Brands like Nickelodeon’s Nella the Princess Knight and DC Super Hero Girls may be putting a new spin on traditional gender roles, but research from US-based Common Sense Media finds that kids TV and movies, as a whole, continue to reinforce existing gender stereotypes.
Watching Gender: How Stereotypes in Movies and on TV Impact Kids’ Development reflects conversations with thousands of parents, alongside analysis of research from the past 40 years concerning child development, gender and media. (Data was taken from a probability-based online survey of 933 parents of children between the ages of two and 17 living in the US.)
Common Sense’s report found that media reinforces the idea that masculine traits and behaviors are more valued than females ones. Feedback from parents reflected these findings, as nearly a third of moms surveyed said an eight-year-old boy today has a brighter future than his female counterpart. Research examined in the report found that TV and movies illustrate masculinity through characteristics like aggression, power, dominance, emotional restraint and heterosexuality.
Another finding was that the media promotes girls’ concerns about their appearances and the idea that they should treat their bodies as objects. Research found that exposure to appearance-focused TV content increases body dissatisfaction among five- to eight-year-old girls, and that self-objectification by girls is associated with diminished academic performance and increased anxiety.
According to the report, youth of color may be particularly vulnerable to the impact of media on gender-role development. Findings show that African-American and Latino youth consume media at higher levels than white kids, and more than half of the parents surveyed say there is a lack of non-white role models on TV and in movies for both boys and girls.
While the report found kids media continues to reinforce stereotypes, it also lists several ways to combat these biases and promote positive gender representations. This includes presenting capable female characters that enjoy diverse interests (including sports, science and technology), and presenting male characters that collaborate with girls and respect their female counterparts as equals.
Earlier this year, Nickelodeon launched a new initiative focused on gender equality that saw the kidsnet partner with child rights organization Plan International to launch Together We Rock. Additionally, Nick’s preschool shows Shimmer and Shine and the upcoming Sunny Day all feature strong female protagonists that promote empowerment and inclusiveness.
Retailers are also taking note. Last year, Target announced it would make its kids aisles more gender-neutral, removing the pink and blue backgrounds from its shelves.
And data shows that gender equality is also profitable. Creating a Cross-Category Juggernaut, a 2016 study from research firm Smarty Pants, found that having central male and female characters, tapping gender-neutral play patterns, leveraging humor that resonates with boys and girls, and using gender-neutral colors like yellow and green are key to creating successful IPs. Smarty Pants reported that gender-neutral properties like Minions, SpongeBob SquarePants, Lego, Minecraft and Angry Birds were some of the most powerful ones on the market.
To promote the practical application of its research, Common Sense synthesized the findings from Watching Gender: How Stereotypes in Movies and on TV Impact Kids’ Development into its new media evaluation grid, which distills data from the report by age group to help parents select media for their children based on positive gender representations. The grid also provides new equality guidelines for content creators to increase programming that features diverse and balanced gender portrayals.
Common Sense has also pledged to advocate for broad policy changes to enhance the value of caregiving by both men and women, including parental leave, paid sick days, child care benefits and higher wages for child care providers.