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Gendered Relationships on Television:
Comparing Portrayals of Heterosexual and Same-Sex Couples
Adrienne M. Holz
James D. Ivory
School of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Address all Correspondence to:
6205 Farrington Road, Apt. A5
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
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Paper submitted to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Interest
Group for possible presentation at the 2005 annual convention of the
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
Gendered Relationships on Television:
Comparing Portrayals of Heterosexual and Same-Sex Couples
While intimate heterosexual couples exhibit power imbalances through
gender role behaviors, it is unclear whether the same is true for
homosexual relationships. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that
both heterosexual and homosexual relationships on television are
portrayed as gendered. This content analysis of intimate
relationships on television found disparities in dominant and
submissive behaviors to be as prevalent among homosexual couples as
heterosexual couples. Implications for viewers' perceptions and
behavior are also discussed.
Gendered Relationships on Television:
Comparing Portrayals of Heterosexual and Same-Sex Couples
Because we live in a gendered society, the intimate relationships
that we participate in are also gendered. Gender differs from
sex. Sex is determined by biological factors such as hormones and
secondary sex characteristics (Doyle & Paludi, 1995), whereas gender
is determined by social, cultural, and psychological components
(Richmond-Abbott, 1992; Unger, 1979) and exists on a continuum of
masculinity and femininity. According to Bem (1993), society views
men and women through "lenses of gender" that assume that men and
women are psychologically different, men are inherently the dominant
sex, and that male and female differences and male dominance are
natural and therefore legitimate. The media, particularly
television, have done much in promoting and normalizing gendered
images of males and females in heterosexual romantic
relationships. But what about media portrayals of same-sex
couples? Does television "force" gay male or lesbian couples into
gendered roles, where one partner plays the "male" (dominant) role
and one plays the "female" (submissive) role? This paper reports a
content analysis investigating the degree to which same-sex and
opposite-sex relationships are gendered in popular television dramas
and discusses theoretical implications for these portrayals on
identity formation and attitudes about the roles of men and women in
The Gendered Relationship
Lipman-Blumen (1984) sees gender roles as social constructions that
contain self-concepts and psychological traits, as well as family,
occupational, and political roles, assigned dichotomously to members
of each sex. Females are seen as passive, nurturant, and dependent,
and males are seen as aggressive, competitive, and independent. In
other words, "Maleness signals authority, status, competence, social
power, and influence, and femaleness signals lack of authority, low
status, incompetence, and little power and influence" (Stewart &
McDermott, 2004, p. 521).
Several studies in social psychology have examined whether males and
females in heterosexual and homosexual intimate relationships exhibit
behaviors and attitudes consistent with an equal power distribution
between partners (Calwell & Peplau, 1984; Falbo & Peplau, 1980;
Felmlee, 1994; Sprecher & Felmlee, 1997). Across all studies,
findings have shown that in heterosexual intimate relationships,
males typically possess more power than females (Falbo & Peplau,
1980; Felmlee, 1994; Sprecher & Felmlee, 1997). Power imbalances are
also seen in homosexual intimate relationships (although less than in
heterosexual relationships), yet partners place more emphasis on the
value of equality (Caldwell & Peplau, 1984; Falbo & Peplau, 1980).
In a 1994 study, Felmlee surveyed undergraduate students to determine
within their relationships which partner is perceived as having the
most power, which partner makes more decisions, which partner is more
emotionally involved, whether or not the relationship is equitable,
and the length of the relationship. Results showed that males
typically had more power, males were seen as making more decisions,
and females were perceived as having greater emotional
involvement. Similarly, Sprecher and Felmlee (1997) surveyed men and
women in heterosexual relationships over a four-year period to study
perceived power, decision-making, emotional involvement,
satisfaction, and relationship status. The results showed that in
the majority of the relationships, men were viewed as having more
power and were more likely to claim having that power, especially
when less emotionally involved than their partner.
A study by Falbo and Peplau (1980) examined power strategies used in
intimate relationships by both heterosexual and homosexual men and
women in a survey addressing individual preferences for power,
assessment of the overall balance of power, and an essay on power
strategies used with a partner. The results showed that gender
differences in power strategies were found only among
heterosexuals. Women were more likely to use unilateral and indirect
strategies, whereas men were more likely to use bilateral and direct
strategies, report having more power, and de-emphasize the importance
of equal power. Caldwell and Peplau (1984) examined the balance of
power in lesbian relationships through a questionnaire designed to
assess personal perceptions of power, commitment to the relationship,
allocation of resources, resulting satisfaction with the
relationship, and possible butch-femme role-playing in household
chores. The results showed although the lesbian women supported the
ideal of balanced power in their relationships, "nearly 40% of the
women perceived the balance of power in their relationship as
unequal" (p. l 97), primarily because the partner with less power
possessed fewer resources or was more emotionally involved. Also,
"contrary to cultural myth, no evidence was found that lesbians
engaged in a sex-typed division of household activities" (p. 597).
Gendered Portrayals on Television
According to Gross (1991), certain groups are underrepresented or
"symbolically annihilated" from the rest of society, and "the mass
media provide the chief common ground among the different groups that
make up a heterogeneous national and international community" (p.
20). When these groups finally do attain visibility, their
representation will "reflect the biases and interests of those elites
who define the public agenda" (p. 21). Women and sexual minorities
have a history of under representation in television, and this lack
of visibility has resulted in narrow and stereotyped depictions of
In a study by Glascock (2001), prime-time television fictional
series on major networks for the 1996-97 season were coded in terms
of demographics, such as number of male/female characters, speaking
time, and marital status, as well as behaviors shown by male and
female characters. The results showed that male characters
outnumbered females, were allotted more speaking time, and were more
likely to have professional and high-status jobs, whereas female
characters were more often characterized by their marital and
parental status, were generally younger and provocatively dressed,
and were verbally aggressive yet affectionate. Signorielli and
Bacue (1999) performed a content analysis of characters in prime-time
television drama broadcast between the years of 1967 and
1998. Overall, they found that stereotypical images of men and women
have remained stable over the three decades. More specifically, male
characters outnumbered female characters (although the trend was
toward a greater representation of women), more men than women worked
outside the home, and the percentage of women working outside the
home had not significantly increased, although their occupations were
less stereotyped than previously.
Olson and Douglas (1997) studied how domestic comedies' depictions
of gender roles have changed in the past 40 years, as families on
television teach people about gender roles. The most popular sitcoms
over the last 40 years were shown to undergraduate students. In a
posttest, they were then asked several questions, such as assessment
of the importance of a husband/wife relationship in that particular
sitcom, whether or not it was an acceptable model of family life, and
how the sitcom representation corresponded to their own
family. Results showed that more recent domestic comedies were
thought to be more equal in gender roles, although they did not
display more equality or less dominance. Subjects did feel that more
recent television families with more egalitarian gender roles
exhibited more familial satisfaction, and they felt these families
were more similar to their own.
Throughout history, television has either ignored homosexuality or
has portrayed it in a highly stereotypical manner (Capsuto, 2000;
Gross, 2001; Harrington, 2003; Tropiano, 2002). Furthermore, almost
all programs have taken a heterosexual viewpoint, as "they were shows
about gay people but clearly for straight audiences" (Capsuto, 2000,
p. 70). Television critics and many academics agree that gay men and
lesbians, as well as gay and lesbian couples, are shown as
gendered. Gay men are portrayed either as masculine and athletic, or
as queens and fairies (Tropiano, 2002, p. 149) yearning to be women
(p. 242). Gay men are also seen as being "naturally" adept at
stereotypically gay jobs such as hairdresser, waiter, or interior
designer (p. 244). Lesbians are portrayed as either butch (dressing
like a man) or femme (a traditional feminine appearance) (Capsuto,
2000, p. 110). Television also depicts straight characters being
viewed as gay if they stray too far from stereotypical gender roles
(Tropiano, 2002, p. 157).
Anecdotal evidence suggests that television has therefore portrayed
its characters with a heterosexual and gendered frame of reference,
such that males are shown as dominant to females, as they are granted
more speaking time, and independence (through lack of marital and
parental status), and hold high-status occupations. Homosexual
characters are also seen as gendered, as couples are shown as either
"butch/femme" or "jock/queen," but gendered heterosexuality is
promoted as the norm. While these portrayals can be seen as a
reflection of societal perceptions, research on gender role formation
suggests that television may also influence these perceptions.
The Development of Gender Roles
A number of theoretical frameworks explain how people actually
develop gender roles, but the theory most relevant for those
interested in mass media effects is social cognitive theory (Bandura,
1986; Lindsey, 1997; Payne, 2001). A primary assumption of social
cognitive theory is that while people learn behaviors through their
direct interaction with the environment, they also learn vicariously
by modeling the behavior of others—especially if the behavior is seen
as appropriate and rewarded. Researchers applying this theory to
gender role formation posit that individuals learn gender-appropriate
behaviors through imitating same-sex models, encountered both through
direct experience, but also through mediated observation, such as in
the television viewing experience. Bandura (1986) explains that
"knowledge about the sex appropriateness of behavior patterns does
not depend entirely on directly experienced sanctions. Observing
what consequences befall others also conveys knowledge of gender
roles for regulating conduct" (p. 94). People acquire behaviors and
identify with same-sex models engaging in sex-typed activities, which
teach people their appropriate roles in society. Thus, "social
cognitive theory posits that, through cognitive processing of direct
and vicarious experiences, children come to know their gender
identity, gain substantial knowledge of sex roles, and extract rules
as to what types of behavior are considered appropriate for their own
sex" (p. 94).
Social cognitive theory has also been applied specifically to the
learning of gender through mass media, including television. Bussey
and Bandura (1999) assert that the media play a major role in
modeling of gender roles, as television, video games, and books
portray males "as directive, venturesome, enterprising, and pursuing
engaging occupations and recreational activities. In contrast, women
are usually shown as acting in dependent, unambitious, and emotional
ways" (p. 701). Central to this idea is Bandura's idea of vicarious
observation, as "televised vicarious influence has dethroned the
primacy of direct experience. Whether it be thought patterns,
values, attitudes, or styles of behavior, life increasingly models
the media" (Bandura, 1986, p. 20). Bandura believes that individuals
use a symbolizing capability to transform their experiences (either
direct or observed) into symbols that work as cognitive models, which
then serve as guides for their behaviors and attitudes. Therefore,
people may learn behaviors through symbolic modeling of stereotypes
that they observe on television (Bandura, 2002).
Implications of Televised Gendered Images
According to Newton and Williams (2003), "through a confounding
oversimplification, perpetuated through cultural, personal, and media
imagery, we have come to view human beings through either masculine
or feminine filters" (p. 206). People internalize, though real life
and media, certain ideas about what it means to be a man or a woman
and form stereotypes, or "constructions imposed on groups of
individuals who are viewed as having similar characteristics or
attributes in common" (p. 208). These internalized images are also
called schemas, which help people "simplify a complex social
environment by quickly and efficiently processing incoming stimuli
based on the presence of a few relevant characteristics" (Gorham,
2004, p. 15). These schemas consist of knowledge about the world and
help people to form expectations about how the world works. Through
formation and use of gender schema, then, individuals develop ideas
about gender (such as women are typically seen as feminine and men
are typically seen as masculine) and use these ideas to determine
what information they pay attention to, perceive, and remember when
making assessments of individuals.
Stereotypes may also be described in terms of heuristics, cognitive
short-cuts that are used by people to help them make decisions. When
making judgments that they are not certain about, people do not
exhaustively analyze all possible probabilities, but rely on a
limited number of heuristics. Studies of judgmental heuristics also
have been used to form the basis for why people use stereotypes, as
stereotypes have often been described as "energy-saving devices that
serve the important cognitive function of simplifying information
processing and response generation" (Macre et al., 1994, p.
38). Therefore, a stereotype's main function is to simplify
formation of judgments and execution of behaviors. In other words,
people rely on their stereotypic preconceptions when they lack the
motivation or resources to think more analytically about individuals
in stereotyped groups (Macre et al., 1994). Therefore, "the term
judgmental heuristic refers to a strategy—whether deliberate or
not—that relies on a natural assessment to produce an estimation or a
prediction" (Tversky & Kahneman, 2002, p. 20).
Two important types of heuristics are the representativeness
heuristic and the availability heuristic. The representativeness
heuristic deals with a person judging the probability of an event "by
the degree to which it (1) is similar in essential properties to its
parent population, or (2) reflects the salient feature of the process
by which it is generated" (Heath & Tindale, 1994, p. 3). The
availability heuristic occurs when people judge the probability of a
particular event occurring as based on their own ability to recall
similar events (Heath & Tindale, 1994).
According to Shrum, there are two major principles describing how
these heuristics are used (Shrum, 2002). The first of these is the
Heuristic/Sufficiency Principle, which states that people do not scan
their memory for all relevant information when making a judgment, but
rather retrieve a small portion of the available information or only
what is sufficient to make that judgment. Another is the
Accessibility Principle, which states that "the information that
comes most readily to mind will be the information that comprises the
'small subset' of available information that is retrieved and, in
turn, is the information that is most likely to be used in
constructing a judgment" (p. 72). Thus, when people make judgments
about persons, attitude and belief judgments, or estimates about size
and probability, they often use the constructs that are most easily
accessible from memory.
A study by Barbera (2003) attempted to study how gender schemas are
formed in children. Barbera hypothesized that if input contains
minimal information, individuals will activate gender-stereotyped
schema, but if more relevant information is added, gender
stereotyping will be reduced. The results supported the
hypothesis: When children were presented with gender-typed
scenarios, they assumed that males and females would perform
sex-stereotyped activities, yet if they were presented with the
necessary resources, they viewed males and females as equally
equipped to perform the activities. Furthermore, Madon (1997) found
that formation of schemas also occurs with regard to homosexual
relationships, using a questionnaire to examine the content and
strength of gay male stereotypes. The results showed that people
often associate certain behaviors and attributes in their stereotypes
about gay males, including perceptions that gay males have positive
female sex-typed qualities, are similar to women, and violate
standard male gender roles.
Television's frequent presentation of stereotypical images of women
and men, as well as heterosexual and homosexual couples, may
significantly impact perception of gender roles, allowing formation
of gendered stereotypes or schema that help simplify conceptions
about certain groups of people. When people make judgments about
each other, they are likely to use these stereotypes when they lack
the motivation or knowledge to use more critical thinking strategies,
based on principles of accessibility and sufficiency. This has
especially negative implications for judgments about gay men and
lesbians, as televised images may be the most accessible in the minds
of people whose exposure to homosexual relationships is limited.
Cultivation of Gender Stereotypes
The idea that television plays an enormous impact in our lives is
the basis of George Gerbner's theory of cultivation, its main premise
being "that those who spend more time watching television are more
likely to perceive the real world in ways that reflect the most
common and recurrent messages of the television world, compared to
people who watch less television but are otherwise comparable in
terms of important demographic characteristics" (Shanahan, 1999, p.
4). Cultivation research shows data suggesting that heavy viewers of
television are more likely to give "television answers" on surveys
than are light viewers of television. Cultivation theory sees
television as the major source of socialization in today's
society. However, it is not exposure to a particular genre or
television program that accounts for this socialization and a
homogenization of perspectives. Instead, "what is most likely to
cultivate stable and common conceptions of reality is, therefore, the
overall pattern of programming to which total communities are
regularly exposed over long periods of time" (Gerbner et al., 2002, p. 45).
Another major component of cultivation theory is the idea of
mainstreaming. Television is our society's major manifestation of
dominant beliefs and values and our main source of shared
meanings. Thus, "mainstreaming means that heavy viewing may absorb
or override differences in perspectives and behavior which ordinarily
stem from other factors and influences" (Signorielli & Morgan, 1996,
p. 117). Differences that ordinarily exist between various types of
viewers become lessened as a result of heavy television
viewing. Mainstreaming has also shown that heavy viewers of
television self-identify with a moderate political position, although
heavy television viewing produces a mainstream toward more
conservative positions on social issues like sexual minorities or
Gross (1991) also applies cultivation theory to depiction of gays
and lesbians on television and its preservation of the heterosexual
gender role system. Through mainstreaming, or "a commonality of
outlooks and values that television tends to cultivate in viewers"
(p. 23), television cultivates stereotypical images of gays and
lesbians. Although sexual minorities are generally ignored or
symbolically annihilated in media, when media do present them, they
use popular (yet negative and narrow) stereotypes as a code that the
audience can easily understand. Therefore, "the maintenance of the
'normal' gender role system requires that children be socialized—and
adults retained—within a set of images and expectations which limit
and channel their conceptions of what is possible and proper for men
and women" (p. 26).
Ideas about stereotyping and heuristics can be applied to
cultivation research. Shrum, in explaining the heuristic processing
model of cultivation, makes two main points: First, television
viewing increases construct accessibility, and second, cultivated
ideas about the world are formed through heuristic
processing. Therefore, heavy viewers of television more often
activate constructs portrayed on television than do light viewers of
television. Heavy viewers are also more likely to have recently
viewed television than have light viewers, so accessibility is also
increased for heavy viewers because of recency of viewing (Shrum,
2002). For example, a study by Shrum and O'Guinn (1993) showed that
heavy television viewers were more likely than light viewers to
provide higher estimates about constructs frequently shown on
television and were also able to construct these judgments faster
since they were more accessible.
Signorielli and Lears (1992) performed a study to see if there is a
relationship between television viewing and sex role attitudes. The
results showed that children who watched more television were more
likely than light viewers to believe that males and females should
perform sex-stereotyped chores. Segrin & Nabi (2002) conducted a
study to determine whether television cultivates unrealistic
expectations about marriage as "in the context of marital
expectations, cultivation theory suggest that in portraying idealized
images of marriage, the media may be cultivating unrealistic beliefs
about what marriages should be" (p. 244). Results showed that the
overall amount of television viewing was not a good predictor of
idealistic expectations of marriage or marital intentions, although
the type of genre, specifically romantic in nature, was associated
with idealistic expectations.
Shrum (1996) tested the idea that the accessibility of information
in a person's memory contributes to the cultivation effect through
comparing responses from heavy soap opera viewers to those who do not
view soap operas. The results showed that soap opera viewing was
related to respondents' perceptions of crime, marital discord, and
occupational prevalence, and that heavy soap opera viewing also
correlated with quicker responses to questions. Shrum (2001) also
investigated whether systematic processing (or making more careful
and analytical judgments) can lessen the cultivation effect. All
participants were asked questions about social reality, although some
were prompted to answer given their first instincts, while others
were encouraged to give accurate responses. The results showed that
people generally process heuristically when making judgments about
social reality, thus showing a cultivation effect. However, when
participants processed systematically, the cultivation effect was diminished.
Regardless of which theoretical approach is applied to studying the
effects of gendered TV relationships, there is evidence to suggest
that these images could have strong influence on individuals'
identity formation processes and their development of attitudes about
sex roles. While there has been much speculation about the effects
of television images of gendered relationships, there has been little
empirical research in this area. A first step in such an
investigation involves examination of the actual patterns of
representation on television to determine how and to what degree
same-sex and opposite-sex relationships are gendered.
The hypotheses to be addressed by this study are:
H1: Scenes with heterosexual couples will be gendered: One member
of the couple will be more dominant than the other more submissive
member throughout scenes.
H2: In scenes with heterosexual couples, the male member of the
couple will be more dominant throughout scenes.
The research questions to be addressed by this study are:
RQ1: Will scenes with homosexual couples be gendered? Will one
member of the couple be more dominant and one more submissive
RQ2: Will scenes with gay males be gendered?
RQ3: Will scenes with lesbians be gendered?
RQ4: Does the extent to which gay couple and straight couple scenes
are gendered differ between heterosexual and homosexual couple interactions?
This study analyzed 12 couples participating in long term
heterosexual and homosexual intimate relationships taken from
prime-time (8-11 PM EST) television broadcasts from the years of
2001-2004. Purposive sampling was used to obtain relevant
relationship portrayals that would yield adequate content for
detailed analysis. The homosexual relationships analyzed were taken
from the only four dramas to feature leading adult gay characters
involved in long term relationships aired on cable channels (GLAAD,
2005), namely HBO and Showtime. Six homosexual couples were chosen
from this selection, and six heterosexual couples from five programs
airing on the same group of networks (with exception of Fx, which was
included in the heterosexual couple sample on basis of similar sexual
content) were matched as closely as possible on the basis of age,
sexual content, children, living arrangements, and the overall degree
of seriousness of relationship. The first season of each drama
between the years of 2001-2004 was selected for coding, or if the
series began before this time period, a season to air within this
time frame was used. The programs and characters sampled are shown in Table 1.
Shows and Characters Sampled For Analysis
Show And Season
Couple and Sexual Orientation
The L Word Season 1
Bette and Tina (lesbian)
Tim and Jenny (heterosexual)
Nip/Tuck Season 1
Sean and Julia (heterosexual)
Queer As Folk Season 1
Melanie and Lindsay (lesbian)
David and Michael (gay male)
Brian and Justin (gay male)
Sex and the City Season 4
Aidan and Carrie (heterosexual)
Trey and Charlotte (heterosexual)
Six Feet Under Season 1
Nate and Brenda (heterosexual)
Keith and David (gay male)
The Sopranos Season 4
Tony and Carmela (heterosexual)
The Wire Season 1
Shakima and Cheryl (lesbian)
An original coding instrument was developed to measure several
manifestations of dominance and submissiveness in
relationships. Coding was carried out by two of the authors, who are
both female. Characters' portrayals in individual scenes featuring
both partners were the selected unit of analysis. Every scene
featuring both members of the couple throughout the sampled seasons
was coded, with a separate coding sheet completed for each member of
the couple. Preliminary observation of the sampled materials and
discussion between authors generated 21 coding categories for
dominant and submissive behaviors. The presence or absence of the
following variables was coded for each character per scene:
• Dominant: makes decisions, dominates conversation, drives motor
vehicle, gives orders, yells, shows physical
force/aggression/violence, makes sexual advance/initiates sexual
activity, sexually dominant, shows low commitment to relationship,
works for pay outside the home, financially supports the other partner.
• Submissive: exhibits indecisiveness, follows orders, cries, shows
fear, submits to sexual advance, sexually submissive, shows high
commitment to relationship, is a homemaker or unemployed, performs
household tasks, takes care of children.
One of the authors served as the primary coder for each portrayal in
the sample, with another coding 140 portrayals (10.12 percent) to
assess intercoder reliability. Using Holsti's method, an acceptable
overall agreement score of 94.7 was obtained for all variables. No
individual item had a score below 90.
A total of 692 scenes were coded from 94 episodes of the programs
sampled, providing a total of 1,384 character portrayals (one for
each partner per scene). Of these, 660 scene portrayals were of
heterosexual characters (330 each male and female) and 724 were of
homosexual characters (316 homosexual male, 408 homosexual
female). For each scene portrayal, the total number of dominant and
submissive behaviors exhibited by each character was calculated to
produce overall dominance and submissiveness scores for the
character's portrayal in the scene. The total number of submissive
behaviors exhibited in the scene was then subtracted from the total
number of dominant behaviors exhibited to produce an overall
dominance differential index (i.e., three dominant behaviors and two
submissive behaviors produce a dominance differential of one) to
provide a comprehensive measure of dominance. To test whether
couples were gendered, the mean dominance differentials for each
character over all scene portrayals were compared to determine the
dominant partner in each relationship throughout the scenes (the
partner with the higher mean dominance differential overall). This
determination was necessary to identify partners across scenes,
thereby measuring whether differences in dominant and submissive
behaviors within couples followed trends or cancelled one another out
in separate exchanges.
A t test comparing the difference between the mean differential
scores for dominant (M = .93, SD = 1.40) and submissive (M = .30, SD
= 1.39) heterosexual partners found a significant difference, t(658)
= 5.833, p < .001, indicating that the dominant partner tended to
exhibit more dominant and fewer submissive behaviors per scene than
did the submissive partner. A similar comparison of the mean number
of dominant behaviors per scene exhibited by the dominant (M = 1.32,
SD = 1.26) and submissive (M = 1.06, SD = 1.13) partners was also
significant, t(650.99) = 2.750, p < .001, as was a comparison of the
mean number of submissive behaviors per scene exhibited by the
dominant (M = .39, SD = .65) and submissive (M = .76, SD = .96)
partners per scene, t(576.76) = 5.89, p < .001. These findings
support H1. It should be noted, however, that all while couples
tended to be gendered, not every individual couple showed significant
differences in prevalence of these behaviors between partners when t
tests were used to compare partners' scores. (See Table 2 for a
summary of the mean scores for each character and results of
individual comparisons between partners.)
H2 predicted that the male partner would exhibit more dominance per
scene than the female partner. Because every male partner in the
heterosexual relationships was labeled the dominant partner by virtue
of having a higher average dominance differential score than his
partner as described above, results of a t test comparing the
prevalence of dominant behaviors exhibited by male and female
partners was redundant with the test used for H1. In other words,
the partner with a higher average dominance differential score tended
to exhibit significantly more dominant and fewer submissive behaviors
per scene, and this dominant partner was also always male.
To test whether homosexual couples were gendered in portrayals,
overall mean dominance differential scores were also compared between
homosexual partners to determine a "dominant" and "submissive"
partner. As with the heterosexual couples, a t test found the mean
dominance differential per scene to be significantly higher for the
dominant partner (M = 1.06, SD = 1.35) than for the submissive
partner (M = .1575, SD = 1.06), t(722) = 9.387, p < .001. The same
was true when comparing the mean number of dominant behaviors
exhibited by the dominant (M = 1.40, SD = 1.25) and submissive
partners (M = .81, SD = 1.00), t(687.97) = 6.965, p < .001. The
reverse was true with regard to submissive behavior, with the
submissive partner (M = .66, SD = .83) exhibiting significantly more
such behaviors per scene than the dominant partner (M = .33, SD =
.60), t(657.36) = 58.87, p < .001. In answer to RQ1, these results
indicate that homosexual portrayals in the sample were also gendered.
Individual Couple Score Comparisons Between Partners.
Dominant Behaviors Per Scene
Submissive Behaviors Per Scene
Dominance Differential Index
* Difference between partner scores is significant at .05 level.
With regard to RQ3 and RQ4, separate analyses of gay male and lesbian
couples continued to find the same evidence of gendered
relationships, here operationalized as a significant difference in
the number of dominant and submissive traits per scene exhibited by
partners. Dominance differential scores for the dominant gay male
partner (M = 1.31, SD = 1.38) were significantly higher than for the
submissive partner (M = .25, SD = 1.33), t(406) = 7.95, p < .001.,
and the same held true for the mean number of dominant behaviors
exhibited by the dominant (M = 1.57, SD = 1.32) and submissive (M =
.95, SD = 1.04) partners, t(384.90) = 12.83, p < .001. Consistent
with previous findings, the submissive gay male exhibited
significantly more submissive behaviors (M = .70, SD = .88) than the
dominant partner (M = .27, SD = .50), t(319.98) = 6.18, p <
.001. Differences between lesbian partners followed this pattern
regarding dominance differentials (dominant partner M = .74, SD =
1.26; submissive partner M = .03, SD = 1.11; t[309.29] = 5.26, p <
.001), mean number of dominant behaviors (dominant partner M = 1.16,
SD = 1.11; submissive partner M = .63, SD = .91; t[302.02] = 4.64, p
< .001), and mean number of submissive behaviors (submissive partner
M = 60., SD = .77; dominant partner M = .42, SD = .71; t[312.05] =
6.26, p = .040).
Although heterosexual, gay, and lesbian couples all appear to be
gendered based on these results, RQ4 required examination of whether
the extent to which couples were gendered differed between couples of
different sexual orientation. To investigate this question, another
measure was computed: In each scene, the dominance differential
score for the submissive partner was subtracted from that of the
dominant partner to produce a measure of the relative dominance
within the couple (i.e., dominance differentials of 3 for the
dominant partner and 1 for the submissive partner would yield a
relative dominance score of 2 for the scene). Because this relative
dominance measure combined scores from each partner, each scene
served as the unit of this analysis rather than each individual's
portrayal within a scene.
Surprisingly, the scenes featuring homosexual couples exhibited
greater discrepancies in dominance between partners than did the
heterosexual couples' scenes. A t test, however, found the
difference between homosexual (M = .91, SD = 1.98) and heterosexual
couples' (M = .63, SD = 1.97) relative dominance scores to be only
marginally significant, t(690) = 1.816, p = .07.
To further explore differences in the extent to which different
couple types were portrayed in gender roles, a one-way ANOVA was used
to determine whether the extent to which couples were gendered
differed between gay, lesbian, and heterosexual couples. Using the
relative dominance score for couples' scenes as a dependent variable
and couple type (heterosexual, gay, and lesbian couples) as three
levels of the independent factor, the one-way ANOVA found a
significant main effect of couple type, F(2, 689) = 3.15, p
=.04. Post hoc contrasts, however, found that only the difference in
relative dominance between gay male couples (M = 1.06, SD = 2.01) and
heterosexual couples (M = .63, SD = 1.98) was significant (p =
.014). While the relative dominance within lesbian couples (M = .70,
SD = 1.92) was greater than relative dominance scores for
heterosexual couples and less than scores for gay male couples, these
differences were not significant. These results suggest that while
gay male couples in the sample were gendered to a greater degree than
heterosexual couples, no such conclusions can be made regarding
lesbian couples or homosexual couples in general with confidence.
A person's membership in a particular sex category, either male or
female, has socially come to signify masculinity and dominance or
femininity and submission in everyday interactions, including
heterosexual intimate relationships. The power imbalance inherent in
such a gendered relationship works to the detriment of the submissive
partner, namely the female. Evidence of the gendered relationship is
supported extensively by research.
The phenomenon of the gendered relationship is also reflected and
perhaps perpetuated by television. Male and female television
characters are portrayed in stereotypically gendered masculine and
feminine fashions, and gender roles are prominent in male and female
intimate relationship portrayals. As expected, the results of this
study's analyses suggest that television scenes portraying
heterosexual couples are gendered, specifically that one character
exhibits more dominant behaviors and less submissive behaviors than
the other partner in the couple's interactions. As was also
predicted, the dominant partner in gendered heterosexual
relationships was the male member of the couple. These results,
consistent with other studies' previous findings on male/female
character portrayals, attest to the validity of the measures used here.
The homosexual relationship, unlike its heterosexual counterpart, has
no such sexual dichotomy of male and female to mandate which partner
possesses more power or who should take on the role of dominant or
submissive partner. Some studies suggest nonetheless that power
imbalances are seen in homosexual couples as well, but mixed findings
may indicate that homosexual relationships may not be gendered or
that the extent of their gendering is less than for their
heterosexual counterparts. Despite the absence of a consensus
regarding whether homosexual relationships are gendered to the same
extent as heterosexual relationships in reality, there is evidence
that homosexual characters are depicted on television as either
overtly masculine or feminine – in essence, gendered. This study's
findings that homosexual couples on television are portrayed as
gendered at least as much as heterosexual couples, perhaps more so,
add more support to such claims that television forces gay male and
lesbian characters involved in intimate relationships into gendered roles.
Throughout scenes portraying homosexual couples, one partner
exhibited more dominant behaviors and fewer submissive behaviors than
the other partner. This tendency was consistent in portrayals of
both gay male and lesbian couples. Although results of these
analyses show that heterosexual couples, gay male couples, and
lesbian couples are all portrayed as gendered, our findings do not
strongly indicate whether heterosexual or homosexual relationship
portrayals are more gendered. However, this study's finding that gay
male couples display the greatest amount of gendering is possibly the
most interesting discovery, and strongly indicates that pronounced
gender roles are present in depictions of this group. Such results
suggest that while gendered gay and straight relationships are both
present in television drama, portrayals of gay male and lesbian
relationships may differ in some aspects from one another as well as
from heterosexual relationships.
Given the social cognitive theory and cultivation theory frameworks'
predictions regarding television's impact on viewer behavior and
beliefs, the results of this study may have considerable implications
for television viewers. Individuals not only learn behaviors through
direct contact with their environments, but also through their
televised experiences. Viewers may model behaviors and identify with
characters they see on television, learning gender roles appropriate
for their sex to guide their interactions with intimate
partners. Heavy viewers of television may also come to see images
and lessons from television as reflective of real life. Although
gendered portrayals in all relationships may influence viewer
perceptions and behavior, the influence of homosexual couple
portrayals on television audiences may be even greater than for
heterosexual portrayals. Since sexual minorities are essentially
ignored by many media outlets and some individuals have had limited
or no real-life exposure to homosexuality, gay characters on
television may become particularly salient and accessible in viewers'
minds when they make social judgments. In the absence of extensive
real-world experience with homosexual couples, exaggerated or
inaccurate gender roles in televised images of homosexual couples may
influence peoples' perceptions of homosexuals and serve as poor
examples for gay viewers to model in their own relationships.
This study has certain limitations that may influence the degree to
which its results are generalizable. One is that the measure of
dominance/submission used to determine whether relationships were
portrayed as gendered has not been validated in research. However, it
was predicted that within the heterosexual relationships, males would
be the dominant partner and females would be the submissive partner,
as has been backed by previous literature. Using the
dominance/submission measure of presence and absence of behavior
variables, males were with no exception always the dominant partners,
and this served as a baseline from which to analyze the homosexual couples.
An additional limitation is that sampled programs were generated
primarily from a small number of cable programs. The degree to
which these results are generalizable to other television programming
is debatable. Until more television programming begins to depict gay
and lesbian relationships with detail comparable to the manner in
which cable channels have embraced them, though, these outlets will
remain a superior source for information about homosexual
This study has many implications for further research in the area of
gendered behavior manifestations for homosexual couples in both real
life and the media. Not enough is known about power displays and
gender roles in gay male and lesbian couples, and surveying
homosexual couples about their use of power strategies may help to
determine the degree of gendering that exists in these
relationships. Another area of interest is whether gays would find
television's portrayal of homosexual couple interactions reflective
of their own relationship experiences, and what might be done to make
portrayals more accurate in looking beyond the heterosexual frame of
reference. Cultivation studies may also be conducted to ascertain
whether heavy television viewers have more stereotypical and gendered
conceptions of homosexual couples. Lastly, discrepancies between
male and female homosexual couples in our results indicates that male
and female homosexual relationships should be investigated as unique
entities lest differences between these two relationship types be
lost in broader explorations of homosexual relationships in general.
Although heterosexual relationships have long been the norm on
television, homosexual relationships are becoming more prevalent and
prominent. Such a change could alter the way romantic relationships
are defined, portrayed, and perceived. So far, though, it appears
that with regard to power balances in depicted relationships, we may
just be getting more of the same.
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