereotypes convey messages about expected appearance and behavior of women and men, shaping our ideas and expectations. Moreover, such stereotyping perpetuates a reality that oppresses less powerful social groups.
Findings show, despite some more realistic portrayals, stereotyping continues. For example, women are underrepresented on television in relation to men and to their actual numbers in society. Most women who appear are young (Eschholz et al. 2002). Older male characters tend to be depicted as wise and independent, whereas older women are often represented as irrational and dependent. Women are more often presented as emotional and sensitive; men as serious, dominant, and prone to violence. Men act as workforce and women as domestic role models. A number of common sex role stereotypes have been discussed. These include general depictions of women and men as well as specific stereotypes based on factors such as race and sexual orientation. Griffin (1998) highlighted common images of women that reinforce ideas of sex difference, including hetero-sexy beauty queens, wholesome girls next door, cute pixies, and wives and mothers. Contemporary media often show women wearing sexy clothes posing in decorative ways (Lavine et al. 1999). Stereotypical images of men are also commonly presented by the media. For example, male heroes abound, often demonstrating aggression in ways that receive validation.
Several studies have examined how women and men of different races are portrayed. There has been considerable criticism of the mediated sex role stereotypes of African American women. Brooks and Hubert (2006) discuss several common stereotypes, including ‘mammies,’ ‘matriarchs,’ ‘jezebels,’ and ‘welfare mothers.’ African American men are also stereotyped in the media. According to Brooks and Hubert (2006), common stereotypes include ‘the shuffling Uncle Tom,’ ‘the savage,’ and the ‘childlike Sambo.’ Some studies cite frequent depictions of anger and aggression, reinforcing fear of black men.
Women from the Far East tend to be stereotyped as lotus blossoms or dragon ladies (Brooks & Hubert 2006). Latinas tend to be depicted as highly emotive, possessing hypersexual toughness, and exotic temptresses. According to Brooks and Hubert (2006), Far Eastern men are often depicted as menacing foreigners, laborers, corrupt businessmen, and martial artists. Latinos tend to be represented in problematic work roles (e.g., drug dealers, criminals) and as prone to violence. The repetition of mediated stereotypes counteracts strides made by women and minorities. Through their subtle unity, sex role stereotypes reinforce patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity (Eschholz et al. 2002) and heterosexual relationships (Wade & Sharp 2011).
Overall, results are mixed – suggesting some, little, or no progress in ending sex role stereotypes in the media. Much work remains to achieve fairness and equality. Sex role stereotyping continues – as do admonitions from scholars, researchers, and activists that it perpetuates sexism and makes it less likely for equality between women and men to be imagined and made real.
- Brooks, D. E. & Hubert, L. P. (2006). Gender, race, and media representation. In B. J. Dow & J. T. Wood (eds.), Handbook of gender and communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 297–317.
- Eschholz, S., Bufkin, J., & Long, J. (2002). Symbolic reality bites: Women and racial/ethnic minorities in modern film. Sociological Spectrum, 22(2), 299–334.
- Griffin, P. (1998). Strong women, deep closets. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Lavine, H., Sweeney, D., & Wagner, S. (1999). Depicting women as sex objects in advertising: Effects on body dissatisfaction. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(8), 1049–1058.
- Wade, L. & Sharp, G. (2011). Selling sex. In S. D. Ross & P. M. Lester (eds.), Images that injure: Pictorial stereotypes in the media. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, pp. 163–172.