Whether you played with Barbie dolls or action figures, watched Beauty and the Beast or Power Rangers, you have been exposed to gender stereotypes at a young age. The entertainment and marketing media inevitably use these stereotypes to attract consumers, and send misleading messages about sexual identity that can easily influence young children. Designating toys or fictional characters specifically for girls and boys inflicts gender roles and stereotypes upon young children and hinders the development of their sexual identities.
The portrayal of women in children’s media is a major contributor to gender stereotypes because it embeds a foundational misconception of gender identity during a young age. Society defines the femininity and elegance in princesses and other female characters as the only desirable form of beauty. This makes girls believe they need to exemplify that form of beauty to be considered attractive and desirable in society. Implementing this notion into the minds of young girls substantially affects the development of their gender identities because they fear that without conforming to the societally-accepted definition of beauty, they will not be desirable in society. Even the image of masculinity portrayed in the media affects the gender identity development of young women, because they are guided away from behaviors and appearances that society considers masculine. The macho and heroic image attached to masculine characters in children’s media illustrates desirable masculine behavior for boys, and undesirable, non-feminine behavior for girls.
Gender stereotyping in marketing to children puts genders into defined boxes. By appealing to the consumption behavior of most girls, the marketing media paints a picture that normalizes the preferences of most young girls and abnormalizes the preferences of others that deviate from this status quo. Labeling products as “boy-ish” or “girl-ish” limits the products girls consume because they are sent the message that buying “boy-ish” goods will make them abnormal or less girly. Young girls who want to explore interest in “boy-ish” toys will be less inclined to do so out of worry that they will not be as feminine as they are expected to be.
The embedded ideas of desirable and undesirable behavior society expects from young girls hinders their development out of fear or worry of not meeting societal expectations. Allowing children to develop their gender identities without the influence of gender stereotypes is crucial to their self-definition. The influence of gender stereotypes on this developmental process can be very abnormalizing and discouraging, so learning to minimize this influence will enhance a child’s ability to define themselves and their sexual identity. But avoiding or controlling the media’s influence on children is difficult, especially since social media is central to mass communication in modern society.
You can’t control what children see online and how they interpret it, but you can explain to them the overgeneralization of gender roles by the media that they will often come into contact with. For instance, explaining to a young girl that it is okay to not look like Cinderella at the ball and that Cinderella’s appearance doesn’t define what beauty is will lessen the effect that the image of princesses like Cinderella have on that young girl. When unaffected by media portrayals of gender stereotypes, children will feel more free to express what their interests are and not worry about falling into a category illustrated by social norms. Embedding the notion that gender stereotypes are a societal norm conveys the message that the media should not teach children what desirable behavior or beauty is. Teaching kids to listen to themselves instead of the media, to consider their personal interests and ideas of beauty rather than what the mass media portrays will be more beneficial to them.
Keren Blaunstein is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.