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.

Stories about Race in the Media

When it comes to race, videogames tend to show particularly blatant stereotypes. Our research has found that women of color are almost completely absent from videogames and men of color are often presented in very stereotypical ways. Black men are presented as street criminals, as aggressive, strong thugs. Asian men are often portrayed as martial artists. Whites and Asians are more likely than Blacks to be shown using computers or high technology. This kind of representation suggests that Blacks are inferior to Whites and Asians in professional and technical pursuits.

So, what are the consequences of these racial portrayals? 

In one study, we found that people associated Black, male videogame characters more readily with violence than White, male videogame characters. 

In another study, While young adults who saw stereotypical Black, male videogame characters preferred a White political candidate to a Black political candidate with the same credentials. 

On a more encouraging note, after viewing positive images of Black men, (including Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama), White young adults preferred the Black candidate to the White candidate with the same credentials. Not only did they say the Black candidate was more likeable and capable, but they said they’d be more likely to vote for him, given the chance. This indicates that positive video game images of minority characters can have positive and/or repairing effects on previously viewed negative racial portrayals.

Myths about Media Stereotypes

Many people believe that everything they see in the media is “just harmless entertainment,” and therefore it is okay to show stereotypes in the media. However, research does not support this opinion. The idea that media do not affect us is a myth. There are a number of reasons why people may believe they are not affected by what they see in the media. 

First, and perhaps most importantly, people may believe that the consequences of media should be immediate and dramatic – equivalent to seeing a single media stereotype and then turning into a loud-mouthed racist. The people in the studies described above who shared their views about sexual harassment or about a Black political candidate probably did not know that they had been changed by what they saw in the media. They may not have realized that their opinions could cause real harm. 

Additionally, we may very well be unconscious of the effect media stories and characterizations have on us, so we genuinely do not believe we are changed by what we see. For another thing, a psychological principle called "cognitive dissonance" says that if we think our media choices may be harmful but we still enjoy them, we are motivated to justify those choices by deciding they aren’t so bad for us.

Think about this: What if a teenager plays a videogame that contains obvious racial stereotypes and then tells his or her parents not to vote for a Black candidate. This teen would probably not realize how much these stereotypes have influenced his/her behavior and attitudes. Adults and kids alike believe that important choices must have important causes, and a videogame does not usually seem like an important cause. However, research indicates that when we make decisions, we do not eliminate sources of social information that are inappropriate. For example, when asked to judge a political candidate we don’t tell ourselves that video games are not a reliable source of information and then ignore that information. In fact, people have a very difficult time distinguishing between information gained in a fictional setting (e.g., a video game) and from reality (e.g., a news report that says a certain politician served on the school board for 10 years). The bottom line is, according to the research, a videogame is a relevant source of social information and has the power to mold our children's attitudes and change their behaviors.

Happily, there are also shows, games, and songs that send positive messages about race and gender. A child may learn to value Latino culture from watching Dora or Diego, for example, and psychologists study these positive outcomes too. Just remember, if Dora can teach children to appreciate cultural diversity, then a videogame vixen can also teach teenaged boys that women are sex objects. As parents and educators, we can help by teaching media literacy in our homes and schools. In Canada, media literacy is part of their curriculum. Americans would do well to follow Canadians' lead. We can talk to children about how they learn through the media. We can also watch and play along with them while talking to them about the images and stories they see on the screen.

Tips for successful media use:
  • Preview, preview, preview!
  • Get involved. Your child should know what you think and why.
  • Explain your concerns / clarify your values.
  • Make decisions together so your kid’s feel they have some what in what they play.
  • Remember that banning a game makes it the forbidden fruit.

Helpful Web Sites: Canada’s National Media Education Week: http://www.mediaeducationweek.ca/ Canada’s Media Education Network: http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/index.cfm US’s National Institute on Media and the Family: www.mediafamily.org

Suggested Reading: "How fantasy becomes reality: Seeing through media influence." by Karen E. Dill, New York: Oxford University Press, due in print in July 2009

References

Burgess, Melinda C. R., Karen E. Dill, S. Paul Stermer, Stephen R. Burgess, and Brian P. Brown. "Playing with Prejudice: The Prevalence and Consequences of Racial Stereotypes in Videogames." under revision.

Burgess, Melinda C. R., S. Paul Stermer, and S. R. Burgess. "Sex, Lies and Videogames: The Portrayal of Male and Female Video Game Characters on Video Game Covers." Sex Roles 57 (2007): 419-33.

Dill, Karen E. When Fantasy Becomes Reality: The Social Psychology of the Mass Media. New York: Oxford University Press, in press.

Dill, Karen E., Brian P. Brown, and M. A. Collins. "Effects of Exposure to Sex-Stereotyped Video Game Characters on Tolerance of Sexual Harassment." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44 (2008): 1402-08.

Dill, Karen E., and Melinda C. R. Burgess. "Media Images as Positive and Negative Exemplars of Race: Evoking Obama or Videogame Characters Changes Outcomes for Black Men." (under review ).

Dill, Karen E., and Kathryn Phillips Thill. "Video Game Characters and the Socialization of Gender Roles: Young People's Perceptions Mirror Sexist Media Depictions." Sex Roles 57, no. 851-864 (2007).

Network, Media Awareness. "Media Awareness Network (Mnet)." Media Awareness Network, http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/index.cfm.

National Media Education Week." Media Awareness Network, http://www.mediaeducationweek.ca/.