Gender and Race on the Screen

By — Video Game Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Jul 23, 2010

American children today spend more time gazing into electronic screens than we parents spend at work!  Television is generally the most popular form of media, but videogames, the Internet, and electronic devices like iPods and cell phones also very popular among kids today. In the more than forty hours per week our children spend with media, they are exposed to a lot of social information. Social information is contained in the stories that songs, games, and shows tell us about other people.

Women and Girls in the Media: Past and Present

In decades past, media representations of women tended to portray them primarily as mothers and housekeepers. Television and movie roles tended to focus on the women who succeeded in achieving the "ideal" goals of marriage and motherhood. Single women, although often sexy, were portrayed as flawed in some way if they failed to achieve marriage and motherhood for reasons other than the convent.

Today, the stereotypical imagery we see of women and girls has turned females into examples of a highly specific kind of beauty and as sex objects. The vision of beauty we see in the media is also characterized by lots of artificiality: the dangerously thin bodies, the flawless skin created by air-brushing, and the unnaturally sized and shaped breasts. Women are portrayed as an object of someone else’s sexual desire rather than a sexual being in their own right. Our research, specifically with video game imagery, illustrates these stereotyped portrayals. A typical female videogame character in today’s popular games is a stylized image of beauty and an object of men’s sexual desire. She is rarely presented as a main character and her action is often limited to being sexy. The (white) men, on the other hand, are almost always the main character: powerful, muscular, and violent.

What Are the Consequences of Gender Stereotypes in the Media?

The American Psychological Association recently released a report about the effects of chronic exposure to images of women and girls in the mass media as objectified. They report on the large body of research that illustrates that, for women and young girls, exposure to objectified females was associated with lower self esteem, depression, shame, eating disorders, and to sexuality and body image issues. 

So, what are the consequences on males of seeing women in the media as sex objects?

Generally, this type of exposure is associated with a wide range of frightening effects:

Studies show that men find their own partners less physically attractive and endorse more stereotyped sex roles. 

In a recent study, young men who saw these stereotypical videogame women were found to be more accepting of sexual harassment than men who had seen professional women. 

In contrast, women were less accepting of sexual harassment towards women. 

If anything, they were slightly less tolerant after seeing stereotypical female video game characters than after seeing professional women. 

It may be that the women recognized that their own group was not being portrayed fairly in the media and were a bit more cautious about the treatment of women. 

In a similar study with music videos, women were less likely to judge a rapist as guilty after viewing a sexually objectified female performer as compared to women who watched a romantic female performer.

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