Gender Role Stereotyping on Nickelodeon Programming

Gelsey Wallner
Western Connecticut State University

Abstract

This study examines gender stereotyping for female characters on children's programming and what messages these stereotypes might portray to the children watching. The number one rated television network for children aged 2-11 in the United States is Nickelodeon (PR Newswire 2000). Five shows were chosen from the Nickelodeon television network based on the gender of the main character and the targeted age audience of the show. The female characters were analyzed via a survey instrument that consisted of basic female stereotypes: emotional sensitivity, emotional weakness, submissiveness, foolishness, relations with the protagonist, and whether they conform, are gender-neutral, or are opposing stereotypes. Nickelodeon prides itself on running a gender-neutral network (Benezra 1995) and while this study does find gender-neutral results, these findings are more negative than positive.

Introduction

One part of the field of communication that has been studied heavily is socialization and its effects on society. Nancy Signorielli (1991) defines socialization as, "the way people learn about their culture and acquire some of its values, beliefs, perspectives, and social norms" (69). Particular aspects of socialization are beliefs about gender roles. One theory that is not specifically applied to gender role socialization but has been thought to be important is Bandura's Social Learning Theory. According to Bandura's theory, gender role stereotyping is something children learn through everyday interactions from their immediate social environment (Thompson and Zerbinos 1997). Bandura's theory also states that a child's "comparison with distorted television versions of social reality can foster shared misconceptions of people, places, or things" (417). This theory implies that gender role stereotyping is a belief that is learned, but from whom? Signorielli suggests that historically it was family and friends who had the most influence on a young child but now it is the mass media, specifically television.

Signorielli (1991) proposes that television as a communications medium is the most important tool in the socialization of children. She states, "television is found in practically every American home; it requires only minimal skills for understanding; and its visual nature makes it particularly appealing to youngsters" (70). Barner (1999) refers to television as the "most popular, constant, and consistent source of information on, among other things, socialization, including that which is expected, accepted, and taken for granted" (551). Television then becomes the most important learning tool that teaches the socialization of how "gender fits into society" (Barner 1999). Consequently, children may exhibit these gender-biased behaviors and develop the gender-biased attitudes that they see on television (Witt 2000).

Witt (2000) states that, "studies show that preschoolers spend an average of nearly 30 hours a week watching television and by the time children are 16 years old, they have spent more time watching television than going to school". Barner (1999) says that by the time a child arrives at kindergarten they will be able to name more fictional characters from television than people in real life.

So while children are spending so much time in front of their television what images of gender are they seeing? According to Witt, (2000) "men on television are often portrayed as rational, ambitious, smart, competitive, powerful, stable, violent, and tolerant while women are sensitive, romantic, attractive, happy, warm, sociable, peaceful, fair, submissive, and timid." She also discusses how the family and home are only important to the women on television while men are mostly seen as being single rather than married and also how women are "frequently defined by their relationships with men" (323). Signorielli (1991) conducted her own research for the Cultural Indicators Project that found women in traditional and stereotypical roles. "Women are seen less often than the men and in many respects may be considered as less important. When women do appear, they usually are younger than the men; they are also more attractive, nurturing, seen in the context of romantic interests, home, and/or family, and are more likely to be victimized" (71). The Cultural Indicators Project also found out that women on television who were employed outside of the home had jobs that were traditionally meant for females such as nurses, secretaries, waitresses, and teachers (Signorielli (1991). Barner (1999) discusses how men and women receive different consequences for their actions on television. Men are rewarded for their behavior while women are more often ignored for theirs.

While the content of programming has these gender role stereotypes there are still questions about how much of a correlation there is between the programming and gender role development in children. Thompson and Zerbinos (1997) report that, "among children, heavy viewers of television have more stereotyped gender role conceptions than do light viewers and that peer and media influences on gender development are stronger than parental influences. Peer influences more strongly impacted present-orientated gender preferences, whereas media use affected future expectations." Witt (2000) states that children without a television in their homes have gender-neutral attitudes and children who view programs with non-traditional gender role stereotyping also exhibit gender-neutral mindset. Signorielli (1991) suggests that children learn about jobs and what sex you are traditionally supposed to be for the position. She states "DeFleur and DeFleur found that television was an important source of occupational knowledge for children and that television portrayals often led to gender-stereotyped views of occupations" (73). Another study she reports on was, "Jeffries-Fox and Signorielli's examination of data from a three year panel study revealed that television was an important source of knowledge about occupations and that many of the adolescent respondents' open-ended responses revealed conceptions about occupations that were consistent with aspects of the television portrayals of these jobs, including stereotypes" (73). Barner (1999) discusses another study that proves the association of television to gender role development, "Frueh and McGhee and McGhee and Frueh found that children who watch high amounts of television have stronger traditional sex-role development. In two separate studies of children in kindergarten, second, fourth, and sixth grades, the researchers found that amount of television viewing was positively associated with stereotyping of both males and females."

While television has an obvious effect on the socialization of gender roles, it also has an effect on the individual child wanting to copy what they are seeing. Thompson and Zerbinos (1997) state that children do in fact model themselves and their behaviors after characters from television. They also suggest that children are more interested in characters that are the same sex and that girls are at a disadvantage because there are more television shows airing with male leads. They state, "Network executives have said that boys outnumber girls in the two to eleven year old audience on Saturday morning. If a show is to be successful, they say, it must appeal to boys, who will not watch shows that have girls as lead characters although girls will watch programs with male leads" (429). Durkin and Nugent (1998) studies reveal, "There is evidence that young children tend to focus on same-sex information, although girls often know more about both sexes than do boys. It has also been found that children of both sexes view the male role more rigidly and are likely to hold stronger associations for male activities." Signorielli studied further into this and she also concluded that children associated with same sex television characters. She also found however that, "the identification of boys with television characters was positively related to perceptions of masculine attitudes (physical strength and activity level) and girls' identification was positively related to perceptions of physical attractiveness" (75). Barner (1999) gives a good example of if a girl sees her favorite actress on television constantly ignored for her actions she will expect the same while also not anticipating any consequences either. This will normalize acceptable and unacceptable gender role stereotypes in actual reality.

The current study is based on the actual television programs that children are watching. The stereotypes looked for are only in the female characters and how they might influence children's gender role development. The research included viewing five Nickelodeon television programs and analyzing how the characters might portray opposing stereotypes (positive), gender-neutral stereotypes, or conforming stereotypes (negative). This research differs from customary studies because chosen were shows that were marketed towards a teenage girl audience, however the girls that actually view the programs are much younger (PR Newswire 2000).

Method and Procedure

To discover the gender role stereotyping of children's programming the Nickelodeon network was chosen which is the number one viewed network of children aged two to eleven (PR Newswire 2000). Five different shows were viewed, four episodes each, that were chosen by gender of the protagonist and also by the targeted age audience. The five programs were: The Wild Thornberrys, As Told By Ginger, Caitlin's Way, Taina, and The Amanda Show.

A survey instrument was then created to determine if the female characters of each show were stereotyped by gender in any way. This instrument marked on a 1-5 basis, 1 being opposing stereotypes, 2.5 being gender neutral, and 5 being conforming to stereotypes, for traditional female stereotypes such as: emotional sensitivity, emotional weakness, submissiveness, foolishness, and relations with the protagonist. Then the instrument asked a final question of whether the data collected conformed to gender role stereotyping or if it attacked them.

By combining the data from these survey instruments we can answer the question of what gender role stereotypes are children viewing and how it might affect their gender role development. Also, is the Nickelodeon network portraying women in a gender-neutral way like they state they are?

Results

Out of the five shows fifteen female characters were evaluated. Other than the fifteen, two characters from the program Taina and one from Caitlin's Way had no results because of how little they were shown. The findings from The Amanda Show were completely disqualified due to the comedic skit nature of the show. No character was shown more than once for more than a few minutes and no stereotypes were able to be determined.

The Wild Thornberrys seem to be gender-neutral with combining all three characters results but the stereotypes are still there for children to observe. Marianne Thornberry opposes traditional female stereotypes while Eliza Thornberry, her youngest daughter, is gender-neutral, and Debbie Thornberry, her oldest daughter, completely conforms to gender stereotyping.

Chart

Marianne Thornberry is not the typical cartoon mom children are used to seeing. Marianne is completely unemotional and is able to solve any problem that arises. One interesting characteristic is that she drives her family around everywhere and gets annoyed when her husband wants to stop for directions if they are lost; this is generally stereotyped as a male trait. Marianne is viewed to be extremely intelligent, much more so than her clumsy husband. Eliza Thornberry is completely gender-neutral. Eliza does have tendencies to emotionally overact about certain things especially when it comes to animals. She has an ability to communicate with animals and is always on a mission to save one. This type of high emotion and nurturing are considered stereotypically female but she has opposing stereotypes as well. She dominates over everyone on the show and is able to do basically whatever she wants with no punishment. Eliza never listens to her parents and obeys their orders. She is aggressive and not fearful and gets praised for her actions like boys usually do even if they originally did something wrong. Debbie Thornberry on the other hand completely conforms to stereotypes. Debbie is viewed as a silly teenage girl with nothing on her mind but boys, make-up, and shopping. She hates being out in the wild because she might get dirty and hates any sort of responsibility. She is over emotional only if she sees a spider or rat and is emotionally weak and submissive to her surroundings.

The cartoon As Told By Ginger also has a combination of gender-neutral results. Unlike The Wild Thornberrys however all the characters are a combination of some opposing gender stereotypes and some conforming gender stereotypes.

Ginger Foutley is the main character of this show and she is a 12 year old who is lost in the social settings of her school. Ginger values friendship and doesn't care too much about the popular girls in school until they become interested in her. Ginger is emotionally strong which is an opposing gender stereotype and always says what she feels even if it means insulting the cool girls, who are Courtney Gripling and Miranda Killgallen. Courtney and Miranda are more stereotyped by being the popular rich girls in school and they are into make-up, boys, and being the best dressed. Miranda however is more like Courtney's sidekick so is more submissive and less emotional. Miranda is smarter and more calculating than Courtney however. They are both spoiled and used to getting what they want which makes them foolish at times. Lois Foutley is the single mother of Ginger. She is stereotyped into the occupation of a nurse but has opposing characteristics. She is un-emotional, dominant, and a very blunt character that at times doesn't mean to be harsh but seems to be anyways. Dodie Bishop and Macie Lightfoot are Ginger's best friends who aren't deemed cool enough by Courtney and Miranda to hang with the popular crowd. Dodie is more conforming than Macie in that she so desperately wants to be cool so she pretends to be all about boys, make-up, and fashion. She is portrayed as knowing all the facts about the popular kids including ridiculous information such as what color nail polish they wore last month. Macie however is very shy and is the most intelligent of all the kids. She cares very deeply for school and doesn't care if the cool kids like her. She isn't interested in appearance; they make a point of saying that she's had the same haircut since the third grade. Macie is very submissive however and will always do whatever Ginger or Dodie want her to do because she is extremely loyal.

Caitlin's Way is based on a storyline that features a teenage girl that was bad but now she's good.

In the results Caitlin Seeger was gender-neutral but she has that victim persona that stereotypes her. Once an episode they mention that her mother died when she was ten and she has a flashback and also her classmate Taylor makes fun of her once an episode for being a convicted shoplifter. Men also surround Caitlin and the female characters were few and hard to analyze because of their lack of screen time. Caitlin lives with her cousin Dory who we don't know much about other than the fact that she is Caitlin's guardian and is very supportive of Caitlin. Taylor on the other hand is very outspoken and does not get along with Caitlin. She is very much about her appearance and acts incredibly stupid around her new boyfriend of every episode.

Taina was the most gender-stereotyped children's program of all. It is based on a childish fifteen-year-old girl who is a freshman at the Manhattan School of Performing Arts.

Taina Morales is the main character of this show and she lives, breathes, and eats being famous. She is overly dramatic and is constantly worried about what people think of her and her talent. Taina is constantly making trouble for herself and her best friend Renee for doing foolish things to get people to notice her. Renee Aretha Jones is Taina's best friend and is extremely submissive to her. Renee wants to be a comedian but she is never noticed like Taina is. She is as foolish as Taina but isn't very emotional. Maritza Hogge is Taina's enemy. Maritza is just as talented but is viewed to be highly more foolish so Taina always wins the spotlight each episode. Maritza is obsessed with looking good, making sure other people think she looks good, and making sure people think she looks better than Taina.

Upon doing a comparison of all the protagonists from each show I also found a gender-neutral result.

This comparison was done because if a child does in fact become attached to a favorite character of a program that he or she wants to model him or herself after it would most likely be the protagonist.

After comparing the protagonists, the other female characters were marked on whether their relationship with the protagonist was gender role stereotyped.

This was an average of characters from each show combined and the results turned out to be gender-neutral. The girls of Taina leaned towards conforming with the cat-fight antics between the enemies and As Told By Ginger leaned towards opposing with the relationships of Lois, Dodie, and Macie outweighing the relationship that Ginger has with Courtney and Miranda.

Results were then combined and averaged from each show-to-show comparison between the actual programs.

These results show that in the emotional sensitivity category all shows average to lean more towards conforming to stereotypes. Emotional weakness and submissiveness were gender-neutral while Taina ruled the foolishness category.

Finally, a tally and average was completed between all of the programs to show how Nickelodeon as a whole portrays gender role stereotyping.

Looking at all of the programs combined it seems as if Nickelodeon really does achieve the gender-neutral attitude it prides itself on having.

Discussion

Even though the results of this study are more gender-neutral than anything else it still relates to the above research on gender role development. Nickelodeon may say that the programming content is in no way harming the socialization of gender roles in children but it really is. If a child watches one of those shows consistently then that one character who definitely conforms to gender role stereotyping is still there for them to view. Each show individually has either one or two characters that will support this fact and the program as a whole having a gender-neutral status won't stop the effect these characters have on the children watching.

This study also relates back to the research of depiction of women on television. Some characters had the exact traits that Witt (2000) had said that they would, "while women are sensitive, romantic, attractive, happy, warm, sociable, peaceful, fair, submissive, and timid." Since most of the characters were children themselves this study was unable to determine if in fact the men around them would determine them. However the few adult characters that there were did not support this fact. Lois Foutley from As Told By Ginger plays a single mom raising her kids alone while Marianne Thornberry from The Wild Thornberrys defines her husband and not the other way around.

Since the programs studied all had female protagonists, and it is said that children watch more shows that have same sex protagonists, how exactly might they have an effect on their gender role development? If a girl watches only one or all of these shows the effect would be similar to how she feels about herself and how she feels she must act in order to fit into society. Society however to a girl who watches Nickelodeon is completely in a formative stage. She is realizing through watching these programs that it is expected of her to have distinct personality traits, specific interests, and specific goals. The child is also watching that there is a distinct difference in being male or female and they are also shown praise for acting within their gender and negativity towards acting outside of it.

In conclusion, children are completely susceptible to being affected by watching Nickelodeon children's programming, like the above studied, in their gender role development. Although the research compiled was only based on female gender role stereotyping the same goes for the opposite sex. If children's programming continues as it is, children need to be taught at a very early age that gender is not all it appears to be on television. Parents need to screen what their children might want to watch before they do and if there are severe gender role stereotypes in the program then the child should know that what you see on television is nothing how it is in real life. Then, once children discern from their favorite characters on television and society in real life they might be able to have an open mind and not fall into the habit of consistently gender role stereotyping themselves and others.






References

Barner, Mark R. (1999). "Sex-role stereotyping in FCC-mandated children's educational television." Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media Fall 551-564.

Benezra, Karen (1995). "Brand Nick is a program of its own." Brandweek, 19 (June) 34.

Durkin, Kevin and Nugent, Bradley (1998). "Kindergarten children's gender-role expectations for television actors." Sex Roles, 38 (5/6). 387-402.

(2000). "Nickelodeon posts fourth straight month as number-one network." PR Newswire, 3 (August) .

Signorielli, Nancy (1991). A sourcebook on children and television. New York: Greenwood Press .

Thompson, Teresa L. and Zerbinos, Eugenia (1997). "Television cartoons: Do children notice it's a boy's world?" Sex Roles, 37. (5/6). 415-432.

Witt, Susan D. (2000). "The influence of television on children's gender role socialization." Childhood Education Annual Theme 322-324.






Appendix A

Character Evaluation

Show:

Name of Character:

Approximate age:

What is the character's role?:

Based on a 1-5 (1 being opposing gender stereotypes, 2.5 being gender neutral, and 5 being conforming to gender stereotypes) describe how the character displays each of these qualities and give a specific example for each:

Emotional Sensitivity:

Emotional Strength:

Submissiveness:

Foolishness:

Does their relationship to the protagonist conform to gender stereotypes in any way?:

Final Summary, does the data you have collected conform to gender stereotypes or do they attack them?:

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