Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Impact of Mass Media on Females

Written Assignment #1: Sociology Class

From a very early age, young children, especially females, are heavily influenced by the mass media of their society. Even before the average young girl has learned how to read, she has already been heavily influenced by various forms of media such as television programs, television advertisements and symbols displayed in advertisements in her environment. She learns the socially acceptable norms of what she should look like, act like, and what career path, if any, would be most appropriate for her due to her sex. The impact of this gender socialization has both short and long term negative affects on the majority of females.

In considering the impact that television programs have on children, we first must look at how prevalent television viewing is in the average home to see how big a role this plays in socialization. According to research by Vandewater, Bickham, Lee, Cummings, Wartella and Rideout (2005:A), the television is on for approximately six hours a day in most American homes, making television viewing the activity that children spend the majority of their time doing, except for sleeping (2005:562). They found that 39% of children between the ages of 0 and 4, and 29% of children between the ages of 5 to 6 years old live in households where the television is on always or most of the time, even if no one was watching it (2005:573). They conclude that, among other things, television viewing plays a major role in the socialization of children's lives.

So what are children viewing as they log so many hours captivated by this form of media? According to research by Potts (2001), "...viewers are deluged with action-adventure cartoons that feature tough men, female characters appear only as sidekicks" (2001:2). She quotes Innesss who claims that "women are a minority in the Saturday morning cartoons, and those who do appear are sexualized and marginalized; viewing action-adventure cartoons, you would never deduce that women make up over half the world's population" (2001:2). Her research goes on to laud one program, despite the proliferation of shows such as "Dexter's Laboratory", "Johnny Bravo", "Hey, Arthur!", and other male-focused programs. Potts points out that "The Powerpuff Girls" is one attempt to turn the tides of traditional children's programming, as it "provides positive female media images that are not based on sex appeal" (2001:1), and "reinforces the notion that girls, just like boys, are capable of having strong and assertive personalities and can be anything they want to be" (2001:7). Programs like this are a good start in helping young girls identify non traditional roles they could pursue. Unfortunately these shows only make up a small fraction of their television viewing experience, leaving much programming still dedicated to the building up of males and marginalization of females.

Vanderwater, Park, Huang and Wartella (2005:B) did another study discussing television viewing in relation to parental controls. They learned that the most effective way to reduce television screen time for young children was to set time rules regarding usage rather than program rules. If both rules were combined, parents would have a large impact on both the reduction of television viewing time, as well as better control over the nature of the programs watched, thus reducing the affects of this form of media in the lives of their children.

Print-based media also plays a significant role in how young girls form opinions about themselves. Bedtime stories read to young children are often based on females needing a male for protection (Snow White), for escape to a better life (Cinderella), for financial stability (Rumpelstiltskin), or for personal fulfillment (The Little Mermaid). In an article written by Franzwa, she quotes Suelze who argues that "the image of woman in media as varied as toy catalogs, TV commercials, and children's books portraying women as nonworking housewives discourages women from entering nontraditional fields of employment" (1974:105). Even when families or individuals try to eliminate traditional gender socialization in the raising of children, "the culture (particularly through the mass media) continues to saturate all of us with traditional images" (1974:105).

As these same young girls reach teenage-hood, they often begin reading popular culture magazines which are inundated with articles and advertisements that tell girls how to look, what to wear, which diets to try, etc. In a study by Andersen and DiDomenico (1992), they surveyed the top 10 magazines read most by young men 18 to 24 years of age, as well as the top 10 magazines read most by young women of the same age. It was found that in the top 10 magazines for young men, there were 5 diet advertisements or articles, and 17 shape advertisements or articles. In the top 10 magazines for young women, there was a dramatic increase compared to the males in the number of diet advertisements or articles, rising from 5 to 56. The shape articles showed a much smaller increase, rising from 17 to 20. It is noteworthy that the differences between the ratio of the male and female diet advertisements/articles in the magazines correlate almost exactly with the ratio of males to females who suffer from eating disorders. Print-media sends significantly different messages to males than it does to females.

Durkin and Paxton (2002) also approached the topic of how media images affect female body image. Through experiment, they determined that after viewing images of idealized females, the girls in their study (one group in grade 7 and the other group in grade 10) experienced lower body satisfaction and overall mood. As well, they experienced higher levels of depression and anxiety, though more so in the older group of girls than the younger. Durkin and Paxton attributed the difference between the two group reactions to possibly stemming from the older girls feeling like they may have 'failed' to meet the expectation of the idealized female images they've been saturated with since childhood. "The most deleterious framework of unrealistic body shape expectations may be set in childhood and young adolescence, but the full impact on body satisfaction may not occur until later" (2002:1002). Overall, their findings suggest that the idealized female images found in media are powerful in creating concern over the middle adolescent girl's mental well-being.

It is clear that the various forms of media in North America help to shape and mould the female culture. Beginning with young girls, following them through adolescence and into adulthood, females are taught how they should look, feel and act. When females fail to live up to those impossible ideals, it often results in both physical and mental harm to themselves. Trying to counter this influence is difficult, as the media mindset touches so much of our everyday lives. But as media begins to more regularly portray images of healthy and realistic women, and as females begin to see more positive role models in their lives, hopefully this will begin to change the attitudes of society, one mind at a time.

By Heather McCue


Andersen, Arnold E., and Lisa DiDomenico. 1992. “Diet Vs. Shape Content of Popular Male and Female Magazines: A Dose-Response Relationship to the Incidence of Eating Disorders?.” International Journal of Eating Disorders 11:283-287.

Durkin, Sarah J., and Susan J. Paxton. 2002. “Predictors of vulnerability to reduced body image satisfaction and psychological wellbeing in response to exposure to idealized female media images in adolescent girls..” Journal of Psychosomatic Research 53:995.

Franzwa, Helen H. 1974. “Working Women in Fact and Fiction.” Journal of Communication 24:104-109.

Potts, Donna L. 2001. “Channeling girl power: Positive female media images in "The Powerpuff Girls."..” Simile 1:N.PAG.

Vandewater, Elizabeth A, David S Bickham, et al. 2005. “When the Television Is Always On: Heavy Television Exposure and Young Children's Development.” American Behavioral Scientist 48:562-577. A

Vandewater, Elizabeth A, Seoung-Eun Park, Xuan Huang, and Ellen A Wartella. 2005. “"No -- You Can't Watch That": Parental Rules and Young Children's Media Use.” American Behavioral Scientist 48:608-623. B

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