Sex and gender are clearly common topics for societal issues. Unfortunately, it is not always a positive conversation. Signs of a hypersexual, gender-stereotyped culture clearly pop out with a quick scan of recent news headlines. We see gender insults in the current presidential campaign, deep concern about the presence of rape culture on college campuses, judicial blocking of gender-neutral bathrooms in schools, and backlash to the UN’s appointment of Wonder Woman as the honorary ambassador for women and girls.
The Gender Gap Index quantifies the magnitude of gender-based imbalances of nations using economic, political, education and health criteria. It is designed to create greater awareness of the challenges posed by gender gaps and the opportunities created by reducing them. Fortunately, North America has closed 70 percent of its gender gap since the World Economic Forum first introduced the Global Gender Gap Index in 2006 as a framework for capturing the magnitude of gender-based disparities. While Canada and the United States have made progress towards gender parity overall, the index reveals that both countries are still experiencing significant gender gaps, including income inequality. Thus, work is yet to be done and we must pursue completing closing any existing gender gaps.
An important first step is identifying the ways culture and media influence our understanding of sexuality and ideas about gender. As parents and educators of youth, improving our own media-literacy skills can enable the conversations needed to convert troubling topics popular in the media into opportunities for promoting gender equality.
Foremost, the prevalence of sexuality in media targeting children is problematic. Researchers, Kirsch & Murnen, examined seven popular American children’s TV programs. The most common theme they found was “boys objectifying and valuing girls solely based on their appearance and girls engaging in self-objectification and ego-stroking for boys”.
Similarly, in an examination of overt sexuality in video games, nearly 20 percent of female characters are shown with an unrealistic body image and were ten times more likely to be shown nude than males. A gendered power imbalance is clearly evident in popular media.
It’s not only content on screens. In a content analysis of children’s products, including Halloween costumes, action figures and dolls, and Valentines cards; female characters were much more likely than males to be depicted with decorative and revealing clothing. Male characters were more frequently portrayed with traditional “masculine” characteristics like functional clothing and the body-in-motion, and outfitted with accessories such as a weapon.
There is good work being done to move away from gender stereotyping in popular media. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender works within the entertainment industry to improve diversity and gender balance in entertainment for children 11 and under.
Being a mindful consumer can help the effort too. Purchasing content for children with characters and stories that promote redeeming personality traits, rather than specific body parts, sends the message to companies that there is a demand for content of a more diverse, less sexualized nature.
There seems to be a shift away from gender norming already occurring for products and the way they are marketed. Major clothing companies like Zara now sell unisex apparel lines. Target announced last year it is removing gender-based signage in its toy, kids’ bedding, entertainment, and home departments. And CoverGirl just added its first Cover boy (a non-celebrity nonetheless).
These trends are promising for realizing a world less defined by gender, but are not the end all solution. It’s still our responsibility to highlight for young people that looks are not indicative of their worth as a human being. The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees, stating, “Once children learn media education skills, they will begin to ask questions and think about the media messages they watch, read, and hear”. Developing these critical thinking skills involves identifying with children unrealistic representations of characters, products, attitudes, and life situations of media. Besides being an enjoyable way to spend time together, joint viewing often gives rise to meaningful conversations about sensitive topics like sexual relationships, religious beliefs, and family value systems.
Helping youth gain media-literacy skills can be an important part of permanently closing gender gaps. By rejecting gender stereotypes and overt sexuality in children’s products and media, we can move past stereotypes and assumptions and build more opportunities that are available to all global citizens.