Hip or Hype?

Gender messages in the media.

“From the moment you were born and somebody announced, ‘It’s a boy!’ or ‘It’s a girl!’, society has been sending you messages about the way it expects you to look, think and behave. These messages come at you from all directions— parents, TV, magazines, music, movies, books, newspapers, toys, teachers, even your friends.”

Although there are some real differences between the genders that impact the choices we make, much of the attitudes about gender is a result of messages we get from the media— television, magazines, movies and music. Traits that have traditionally been labeled either masculine or feminine such as strong, nurturing, pragmatic, expressive, competitive, gentle, are qualities that we all can have access to in different situations. So, irregardless of boy or girl, what is most important is to help your child understand and accept him/herself and to respect the many different ways of being an individual.

Media plays a large role in perpetuating harmful stereotypes. TV, movies, music and magazines often reflect society’s ideas about what it means to be male or female.

Boys are inundated with aggressive and violent images on television, in the movies, in video games, comics and the world of sports. Aggression and competition is amplified. Taunting, intimidation and physical prowess are the building blocks of manhood. And it becomes more dangerous when those qualities spillover into relationships. In fact, aggression, sexuality and relationships are often joined in a way that promotes violence.

The images for girls can be equally destructive. Much of what’s seen on TV and in the movies, music videos and magazines reinforces stereotypes that suggest that women and girls are silly, sexy and man-obsessed. And part of living up to the female ideal is to achieve a body image that is close to impossible for the majority of girls and women. Studies have found that as many as 40 percent of 9-year-old girls diet or have habits associated with eating disorders. These are young girls who already have the idea that their bodies aren’t right. If one combines a negative and often times, distorted body image, and the pursuit of an unachievable ideal of thinness, you have the foreshadowing of a more serious eating disorder.

And boys are not immune to these influences. Boys, in their effort to look buff and muscular, are more likely than girls to abuse steroids in order to achieve that ideal and perform better in sports. The number of boys abusing steroids is growing and can have long-term health risks.

The advertising and entertainment industry immerses all of us in images that make us feel inadequate. For girls, not being good enough equals not being attractive enough. For boys, not being good enough equals not having what it takes to be a man. And if you buy into that equation, your sense of inadequacy increases and so will your pursuit of products to help you feel prettier, tougher, sexier and gradually more separate from the real you. One’s personal sense of authenticity and genuineness gets drowned out by all of the cultural and media noise telling you to be a certain way. The winner is usually big business.

What Are Kids Feeling?

As with body image, the messages we receive about being male or female play a big part in how we connect with other people. Kids who completed a survey felt that boys and girls had very different types of friendships. For example, one boy wrote on his survey, “Boys have to one-up each other all the time.” The time that boys spend together is often organized around physical activities, and their mode of resolving conflicts often becomes physical, with size, strength, power and intimidation cast as primary relational attributes. On the other hand, many girls described boys as emotionally and expressively walled off whereas girls have more engaged and emotionally supportive relationships. As one girl stated, “When boys think about something, like if they have a problem, they don’t tell their friends, but girls do.” And many boys revealed a preference for friendships with girls because it was easier to talk and be honest with them without worrying about being made fun of or teased.

Although there were clearly differences in the ways boys and girls conduct their relationships, most children agreed on the important qualities in a relationships such as loyalty, trust, acceptance of one’s individuality, honesty, understanding and support. It’s important to have a conversation with your sons and daughters about friendships and relationships and to help them clarify for themselves the kind of relationships that are acceptable. Be proactive in articulating those expectations and values when the time is right.

What Can You Do?

Parents can encourage their children and teens to be more discerning consumers and to pay attention to the images and messages telling them to be something they aren’t. Be on the lookout for portrayals of gender roles and stereotypes that are restrictive and limiting. Encourage your kids to pay attention to how advertising makes them feel. Do they portray boys and girls as real people or as “perfect” ones? Initiate a conversation with your child about your thoughts and feelings pertaining to the media and advertising. Look for healthier alternatives that don’t exploit stereotypes and send destructive messages to your kids. Encourage your kids to speak up when they see something they don’t like. Explore ways of being an activist with your children. If a TV show, magazine or band is portraying destructive images, encourage them to not read, watch, listen or buy what they are selling. As a family, don’t allow popular culture to dictate how you feel about yourself and the choices available to you as a male or female.

The world can be a pretty complicated place for kids. There is so much information coming at kids suggesting to them that there is a right way and a wrong way to act or think. Moreover, as they become increasingly immersed with their peers, there can be pressure to act in certain ways. It is also a time when they might look to parents less often for advice and counsel. However, parents continue to play a critical role and their presence, though not always ostensibly appreciated or valued, continues to be of vital importance. As one 14-year-old girl stated, “If we look inside ourselves and to our character, the world will be a better place.”