Television has helped to create and perpetuate perceptions of gender and race.
Television and Perceptions of Gender
How children form ideas about gender
Perpetuating gender myths through entertainment programming
Gender portrayals on prime time news
Racial Stereotypes on Television
Television in shaping the perception of black people
Television and stereotyping Asian-Americans as the model minority
Television played a great role in colonial domination of American Indians.
Conclusion and change - where to now?
In his famous dictum of the medium is the message, Marshall McLuhan illustrated how mass media, as an extension of human capabilities, has tremendous personal and social consequences (McLuhan: 23).
Television is in a particularly strong position to initiate such consequences. After all, the great majority of American homes have at least one television set, putting the medium in an unparalleled position to affect American society.
Television also has a power to shape an individual's perceptions of social reality. This paper examines how television affects people's perceptions of gender and racial inequity. In the last part, the paper explores how the same medium that limits our perceptions of gender and race can also provide a platform to challenge these stereotypes.
Gender Portrayals in Television
According to data from the Nielsen Media Research, children aged 16 and younger have, on average, spent more time watching television than going to school. Preschoolers spend an average of nearly 30 hours a week watching television. Communications scholar Susan Witt suggests that children spend more time watching television than they spend on anything else except sleeping (Witt). Given that figure, it should be no surprise that most children will form their first durable ideas about gender roles based on images from television.
In a 1974 study of Saturday morning cartoons, researchers found that female characters were often depicted in secondary roles to male leads. The female characters were also shown as less active and confined primarily to the home (Streicher, 1974, cited in Witt).
These findings are consistent with the strictures governing gender roles in the early days of television. Later studies, however, indicate that trend continues, even with children's shows on the Public Broadcasting System (Zerbinos, 1995, cited in Witt).
Studies have already shown correlations between behavior as adolescents and young adults and exposure to television. For example, college students who engage in "high-sensation" activities like extreme sports were also more likely to have been exposed to violent television (Krcmar and Zuckerman).
It is therefore reasonable to infer that children internalize the gender portrayals to which they are exposed. A child who constantly sees women as helpless princesses or damsels in distress will grow to equate being a woman with weakness.
This skewed portrayal of the sexes continues through the youth-oriented television programming at MTV. Music videos frequently portray women as "sensual and exotic" while the females in the general audience are typically slender (Comstock and Scharrer, 32).
This emphasis on a young woman's attractiveness remains a constant throughout entertainment programming for all ages. The National Institute for Mental Health found that in male characters were presented as "rational, ambitious, smart, competitive, powerful, stable, violent and tolerant." Women, on the other hand, were "sensitive, romantic, attractive, happy, warm, sociable, peaceful, fair, submissive and timid." Television portrayals place a premium of a man's strengths and skills. Women, however, are valued for their physical attractiveness (National Institute of Mental Health as cited in Witt).
This gender subtext extends beyond gender entertainment to network news programming. One study of newscasts on ABC, CBS and NBC found that when broadcast journalists aired interviews with women sources, the news stories centered on how they were affected by crime or disasters or to tell about instances of victimization (Rakow and Cranich, cited in Comstock and Scharrer, 123). Male sources were more often shown in professional settings. Additionally, stories aired on the major networks and CNN showed that a mere 16% of political sources for stories about the president and public policy were female (Liebler and Smith, cited in Comstock and Scharrer, 123).
The unintentional effect of such portrayals reinforces women's secondary role. Male sources are usually professionals who get asked about their analysis of an event or who use their expertise and titles to suggest courses of action. Women, on the other hand, are usually featured in sidebar stories, talking about how an event affects them. The other common portrayal is a female victim, recounting an attack or a crime.
In summary, a gendered subtext underlies most of television programming, from children's cartoons to entertainment programs to the evening news. The premium placed on a woman's appearance and the labelling of the typical woman as sensitive, submissive and timid both reflects and perpetuates prevailing stereotypes about a woman's secondary place in society.
Television portrayals of race
American minorities were practically non-existent in the dawn of television programming in the 1950s. Since then, there has been increased presence of African-Americans, Native Americans and Asian-Americans in television programming have resulted in mixed racial messages.
An analysis of network news stories, for example, shows that Black people given airtime were often involved in politics or crime. Additionally, they were also depicted in human-interest news stories showing them as victims of poverty, disaster or crime. Stories that focused on African-American leaders were critical rather than supportive. One-third of these stories were about a leader's illegal activities, such as the cases of Clarence Thomas and Marion Barry (Entman, cited in Comstock and Scherrer, 123).
Another study claims that despite the lack of evidence of growing anti-Semitism among African-Americans, the media - including the broadcast media - has devoted inordinate amounts of airtime to Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. In fact, Farrakhan has consistently ranked low in surveys among Black people asked about the best representative leaders (Rojecki, cited in Comstock and Scherrer, 124). By focusing on Farrakhan's diatribes and disregarding the political viewpoints of a majority of African-Americans, the news media contributed to a greatly exaggerated conflict between Black and Jewish people.
Local television news, with its emphasis on crimes in the community, can be just as guilty when it comes to framing racial stereotypes about African-Americans. A survey of news coverage in southeastern news stations shows that Black people were more often shown as accused suspects. They were more likely to be shown being handcuffed and led away from crime scenes (Campbell et al., cited in Comstock and Scherrer, 124).
The negative effects of these portrayals have been documented. A 1999 study looked at international student's perceptions of African-Americans based on television portrayals. The researchers found that students for students who did not have much contact with Black people, these television stereotypes contributed significantly to a negative image of African-Americans (Fujioka). This finding suggests that in the absence of social contact with people of other ethnicities, television stereotypes are a strong determinant of how people perceive members of different races.
Not all stereotyping, however, is overtly negative. Asian-Americans, for example, have often been portrayed as the model minority. The result is a positive stereotype of Asians as hard-working, skilled and diligent workers who are good at math. In fact, a survey of prime-time advertising shows that Asian-Americans are adequately represented commercials. Still, the great majority of Asian models in advertising play secondary roles to a Caucasian lead (Taylor and Stern).
Taylor and Stern propose that this positive labelling and token representations can mask an unspoken exclusion and undermine a group's attempts at acculturation. Creating a model minority niche for Asian-Americans also has the dual effect of maintaining Asians as a separate and distinct ethnicity.
This social construction of an ethnic identity is also evident in the case of Native Americans. Media portrayals of American Indians were constructed by Caucasians in accordance with the latter's needs. American Indians were initially feared and hated, giving rise to the image of savages who massacred white pioneers. This gave way to the lustful Indian savage who held white women and children captive. Eventually, there was the wise peaceful Indian who was a spiritual keeper of the land (Bird).
The most enduring image of the American Indian is that of an unemotional stoicism, a portrayal often recounted in television programs such as Northern Exposure and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. In one particular episode of Dr. Quinn, a lead character extols the unemotional behavior of a Cheyenne prisoner as a "Native American value." The words and portrayals were meant to be positive and favourable. Many Native Americans, however, were angered by how the Cheyenne character's emotions were suppressed. To them, not allowing the Cheyenne prisoner to react in anger stripped him of his dignity and manhood (Bird).
Television portrayals of American Indians also present a skewed view of sexual relations. Most Indian women are depicted as sexless squaws. On the other hand, when presented as the "noble savage," Native American men are virile, sexual beings, whose objects of desire are often white women. A 1997 CBS television movie is a typical example, where a captive white woman falls in love…