Media Portrayal of Sexes

Babies, when born, have no inherent knowledge about how girls and boys, men and women, are “supposed to act.” They learn their cultural roles from the culture around them — their adult and older-child role models, and more and more, through the media. As one writer quoted Blum, “Nothing in biology labels behaviors as right or wrong, normal or abnormal. Any stereotypes we impose on children — and by extension, adults — are purely cultural, not biological” (Abels, 2002). Depiction of males and females in popular media is in a constant change of flux, partly based on inaccurate stereotype but partly reflecting the very real diversity seen in both sexes.

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Experts in the field believe that children begin to learn what gender role is expected of them early in childhood, and that these expectations are communicated to them both purposefully and in unintended lessons. Part of this influence is undoubtedly from the mass media. Even very young children may watch up to four hours a day of television (Abels, 2002), giving it many opportunities to contribute to how children come to perceive the two sexes.

One researcher looked at two television shows specifically aimed at children very young — ages two through five. This researcher did see some changes in how the sexes are portrayed on both shows. Interestingly, she found that while the shows broadened presentations of acceptable behavior in boys, girls tended to remain stereotyped (Abels, 2002).

Throughout childhood many influences play on the developing child’s opinion of how boys and girls, and men and women, should act, but historically, the path for equality of many types has been through sports. Jim Thorpe, a Native American, achieved real prominence as a football hero. Many young African-American men demonstrated equality in various sports arenas, and many would argue that these successes helped change public policy as well as individual negative opinions of that race and culture to something much more accepting. So it shouldn’t be surprising that when the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team excelled at the Olympics, they garnered much attention, praise and commentary. Unfortunately, much of that descended into stereotypes.

Looking on the media coverage of these young athletes after it took, researchers saw unmistakable evidence of what they called the “babe” factor — various kinds of sexualization of the athletes. Many of the people who did this thought they were reflecting feminist views as they did so (Shugart, 2003). While several of the team members were viewed as attractive as well as outstanding athletes, such as Mia Hamm, One player was described in terms often reserved for male athletes: “gutsy,” “brave,” “dominant, “driven by vengeance,” relentless” and “reckless. One described her as “a lioness,” and she was said to have “unsurpassed strength.” (Shugart, 2003) What the researchers noted was that she seemingly could not be described in such terms and also seen in the more sexualized terms for other team members (ex: “attractive,” something having nothing whatsoever to do with athletic skill). Her appearance, although she was obviously female, was described as “muscular.” It seemed that even at the end of the 20th century, a woman could not be seen as both feminine and as an outstanding athlete. Only one or the other could be emphasized.

Other researchers refer to something called “the image” problem — that female athletes tend to be Lesbians. Apparently on the idea the Lesbianism doesn’t sell in the media, the media tends to bend in the other direction, emphasizing the heterosexual attractiveness of prominent female athletes (Guiliano, 2003).

One researcher looked media image by studying a sport where both men and women excel — distance running — to look at this issue. She found three interesting patterns. First, although traditionally, women athletes are far more likely to be perceived as homosexual than men, men are also vulnerable to being seen this way if the sport is not strongly “masculine,” as is the perception for sports such as football and hockey. It appeared, in fact, that while people perceived more women athletes than men as having same-sex sexual preference, the image consequences of being perceived (or known) as homosexual are far greater for men than women, with gay men viewed as having markedly feminine traits (MacKenzie, 1998). The researchers suspect that the consequences are greater for men because female athletes are viewed to have already crossed a gender line by participating so vigorously in a male-dominated area — sports (MacKenzie, 1998).

In addition, she found that those who participated in the study tended to hold stereotypical views regarding the behavior of both male and female homosexuals. Perhaps popular television entertainment, over time, can tend to dispel these stereotypes as we see the popularity of such TV shows as “Will and Grace” and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”


In fairness to the media, the media was never intended to mold, train, or raise our children for us. Media is a profit-driven industry and relies on its profit margins for survival. Media leaders have to report to stockholders. The media is full of stereotypes. The very popular show “Home Improvement,” seen in syndication in the late afternoon when school-aged children are likely to watch, all over the country, presents women in two stereotypes. First there’s the “Hot Babe” Pamela Anderson in a tool belt and short shorts, serving no real purpose on Allen’s show except to decorate, and then there’s his wife, Jill, who has a sharp tongue, constantly criticizes her husband, and dominates the family as the logical, sane and rational member of the parental team, while the husband is repeatedly shown to be a bumbling child-like man.

But for all the media’s focus, both women and men have far more role freedom than ever seen before. The media reflects society in these matters; it does not lead it.


Abels, Lori. 2002. “Sex-role stereotypes in TV Programs aimed at the preschool audience: an analysis of Teletubbies and Barney & Friends.” Women and Language, Sept. 22.

Giuliano, Traci A. 2003. “Blood, sweat, and jeers: the impact of the media’s heterosexist portrayals on perceptions of male and female athletes.” Journal of Sport Behavior, Sept. 1.

MacKenzie, Nancy R. 1998. “Effects of television viewing on children’s development.” Pediatric Nursing, Sept.

Shugart, Helene A. 2003. “She shoots, she scores: mediated constructions of contemporary female athletes in coverage of the 1999 U.S. women’s soccer team.” Western Journal of Communication, Jan.