How do mass media and media images affect gender socialization?

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Julia Wood, in her article titled “Gendered Media: The Influence of Media on Views of Gender,” presents three themes that explain how media represents gender: under-representation of women, stereotypes, and emphasis on gender roles and violence against women. These three themes nicely summarize the core issues that arise when we want to explore the impact of mass media on gender socialization.

Generally, mass media is dominated by the male gender, whether in terms of existing opportunities or incomes earned. Data from Statista, for the period 2014-2015, reveals that only 38.1% of all characters featured on “streamed shows” and 36.4% of those on “broadcast television shows” in the United States were women. On a more global scale, data from the Global Media Monitoring Project, for 2015, states that women comprised a paltry 24% of people “heard, read about or seen” in mass media news. This under-representation may result in less interest or focus on those issues that relate to the female gender.

Mass media advances the stereotyping of gender roles which can inhibit the growth and development of individuals from either gender. For instance, certain activities or professions may be portrayed as being more “masculine” than others, thus a domain of men, and vice versa. When a majority of advertisements on household cleaning detergents show female stay-at-home mothers doing the laundry, a young girl subconsciously learns that cleaning is a woman’s domain. The same can be said for any other activity. The continuous portrayal of women as damsels in distress by soap operas also encourages the idea of a weak female gender that constantly needs help from men.

Finally, there is domestic violence that is often carried out on the "weaker gender" (mostly female). The under-representation of women, together with their portrayal as the weaker gender, by the mass media puts forward the idea that authority lies with the male gender. A negative result of this can be the need to prove this authority through violence—which is unfortunately advanced by the mass media through aggressive movies, stories, music, and so forth.

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Science shows that humans are intensely social animals who imitate one another. Gender socialization starts very young, and both boys and girls pick up strong cues from media about how they are "supposed" to act.

Media images tend to reflect pre-existing gender stereotypes and, therefore, perpetuate conventional gender expectations. Many programs and advertisements display women as static sex objects subject to being "gazed" at in order to sell product, and many programs feature males in action positions as agents of change, often using violence to impress their will upon the world and save women. Video games have been criticized for showing women in static poses, such as entrapped in a glass blocks, and the men as active rescuers of these damsels in distress who are helplessly dependent on male agency.

Critics such as Judith Butler, author of Gender Trouble, argue that socialized gender roles are therefore not "natural" but reinforced over and over and over again by repetition of conventionalized images. Gender roles are also reinforced through praise, implicit or explicit, of people who fulfill their gender roles "properly." Media images definitely are part of this socialization process.

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Mass media (and the images that it transmits to us) is not the only agent of gender socialization.  We are socialized in this way by our families and our peers as well.  However, the mass media does act as an agent of gender socialization because the images it shows us help to teach us what society expects from people of our sex.

When we consume media, we see images from at least three sources that socialize us in terms of gender.  We see images in advertising, in entertainment, and in the news. 

In advertising, we are often exposed to images that tell us what an ideal man or woman should be.  Although these images have changed to some degree over the years, we still see many images that tell us that the value of women is based on their looks or on their ability to be mothers.  We see images that tell us that men are supposed to be tough and in charge.

In entertainment, we see many portrayals of men and women in a variety of situations.  All of them tell us what men and women are supposed to be like (or not supposed to be like).  This is true even in shows where the main characters are not presented as heroes.  We still see all sorts of male-female interactions and we see men and women handling different sorts of situations.  All of this tells us something about what society expects from us.

Finally, we are socialized by images from the news.  Here, we learn something about what men and women do in the real world.  This is one place where the images have changed the most.  Once, all of the images from the news were masculine.  Now, we see much more of women playing a variety of roles in our society. 

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