Where Evolution Ends and Television Begins

The Consequences of Media Gender Norms
By Gianna Albaum, University of California, Berkeley

You are brainwashed. It’s not your fault, and don’t worry — it’s normal. You think I’m joking, but the fact of the matter is that brainwashing is just a super scary word for what cognitive scientists refer to as socialization. When we’re born, we know nothing. We don’t even know the difference between our own body and the rest of the world. Complex concepts like family, hospital and jungle have to be learned like everything else.

“Culture shock” essentially refers to the cultural differences in socialization. When a child born in America learns ‘dog,’ she learns about the cuddly, friendly, cute quasi-family animal that sleeps in your bed. To a child in Korea, dog is what’s for dinner.

What does this all have to do with feminism? Just as we learn to associate words, feelings and expectations with ‘dogs,’ we learn to associate certain things with the concepts ‘woman,’ ‘mother,’ ‘daughter,’ ‘sister,’ ‘wife’ and ‘girl’ as well. Let’s perform a thought experiment: do smart women wear glasses or contacts? Does mother bring home the bacon? Do wives watch football while husbands make dinner? Do little girls wear pink or blue? Do daughters shoot hoops during recess or play on the swings? Are women good drivers? There is a pilot and a flight attendant standing in front of you: which is the woman and which is the man?

We all know the answers to those questions. Regardless of what the world around us actually looks like, we have internalized the roles and expectations associated with women. Even if your father is an amazing chef, you know that women are supposed to do the cooking because we are all socialized — or brainwashed — from the cradle.

Socialization, while a necessary part of modern human culture, has historically given women the short end of the stick by characterizing them in broad (and often negative) brush strokes. And it doesn’t always treat men so favorably either: men are expected to be good at all sports, to have a fat wallet and high socio-economic status, to enjoy watching football, to be aggressive, to have a broad chest and big muscles, to suppress their emotions and to avoid attachment.

All of these ideas associated with diverse roles place pressure — in a variety of different ways — on us to conform to these expectations. While the extent to which distinct individuals are affected by and react to these expectations varies, it is clear they have an impact. When American television was introduced in Fiji, the rate at which Fijian women suffered from eating disorders and body dysmorphia skyrocketed.

Do you really think that there is something about boys born in America — something in the genes — that makes them love football ten times more than boys born in Italy? Did natural selection in England favor men who lose their minds when Manchester United scores a goal? This is not about how men are biologically built — it’s about how they are culturally constructed.

Sometimes this stuff is harmless. American boys being raised to love football instead of soccer is not a crisis. However, women are learning to 1) hate their bodies, 2) act stupid, 3) work in unfulfilling careers, 4) be submissive, timid and ashamed, 5) sacrifice their careers for their families, 6) consider themselves sex objects, 7) put other people’s desires before their own, 8 ) settle for less, 9) base their self worth on their looks and 10) feel ashamed of their sexual desires. These are just a few of the ways that women are noticeably and detrimentally affected by the portrayal of women in the media.

We have two ways to fight back: we need to 1) recognize the gender-based socialization inside each of us, and 2) live our lives in conscious opposition to those narratives where it suits us.

Recognition is truly half the battle. We cannot merely will away the ideas and stereotypes we have learned, but we can recognize their presence. When we watch a gory action movie, we are able — by virtue of recognizing it as fiction — to distance ourselves from some of the more visceral reactions, even if we still experience a heart-pounding adrenaline rush. It still affects us, but our reactions would be far different if we experienced the same scene in reality.

The other half of the battle lies in changing these stereotypes and connotations. A woman who has grown up with a strong, career-oriented mother and a father who contributed to both the cooking and cleaning in the house is less likely to feel pressure to give up a career to run a family and is more likely to expect a future husband to contribute equally to the domestic housework.

This is why media portrayals matter. Repetition of ideas and images and connotations is what constitutes this type of socialization. If modern films and television sitcoms showcased a variety of female body types — rather than an endless parade of size zeros — it would monumentally affect women’s body image. If we showed fathers playing with their children as often as we showed mothers working in large corporations, we would actually establish a different set of cultural norms that were beneficial rather than harmful for women.

This is why it matters. Watch for, recognize, and criticize the establishment of gender norms in the media and we will be well on our way to creating a world in which women are unfettered by draconian and detrimental expectations.

Gianna Albaum is a columnist for The New Student Union.



The New Student Union is an online magazine run by and for college students covering the issues we care about. Self-starters with great communication skills and a passion for writing should email to get involved. Official site will launch in late 2011.


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