Much of the existing research on gender representation in children’s television has focused on girls and women, and for good reason – female characters are typically underrepresented and shown in highly stereotypical ways. Far less is known about depictions of masculinity in contemporary children’s programming. A groundbreaking research study by Equimundo with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media at Mount Saint Mary’s University and the Kering Foundation – launched today – aims to fill that gap by examining messages about masculinity in TV popular among boys ages 7-13, drawing from a dataset of 3,056 characters from 447 episodes.
The report, “If He Can See It, Will He Be It? Representations of Masculinity in Boys’ Television” finds that male characters on the most popular TV shows for boys (7-13 years old) are portrayed as aggressive, uncaring, and as hands-off parents.
The report specifically reveals that:
- The most prominent stereotype about masculinity depicted in children’s television is of boys and men as aggressors: In boys’ favorite TV shows, male characters committed 62.5% of violent acts against another person, compared with 37.5% of acts perpetrated by female characters. This portrayal of aggression is particularly true for male characters of color, who are less likely to express an emotion other than anger to other male characters (7.0% compared with 14.5%), revealing the perpetuation of a harmful racial stereotype.
- On the whole, male characters are shown as less likely to express emotions in healthy ways than female characters, keeping even positive emotions to themselves: Male characters are less likely than female characters to express empathy (22.5% compared with 30.6%) and even happiness (68.3% compared with 75.2%); and when it comes to romantic relationships, men of color are less likely to be shown communicating with an intimate partner.
- Although male characters are equally likely as female characters to be depicted as parents, they are less likely to be shown engaging in hands-on parenting duties (4.5% compared with 7.7%); and when they are depicted as fathers, male characters are less likely to be shown as “very competent” parents than female characters (3.9% compared with 7.5%).
- There are no LGBTQIA+ characters or characters with disabilities in leading roles in the most popular boys’ televisions shows. And when it comes to racial parity, while 36% of leads are characters of color (compared with 38% of the US population), boys’ TV shows too often reinforce racist stereotypes about men of color when it comes to violence and emotional repression.
The good news is that there are positive findings to build on: When it comes to representation, leading characters are split nearly equally by gender: 49.6% of whom are female and 50.4% are male. The report reveals that female characters account for 68.0% of speaking time, and receive 57.2% of screen time; and female characters are also more likely to be shown in positions of leadership (40.8% as compared to 36.3%) than male characters. This indicates that boys are consuming content with female characters – including female characters in positions of power.
To address these media realities and create a future of entertainment that is more gender-equal, and that breaks free from harmful masculine stereotypes, the report provides recommendations for content creators and parents, on how they can support these efforts.
For content creators, these recommendations include:
- Commit to inclusive storytelling that reflects the broader population and viewing audiences.
- Use spellcheck for bias at the script stage to uncover unconscious gender, racial, sexual orientation, ability, age, and body size bias.
- Use the GD-IQ later in the production process to evaluate representations of gender, race, sexual orientation, ability, age, and size in video content.
- Avoid common stereotypes about men and parenting.
- Allow male characters to express a range of emotions.
- Show boys and young men asking for help, particularly from parents.
- Avoid gratuitous violence.
For parents and other adults working with boys, the recommendations are to:
- Avoid media that reinforces damaging gender norms.
- Find media that challenge gender norms and identify healthy or positive role models.
- Call out stereotypical depictions of manhood.
- Maintain an open dialogue and actively reach out to boys with help and support.
Check out these and more tips in: “Breaking Free From Boyhood Stereotypes: Action Steps for Parents and Content Creators.”
The report, “If He Can See It, Will He Be It? Representations of Masculinity in Boys’ Television” is part of a series of new research and resources from the Global Boyhood Initiative. Launching in the United States and expanding globally in partnership with Plan International, the Global Boyhood Initiative will reach adults in boys’ lives and equip them with tools and resources for raising, teaching, coaching, and setting an example for boys to become men who embrace healthy masculinity and gender equality. Learn more: www.BoyhoodInitiative.org .