From birth, people are demarcated with certain gender expectations: blue is for boys, and pink is for girls. Barbies are for girls; toy cars, boys.
Yet the consequences of society’s gender expectations run thicker than mere discontentment with colors or toy choices. Current standards of femininity and masculinity have adverse social, mental, and physical influences on today’s youth.
In response to these negative influences, individuals and organizations have been slowly trying to reverse the obstinate gender stigmas steeped into our highly mass culture. This article will explore media’s depiction of both women and men, as well as discuss the consequences of gender misrepresentation. The article will particularly explore the stereotypes of males in the Asian American community and show how individuals have been striving to break out of them.
The hyper-sexualization of women is deeply integrated within popular culture.
Take, for an example, Robin Thicke’s music video for the song “Blurred Lines.” In the video, Thicke is seen singing in a darkly lit setting surrounded by half-naked women. Marked as the most controversial music video of 2014 by the Guardian, “Blurred Lines” sparked criticisms from activists and various other celebrities: Lily Allen responded with her satirical work, “It’s Hard Out Here.”
“In music videos across the board there’s widespread racism and sexism, specifically the sexualisation of black and ethnic minority women,” wrote Lia Latchford of Rewind & Reframe, a project aimed to address the issues of racism and sexism in music videos. “Young women have told us that it has a real impact on their day-to-day lives. They’re tired of messages that depict women as highly sexualised passive sex objects. Getting rid of one song won’t solve the problem. It’s a culture of racism and sexism that we need to change.”
According to a 2012 study from the Journal of Gender Studies, while there has been an increase in the acceptance of female musicians starting from the 1990s, an increase of female sexualization in lyrics and music videos — perhaps, even, on a larger scale.
“The messages that are in these depictions of women are actually really scary,” said Granada Hills Charter High School junior Jenny Lee. “Little girls and boys are going to grow up thinking that women are supposed to be objects.”
JSR conducted a seven-question survey of 72 high school students concerning gender stigmas. From a scale of one through ten, one representing the least influence and ten representing the most, students were asked the extent to which media influenced their views of masculinity and femininity. Students replied with an average of six on the scale and a mode response of eight.
A solid and consistent “standard of beauty” is difficult to define. Nonetheless, across all ethnic boundaries, beauty seems to be found within thin body frames, defined facial features, lush hair, and clear skin.
“I see girls younger than me posting makeup tutorials on Youtube already. Even… Barbie isn’t the fun, career woman I used to play with. [Barbie dolls] wear form-fitting dresses [and] miniskirts,” said GHCHS junior Chelsea Cho.
Cho continued, “the images surrounding [us] tell us what beauty looks like. Unknowingly, we listen and oblige to their standards from too early of an age.”
Consequently, the perception of the ideal woman may be detrimental to a young woman’s own perspective of the world and her role in it.
According the Journal of Clinical Psychology, traditional feminine characteristics portrayed in media include “childlike,” “shy,” “yielding,” or “gullible.” Indeed, a study conducted by USC Annenberg and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media analyzed 11,927 speaking roles in various television shows and family films, looking particularly for a female characters’ occupations, attire, body size, and speaking time.
Only 28.3 percent of female characters spoke in family films; 30 percent in children’s shows, and 38.9 percent on prime time television shows.
“Researchers reported that they found a lack of aspirational female role models in all three media categories, and cited five main observations: female characters are sidelined, women are stereotyped and sexualized, a clear employment imbalance exists, women on TV come up against a glass ceiling, and there are not enough female characters working in STEM fields,” reported Nina Bahadur to Huffington Post.
The Bechdel test has also testified to the lack of representation of women in media. The test originated in 1985 from Alison Bechdel’s cartoon, which had two female cartoons discussing three requirements for inclusion of women in film: one, a scene must have at least two women in it; two, the women must be talking to each other; and three, the women must talk about something other than men.
According to the Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey, fewer than half of the films nominated for “Best Picture” at the 2014 Academy Awards pass the Bechdel Test.
Women, as Ronald F. Levant wrote in his study on gender psychology “Sex Roles,” are valued for their dependency on or deference to men, chastity, body image issues, motherhood and emotional affinity. Being emotional is a not a negative characteristic; however, such expectations of women engender a kind of patriarchal system in which women’s independence is compromised.
Though American women have made progress, according to the Atlantic’s Philip Cohen, “The United States, like every society in the world, remains a patriarchy: [it is] ruled by men. It is a systemic characteristic that combines dynamics at the level of the family, the economy, the culture, and the political arena.”
This system allows for the treatment of women as mere objects of conquest or adoration.
Women grow up receiving messages to look beautiful and sexy, but at the same time are shunned for being too confident with their bodies. Men expect women to be experienced and willing while at the same time expecting innocence. Amidst these conflicting messages, women are left to look to external influences, such as lifestyle magazines or reality shows, for guidance.
According to Chad Painter and Patrick Ferrucci in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, media portrayals of women delineate certain characteristics in the professional and social world and have a high potential to influence females’ senses of self-identity. The manipulation of reality can create tension within the struggle to reach gender equality.
Indeed, Levant also found that men are more likely to support traditional gender ideology because “traditional femininity and masculinity ideologies uphold traditional gender-based power structures.” The underlying influences found in every commercial, magazine cover, and makeup advertisement have brought pressure to many women almost forcing them to assimilate into the system.
These pressures have caused not only psychological but physical harm to women. According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD), only five percent of American females understand that the ultrathin bodies portrayed in media are not the norm.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reported that about one in five women has been raped in her lifetime. Though gender stigmas may not be the only factors to consider in rape cases, there is evidence that misogyny can lead to violence. In a YouTube video posted to explain the motivation behind his May 23 rampage in Isla Vista that would leave seven dead, including himself, mass murderer Elliot Rodgers claimed that the rejection that he faced from women were “crimes” and “injustice.”
Though Rodgers is an extreme case of misogyny, his view of women as ways to achieve “self-worth” points to a larger issue of how the portrayal and demands of women can negatively influence perceptions of women, sometimes to tragic result.
To fight the problem before it permeates more deeply into society, student community leaders have been reaching out to the youth to reverse stereotypes and teach young women like themselves to defend individuality and independence.
Helen Garcia, a junior attending Granada Hills Charter High School, creates Youtube videos to promote self-appreciation and individualism. By utilizing the very device that has been feeding negative depictions of beauty to teenagers, Garcia finds significance in using technology to inspire girls to feel comfortable in their own skin.
As a part of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program’s Creativity, Action, and Service (CAS) community service project, Garcia’s videos showcase regular high school teenage girls and their views on stereotypes and confidence.
The videos are intentionally open and bare, reflecting Garcia’s belief in beauty found within. In one video, “Looks – You Are Beautiful,” Garcia has an open discussion with other teenagers talking about what makes an individual beautiful. The responses range from “smiles,” to “tenacity,” alluding to the significance of inner versus outer beauty.
Garcia currently has created seven documentary videos regarding gender equality and cultural stereotypes.
“I always struggled with self-confidence throughout high school based on what I wore [and how I] looked, talked and acted with other people,” said Garcia in an interview with JSR. “I’ve had friends who have been consumed with this and made it their world. I was inspired to make videos that were aimed at [fighting against] these thoughts.”
Garcia’s videos are targeted at teenage girls, and responses to the aforementioned JSR survey suggest that males may not feel the same overt gender expectations as females. Forty-seven percent of students responded that males were not equally placed under gender expectations, while 71 percent of students responded that females were generally more subject to gender stigmas.
Children Now, a California-based organization that examines the impact of media on children and youth released a report in 1999 entitled Boys to Men: Media Messages About Masculinity. The report argues that the media’s portrayal of men tends to reinforce men’s social dominance. The report found that most male figures in media are associated with a “public sphere of work” and described six stereotypical depictions of men in media: “the joker, the jock, the strong silent type, the big shot, the action hero, and the buffoon.”
Yet these generally “positive” stereotypes can have a negative impact on boys.
In an interview with JSR, GHCHS junior Aaron Revilla said, “I think it’s absurd trying to categorize people into different subsets of stereotypical male characters. It undermines the significance of diversity [in] personality and character. But it’s a reality because often, if you don’t fit under a certain label, you’re… an outlier.”
A study conducted by Media Watch in 2012, an Australian media analysis television program dedicated to challenging stereotypes found in media, found that male characters were often associated with machismo, independence, competition, aggression, and violence – influences that are “very damaging to boys.”
Forty-six male high school students replied with an average response of five to the question of how self-conscious the individual felt to avoid being “too girly” or “not manly enough.” However, most of the responses were on extremes of the spectrum, suggesting that the students who feel this pressure are significantly impacted by it.
According to Linda Tuncay Zayer, Marketing Professor at the Loyola University of Chicago, “until recently, male consumption and representations of men and masculinity in the media have been given less attention than women and femininity.”
Indeed, many male students have experienced the widespread effects of not conforming to the standards of masculinity.
When asked about being pressured from gender stigma, Edgar Cano, a sophomore attending Van Nuys High School, said, “I’m not the most masculine of guys. Throughout middle school, I was teased and told I was gay because I didn’t do sports, or because I didn’t do a lot of stuff that guys are apparently supposed to like such as cars and sports. This served as a way of pressuring me into more ‘guy’ stuff, even though it didn’t work out that well.”
“All this teasing made me try and be more masculine. I tried doing more sports, hang around more guys, and try and enjoy masculine activities that I wouldn’t do otherwise pressured. It worked temporarily, but it wasn’t long until I opened my eyes and realized that this wasn’t who I was,” Cano continued. “I ditched the ‘manly’ stuff I hated, and I went back to doing the more “feminine” things I stopped doing, such as cooking and acting.”
However, not all male students have been as capable of dealing with this conflict as Cano. For example, eleven-year-old Michael Morones of North Carolina made national headlines this February after he attempted suicide because of bullying at school for liking My Little Pony, a show historically marketed to young girls.
Perhaps sexualization of women is more prevalent or noticeable due to various feminist movements through American history; however, gender misrepresentation affects both genders in negative ways. Turning a blind eye to one side of an issue limits society’s ability to provide equal justice through objective means. Our society needs to recognize and work to fix the harm caused by male gender stigmas.
These stereotypes of masculinity are especially prevalent in the Asian American community.
In the Howard Journal of Communication, Y. Kawaii has reported that Asian American males in media can be categorized as dangerous and evil, like the villain portrayed by Jet Li in Lethal Weapon 4; unacculturated and unfriendly, like Hiro Nakamura in the sci-fi drama Heroes; or masters of Kung Fu, like Bruce Lee.
Terry Park, a PhD candidate in the Cultural Studies Graduate Group at UC Davis, is combating these stereotypes in his role as executive director of Hyphen magazine. In 2011, Park was crowned “Mr. Hyphen” at the magazine’s annual community fundraiser.
In an interview with JSR, Mr. Park described “Mr. Hyphen” as a pageant that “playfully challenges and expands prevailing notions of Asian American masculinity by celebrating the important work done by Asian American male-identified community organizers.”
“For Asian American masculinity, historically, Asian American men have often been represented as emasculated or asexual — but, unfortunately, many Asian American men have responded by adopting a dominant, and some would say, violent form of masculinity predicated on the conquering of women’s bodies and fear or hatred of gays and lesbians,” Park continued. “That’s why Mr. Hyphen has attempted to re-define Asian American masculinity as the celebration of masculinities that serve the community, not hurt it.”
Male contestants compete up to the final round, in which five finalists participate in the last three challenges: talent, question and answer, and sleepwear. For example, Park performed as a “lonely unicorn” who only wanted to rock out on his air guitar despite the scoldings of his “tiger mom.”
The winner receives is able to donate to the organization he represents with the earned cash prize. When Park won, the proceeds went to the Asian Prisoners Support Committee. Ju Hong, this year’s Mr. Hyphen, represented the immigrant reform organization ASPIRE.
“Media plays a strong role in shaping how teenagers — and everyone for that matter — see themselves, see others, and see the world,” Park said during the interview. “So, if only one narrow view of masculinity or femininity is offered, we might not be aware that there are a range of ways in which one can be masculine or feminine.”
Although the pageant is not televised, the influence is tremendous as it attempts to reverse society’s standard of masculinity by promoting the values of passion, commitment, and activism.
In a highly technological world, the influence of media on individuals is inevitable. However, if reality shows and teen magazines are supposed to depict reality and help individuals maneuver through a sometimes difficult and confusing world, then society must work to expand its scope and be more aware of the immense impact it has on individuals.
With a collective sense of acknowledgment and support of the individual’s own unique worth and value, society can rise above the issue that has been influencing the current generation for better and for worse.