Observation of Gender Representation in Children’s Movies

People of my generation have grown up on gender stereotypes and the imbalance of gender representation on the silver screen. When misrepresentation is normalized during childhood it is unwittingly perpetuated into everyday life. The narratives that are forced upon us from an impressionable young age leads us to hold onto these concepts as norms which can have negative effects upon societal expectations and our actions. Gender representation in media sometimes gets too weird and for this essay the task is to examine what role media takes in child's development and how it creates gender stereotypes. Media that is targeted to children is a form of societal education- but are they teaching children the wrong things? This has been a question raised recently leading to calls for children's media to be a more inclusive representation of the modern world and abandon notions of traditional stereotypes.

The diet of children's media is populated by a customary gendered role of women. Research has found a pattern of lead females in G-rated films, who were valued for their appearance, displaying short-sighted aspirations, and longing for one-dimensional love, creating this 'damsel in distress' imagery. Often children will use those in proximity to them of the same sex as role models. For example, girls may take their mother or older siblings as models. However, if children don't have access to this, they will internalize the behaviours they see in the media. Often children don't know the difference between reality and fiction. Children that take fictional characters that correspond with the traditional gender roles as models can affect their future life negatively. Media targeted at children pushes the narrative of hegemonic masculinity. This can be seen in in the findings of Common Sense Media that found that children's media consistently reinforce the idea that traits and behaviors considered masculine are more highly valued than stereotypically feminine ones; and that boys who absorb media messages of masculine superiority are more likely to adopt stereotypically masculine behaviours. This increasing the likelihood that they are to believe that society considers boys to be better than girls. Thus, leading to an extension of the patriarchy to newer generations. This notion is identifiable in Paw Patrol, the plot centres around a group of rescue dogs. Of the six dogs, only one is a girl. Instead, this character comes across as clumsy and incompetent. Male characters are therefore considered to be of higher importance in children's media. Consistently male characters are portrayed as being more competent, being in leadership roles, and more powerful than females. Whereas females are portrayed as being ditsy, in need of protection, cowardly and concerned only with domestic issues. This goes back to the Nurture argument that if girls consistently see themselves to be lesser than boys via media, they believe it as reality.

However, that said there has been a progression of female representation in film. In the recent remake of Disney's Aladdin princess Jasmine wants the Sultan to change the marriage law so she can become Sultan, rather than her goal in the original: change the law so she can marry Aladdin. Instead of the film ending with Jasmine's father changing the law, at the end of the new film, the Sultan changes the law so he can give the throne to Jasmine and she is the one who rewrites the law to allow her to marry Aladdin. It was praised for showing a female character adopting a strong independent leadership role. This kind of representation unlocks possibilities for young girls, it emphasises that both male and female characters can be complex, interesting, brave and inspiring.

Children's media promotes the notion that girls should be concerned about their appearance and should treat their bodies as sexual objects for others' consumption. The over-sexualisation of female characters for children are overly evident. This is highly problematic as young girls will start to internalize that there only worth is their looks. It will also affect their imagination and their own self-conception on what is considered desirable. Research has found that fictional characters targeted for young children, with female characters ageing between 13-39, females are twice as likely to be wearing sexy and sexualizing clothes. Even more problematic, however, is female characters are twice as likely to be skinny than in adult films. This is incredibly challenging as it feeds young children the narrative that skinny is the only beautiful thing. The unrealistic figures of female characters in animation lead to young girls comparing themselves to what they see on screen. Girls whose bodies differ from the 'ideal' body that the media projects – by size, shape, or even physical disability, will struggle to identify with these characters. This means they often struggle to find anyone to identify with at all, which can lead to feelings of isolation that nobody else is like them.

Males do not escape this massive disservice from these media portrayals as well. In contrast, they contribute to idealistic stereotypes about masculinity being based on power, violence, dominance and the elimination of compassion as an acceptable emotion. Normative definitions of masculinity lead to a strict sex role theory that treats masculinity precisely as a social norm for the behaviour of men. Whereas it is rare for men to match the 'the blueprint of manhood'. Hegemonic masculinity in media leads to toxicity, they are led to believe that the expression of emotions is a sign of weakness. This gendering of emotions is referenced in the Four Rules of Masculinity: 'No Sissy Stuff'. 'No Sissy Stuff,' tells men to reject anything with connotations of 'femininity'. Therefore, they are only allowed to express aggressive emotions. If young boys are consistently exposed to this toxic imagery of masculinity, they will not develop the means to express themselves emotionally, as expressing yourself is seen to be too effeminate. This fear of femininity in males has dangerous consequences often affecting their mental health and emotional relationships. Media, therefore, exasperates the taboo of male vulnerability.

In conclusion, media is dominated by the male hero narrative, where they swoop in and save the damsel in distress and act like she is now their property. But this is also dominated with the normalisation of violence in children's media, where heroic action stars will use violence to end the conflict. This is hardly an isolated experience of young boys that violence portrayed in the film is seen to be thrilling and cool. They will therefore replicate this through play with their peers involving guns, swords and roughhouse. However, this narrative leads to toxic masculinity. It creates the image that men must come across aggressive, strong and violent to be dominant. Children will then replicate this image of masculinity as that is their reference on what is successful. This then creates a culture of violence in men. There is a definite association to scandal when boys like watching Disney princess movies rather than Star Wars or Marvel movies. It is then also still considered shocking when girls defy this gendering of movies and prefer to watch movies targeted for boys. Masculinity is seen to be a negative association for girls so therefore they are looked down upon for defying these gender roles forced by the media. While subtle, institutional powers push for this overly gendered society that we live in, media is a distorted reflection of reality and pushes the same notions.

11 February 2023
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