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Part II of Cyber Wellness: Gender Stereotyping

On November 10th of 2017, I attended a Digital Literacy Conference which addressed concerns about the powerful effect of the Media and Digital Technology on our youth.  The following is a continuation of a former post entitled Media’s Influence on Youth – Part I of Cyber Wellness.

The third speaker of this conference was Dr. Sarah Coyne, PhD, Associate Professor at Brigham Young University.  She has done years of research and has authored more than 80 studies on media influences, gender, body image, children, adolescence, and family.  She outlined how years of media messages form a child’s understanding of what she/he should look like and what he/she is capable of achieving.  The media messages portray an image that is not only unattainable, but leads to unhealthy behaviors in an effort to reach the ideal in their mind.  She appealed to parents to talk to their children starting at an early age before the media does.

The Message

The media’s message is that a child’s worth is based on his or her appearance. This message is reinforced by appearance based talk: “You are so cute/pretty.”  Dr. Coyne stressed that parents need to teach their children how to analyze media messages.  One example that she shared was how she helped her young daughter compare and contrast the image of Merida in the Disney movie Brave, with the consumer marketed doll of Merida.  The former showed Merida with her bow and arrow, a realistic body build, and modest clothing. The marketed doll, in contrast, was thinner with perfect hair, clad in a glittery dress with no bow and arrow. The doll was tailored to the “ideal” image of a girl/woman whereas the character in the movie was an image of a more capable young girl with a more realistic appearance. Whereas most of Disney’s princesses embed the image of a beautiful, thin, glitter-clad young girl with perfect hair. Dr. Coyne conceded that Disney has shown some signs of positive change in their depiction of capable and more realistic looking heroines like Merida in Brave and Moana.  She said that media’s portrayal of women as objects has played a role in flawed thinking that can lead to sexual assault.

It was eye opening when Dr. Coyne showed pictures of scenes from superhero shows or games and had us analyze them as a group. The men had enormous muscles and the women wore sexy clothes.  In the action scenes, many of the women appeared helpless and needed to be saved by the stronger and dominant male. Unfortunately, boys who buy into the superhero image learn that a man should have big muscles, should be aggressive, and should not demonstrate emotions or show weakness.  The “ideal” image of a boy/man is not only unrealistic, it is unattainable as well as undesirable.

The princess and superhero media contain strong messages about gender, body image, and aggression.  To curtail negative effects of such messages, Dr. Coyne suggests that parents talk about real world heroes, female and male, with their kids.  Heroes that defend and protect others, and are not afraid to show emotion and kindness to others.  She also suggests talking about violence and weapons and asking, after viewing a movie, what the child thought was the message of the movie (you might be surprised by their answers) and discussing it.  She directed us to Common Sense Media a site for parents to read reviews of movies, TV shows, and video games. It also gives appropriate age ranges from parents who have viewed each form of media.

About the Author

Cyber Wellness OmahaJulie Brannaman, M.A., Retired High School Spanish Teacher.  Julie taught high school Spanish for 30 years and served as World Language Department Head for 20 years.  Julie is now the proud grandmother of her two grandchildren who reside in Omaha.

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