Gender Class and Race Stereotypes in American Television

Gender, Class, and Race Stereotypes in American Television A Content Analysis Gender, class, and race stereotypes abound in contemporary society, much like they have done throughout human history. With the advent of television, however, stereotypical assumptions have become so pervasive, and so diffused, that some call for a serious and purposeful scrutiny of television’s contents. On the following pages, various content analyses of television programs will be addressed, followed by discussions on the greater implications race, class, and gender stereotypes have on society. The research method most often used in studying media images is called content analysis. Content analysis is a descriptive method in which researchers analyze the actual content of documents and/or programs. By systematically counting items pertaining to a specific category, researchers are able to conceptualize a larger theoretical framework based on their observations of media content (Wiseman 1970). Content analyses of television programming show, that during prime time hours, men make up the vast majority of characters shown. Furthermore, women characters found during that same time frame are mainly in comedies, while men predominate in dramas. Thus, the implications are that men are to be taken serious, while women should not. (Tuchman 1978). Similarly, content analyses on soap operas reveal highly stereotypical representations of the genders. In soap operas, strong, willful women are predominantly depicted as villainous, while the more “benevolent” women are suspect of vulnerability and naivety (Benokraitis 1986). Furthermore, another sharp gender-stereotypical contrast on television content can be seen in advertisements. In fact, 75% of all television ads using women are for kitchen or bathroom related products (Tuchman 1978) On average, women tend to be portrayed in roles in which they are underestimated, condemned or narrowly defined, resulting in one researcher termed “the symbolic annihilation” of women by the media (Tuchman 1978). Conversely, men are usually depicted in high-status roles in which they dominate women (Lemon 1978). These stereotypical images of men and women found in the media, not only foster gender-stereotypes, but also those of class and race as well. Studies done on the relative dominance characters portray revealed that both men and women of professional occupational status are more likely to be found in dramas. Working-class characters, however, are found predominantly in comedies, where they are presented in class-stereotypical roles. The resulting impressions are, as one researcher concluded, that “working class lives are funny, whereas serious drama occurs elsewhere.” (Andersen 26). In the same vein, studies find that men are most dominant on television, except in situation comedies, where low-status status women supercede men in relative dominance. ( Lemon 1978). In addition, these stereotypical patterns above are further confounded by race. In terms of race, white characters on television far outnumber members of minority classes. Although estimates are that African-Americans watch television significantly more than whites, or around 10 percent, they are a small proportion of the characters seen. Despite a trend towards reducing that discrepancy, there are still limited positive images of African-Americans on television. When African-American characters appear, they have been shown to exhibit a narrow range of character types. Almost half of all African-Americans on television are either portrayed as “criminals, servants, entertainers, or athletes; rarely are [African-Americans] portrayed as loving, sexual, sensitive people.” (Andersen 26). Despite this dire misrepresentation of African-Americans in television programming, their situation is paradoxically positive when compared to other minority groups. Asian-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans are virtually absent from television programming. When they do appear, they are usually in the form an “occasional diversion, exotic objects, or marginal and invisible characters” (Andersen 56) To further accentuate that statement, content analyses provides a clear-cut conclusion. In pertinent data from 1984, it was shown that of the 264 speaking roles on television, Hispanics had only 3. Furthermore, two-third of Hispanic characters on television assumed the role of a criminal (Stables 1985) The invisibility of minority groups on television can be seen in, as one researched termed, the ‘disappearing’ roles they respectively hold. For example, on many television programs “minority men and women silently appear in backgrounds to cater to the needs of dominant households or individuals” (Andersen 56). The greater societal consequences for this stereotypical portrayal on television can be seen clearly in children’s television programming and the resulting impressions they have on children. Children’s programming include even fewer women than do adult shows, in addition, as with adult shows, female characters are likely to be seen as comical, household-bound, or as victims of domestic abuse (Gerbner 1978). The influence of gender stereotyping on television can be seen on the fact that children who spent the most time watching television are also those who demonstrate the most stereotypic sex-role values. To further solidify that apparent causal effect, a large proportion of elementary school children reported that they learned about how African-Americans look and dress from watching television. (Andersen 87). The tremendous influence television has on contemporary American culture has been compared by some to that of a national religion. Social scientist Gerbner concludes, Television is used practically by all the people and it is used practically all the time. It collects the most heterogeneous public of groups, classes, races, and sexes, and nationalities in history into a national audience that has nothing in common except television or shared messages. Television thereby becomes the common basis for social interaction among a very widely dispersed and diverse national community. As such it can only be compared, in terms of its functions, not to any other medium but to the preindustrial notion of religion. If television provides for the maintenance of culture, then it must resist social movements that challenge the culture and seek to transform social institutions. The media does not fully resist such changes; rather, they defend the traditional system by co-opting new images that social movements generate. Consequently, we now see “liberated” images of women on television, but ones that still carry stereotypical gender assumptions. For example, women may be shown as working, but they are still all beautiful, young, rich, and thin. (Andersen 29) Segregation by race, class, and gender juxtaposes the human potential. It expands cultural divides and gives people little access to the lives of others. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume that television offers, for some, the only indirect experience of the vastness the human cultural and individual palate has to offer. Unfortunately, in light of all that has been covered above, television fails miserably in portraying the human potential. Despite increased awareness of harmful stereotypes, cultural habits are hard to shake. A simplified worldview based on stereotypes, however comforting it may be, is only achieved by the sacrifice of understanding. Thus, in order to gain understanding of others, and consequently one’s self, one should perhaps look elsewhere than towards television. Bibliography Andersen, Margaret L. Thinking About Women: Sociological Perspectives on Sex and Gender. New York: Macmillan, 1988. Eagly, Alice H. and Maureen Crowley. “Gender and Helping Behavior: A Meta-analytic Review of the Social Psychological Literature.” Psychological Bulletin 100 (1986) :283-308. Eagly, Alice H. and Blair T. Johnson. “Gender and Leadership Style: A Meta- Analysis.” Psychological Bulletin 108 (1990) :233-256 Hyde, Janet S. and Marcia C. Linn “Gender Differences in Verbal Ability: A Meta Analysis.” Psychological Bulletin 104 (1988) :53-69 Rothenberg, Paula S. Race, Class, & Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study. New York: St. Martin’s P, 1992.

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