Gender Stereotyping and Intended Audience Age:
An Analysis of Children's Educational/Informational TV Programming
Mark R. Barner
Communication Studies Department
Niagara University, NY 14109
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Gender Stereotyping & Audience Age
Gender Stereotyping and Intended Audience Age:
An Analysis of Children's Educational/Informational TV Programming
This study examined sex-role stereotyping within FCC-mandated children's
educational programming. A content analysis compared stereotyping across
program age ranges and revealed that programs intended for young children
present a more traditional view of sex roles than programs intended for teens.
Male characters in old programs were stereotyped to a lesser extent than their
young program counterparts. These results suggest that children are being
exposed to consistently gender stereotyped television role models at precisely
the age when they are forming their own sex role identities.
Gender Stereotyping and Intended Audience Age:
An Analysis of Children's Educational/Informational TV Programming
While there has been a great deal of research examining gender stereotyping in
children's television, very little has compared the levels of such stereotyping
across programs with different intended audience ages. The age of children
viewers not only determines what and how much they understand, but also what
they seek out in order to better understand themselves and the world around
them. Most child development theorists suggest that children develop their sex
roles at different stages throughout childhood. What then are the differing
messages concerning sex-roles that are presented in television programs designed
for different aged children viewers? This study attempted to answer that
question by examining gender stereotyping in a new category of children's
television--FCC-mandated educational/informational (E/I) programming. This
category consists of a designated three hour group of shows which every
broadcast station must air weekly in order to qualify for license renewal from
the FCC. New children's programming regulations stipulate that broadcasters
must air three hours of "core" educational programming which is defined as
"programming specifically designed to serve children's educational and
informational needs" (FCC, 1996, para. 74). These programs must be regularly
scheduled, weekly programs of at least 30 minutes that air between 7:00 a.m. and
10:00 p.m. They must also be identified as educational and informational for
children when they are aired. The new regulations keep the FCC's 1990
definition of educational programming (with a minor rewording) as, "any
television programming that furthers the educational and informational needs of
children 16 years of age and under in any respect, including children's
intellectual/cognitive and social/emotional needs" (FCC, 1996, para. 79).
E/I programming presents an ideal way to examine the question of age-related
gender stereotyping for two reasons: First, in addressing children's
"social/emotional needs," it attempts to teach lessons about many social
attributes--not the least of which is gender. Second, because it is neatly
separated into two audience age brackets (roughly 6-11, and 12-16), E/I
programming offers an ideal way to study gender representation across intended
audience age. Before using these two characteristics of E/I programming to
explore age-related gender stereotyping, a brief review of relevant child
development and gender stereotyping literature is presented.
Child development theorists have suggested that one of the primary ways that
children learn sex-role-related behavior is through observational learning from
models (Kohlberg, 1966; Mischel, 1966) and that a primary source for such models
is television (Bandura, 1965, 1977, 1986; Huesman, Lagerspetz, & Eton, 1984).
More specifically, studies have found that children attend to and imitate
same-sex models more than opposite-sex models (Grusec & Brinker, 1972; Slaby &
Frey, 1975; Sprafkin & Liebert, 1978; Hoffner, 1996), name same-sex characters
as people they want to be like (Miller & Reeves, 1976), and select gender-typed
toys when they have seen them modeled on television by same-sex children (Ruble,
Balaban, & Cooper, 1981). Given the potential impact that television characters
play in the sex-role development of children, it is important to examine how
these characters are presented in terms of gender stereotyping.
Despite slight improvements over the past several decades, television
programming in general remains highly sex-role stereotyped. Women are
consistently under represented, given a narrower set of roles to play, and
presented in more unimportant and limited ways (Signorielli, 1989). This
picture holds true for children's educational programming as well. Research has
found that historically, educational shows include sexism at both blatant and
subtle levels. Shows such as Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Mister
Roger's Neighborhood, Captain Kangaroo, and Square One TV present gender
stereotypes in terms of character presence, role, and behavior (Dohrman, 1975;
Cantor, 1977; De Vaney & Elenes, 1991; Jones, 1994). Sex-role stereotyping is
also present in more recent educational shows--including science-based programs
(Steinke & Long, 1995) and those labeled for the FCC as E/I (Barner, 1998).
But do these consistently stereotyped portrayals necessarily have an impact on
the children who view them? Several studies suggest they do. These studies
measured relationships between children's television exposure and sex-role
beliefs, perceptions, and preferences. Beuf (1974) found that boys and girls
between the ages of three and six were overwhelmingly stereotypical in their
perceptions of occupational sex-roles. These perceptions were strongest for
children who viewed above-average amounts of television. Likewise, Frueh and
McGhee (1975) and McGhee and Frueh (1980) found that children who watched high
amounts of television had stronger traditional sex-role development. Perhaps
most convincing are the findings of Williams (1986) who scored children in the
sixth and ninth grades on sex-role stereotypes both before and two years after
the arrival of television in their community. Stereotype scores for both boys
and girls rose dramatically after the introduction of television.
In sum these findings suggest that exposure to consistently gender stereotyped
images has an influence on children's sex-role acquisition; however, they do not
address the influence of the child's age on this development. Research into
children's developmental stages suggests that age is an important factor in the
appropriation of sex-roles (see Berk, 1994). Much of this research has shown
that children begin acquiring sex-role knowledge from a very early age--even by
two years old. During these early years, children first understand that they
are either a boy or a girl and begin learning the socially accepted and expected
roles for these two categories (Kohlberg, 1966). They are quite adept at
applying sex-stereotypic labels to occupations, activities, and play things. As
Levin and Carlsson-Paige (1994) suggest, young children are particularly open to
gender stereotyping because they easily divide concepts into dichotomous
categories; therefore, roles, behaviors, and toys are for one gender or the
other but not for both. Young children understand simple gender stereotypes and
therefore are more comfortable with them than more in-depth character
As children grow older, however, they begin to develop a more open-minded view
of accepted sex-roles. Several studies have shown that as children enter their
teen years, their knowledge of gender stereotypes is positively related to their
flexibility concerning these stereotypes (Masters & Wilkinson, 1976; Carter &
Patterson, 1982; Serbin & Sprafkin, 1986; Trautner, Helbing, Sahm, & Lohaus,
1989; Serbin, Powlishta, & Gulko, 1993). In other words, as children become
more conscious of gender stereotypes, they also become more open to variations
and exceptions to them. They begin to learn that stereotypes are arbitrary
social definitions not fixed universal rules.
Based on the above information, two questions arise: First, does the gender
stereotyping in children's educational television mirror the age-related
sex-role development of the children who watch it? Second, what impact might
such a separation have on children's development of sex-roles? To address these
questions, two hypotheses are presented.
The first hypothesis is based on the historically consistent finding that men
outnumber women on television. This inequity is especially apparent in
children's programming in which women are consistently outnumbered by as much as
four to one (see Signorielli, 1985). From a marketing stand point, the
over-presence of males makes sense for two reasons: First, because elementary
school-age boys are considered the most frequent purchasers of
television-related toys and therefore represent a more valuable audience to
advertisers (Jordan, 1998). Second, research has shown that young girls will
watch boy's programming but not vice versa (Signorielli, 1989). For example, in
a review of Scandinavian studies of television and children, Feilitzen & Linne
found that "girls display greater flexibility and will, on occasion, identify
with male characters, whereas there is no record of boys identifying with female
characters" (1975, p. 53). Based on this information the first hypothesis
H1--Among E/I programs for young children, the majority of shows will be for and
The second hypothesis is based on the information presented above which
suggests that young children are more open to and even look for gender
stereotyping, while older children are more flexible in their beliefs. It would
logically follow that children's television programming would mirror this
difference with programs for younger children being more highly stereotyped than
those for older children and teens. Based on this information the second
H2--Characters in E/I programs intended for young children (in the 6-11 age
range) will be more gender stereotyped than in programs intended for teens.
Specifically it is hypothesized that in young programs more so than old
Males will have greater representation (in number of characters and behaviors
per scene) than females.
Males and females will exhibit traditional stereotypical social behaviors (as
defined by previous research) at a greater rate.
The research method employed in this study was content analysis, the systematic
study of media messages. The goals of the method are "identifying and assessing
the most recurrent and stable patterns of television content (the consistent
images, portrayals, and values that cut across most types of programs)" (Morgan
& Signorielli, 1990, p. 19). The findings from this systematic analysis can
then be used to further investigate television viewers' perceptions of social
this study, content analysis was used to compare recurrent patterns in
characters' gender-related social behaviors in different age categories of E/I
A sample of programs was selected from the mandatory three-hour educational
core from five broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, and WB) airing in the
Metropolitan Buffalo, New York market. Given the objectives of the study, only
those programs which featured narrative story lines and included social
interaction as a vital plot element were analyzed.
Included in some stations' educational core were several animated shows which
featured fantasy and/or animal characters with unclear gender designations.
Because the primary focus of this study was on character behaviors categorized
by gender, these ambiguous programs were excluded from analysis.
Taking the above criteria into consideration, only eleven E/I programs
remained. Three consecutive weeks of these programs, which aired in summer,
1997, were analyzed resulting in 33 episodes. All programs were 30 minutes in
length. The specific programs making up the sample were: Saved by the
Bell--The New Class, Hang Time, California Dreams, Sweet Valley High, Bailey
Kipper's P.O.V., C-Bear and Jamal, Bobby's World, The New Adventures of Doug,
The New Captain Planet, Life with Louie, and Ghostwriter.
Each program was analyzed at the level of the individual scene (defined as a
sequence of related shots in which there was no change in location or break in
continuity of time). Given the above group of programs, this provided 733
scenes for analysis. Specifically, for each scene, each foreground character
(defined as a character whose speech or action served an important plot
function) was coded for their gender, presence in the scene, social behavior,
whether they were a major or minor character, and whether they appeared in a
"young" or "old" program. Major characters were defined as "regular" characters
who had recurrent roles on the program. These were the characters who appeared
week after week and whose personalities and characteristics were most developed
within the program. Minor characters were characters who appeared in only one
"Young" shows were those with an intended age range of 6 to 11 (as specified in
each program's FCC-required objectives). "Old" shows were those with an
intended age range of 12 to 16. Of the eleven programs in the study, 7 were
young shows, 4 were old.
Eight categories of social behavior (adapted from Sternglanz & Serbin, 1974)
were scored. These were:
Construction To plan and carry out one's own plans. To build, to overcome an
Dominance To influence or control others. To persuade, prohibit, dictate. To
lead, direct, restrain. To organize the behavior of a group.
Aggression To assault or injure purposively. To harm, blame, ridicule, threat,
Deference To follow directions or example (imitate) of leader. To admire or
Autonomy To resist influence or coercion. To defy an authority or seek
freedom. To strive for independence.
Harm Avoidance Tendency to avoid physical pain. To withdraw or flee from
injury. Includes "startle" or "fear" reactions.
Dependence To seek aid, protection, sympathy, or information to carry out a
project. To cry for help. To be dependent.
Nurturance To nourish, aid, or protect another. To express sympathy.
Using the consistency of previous findings in content analyses of television
programming and in child development research (see Ruble & Ruble, 1982; Williams
& Best, 1982), as a guide for gender-stereotyping, each behavior was
categorized as stereotypically "male" or "female."
Therefore, construction, dominance, aggression, and autonomy were aggregated and
labeled "male" behaviors while deference, harm avoidance, dependence, and
nurturance were aggregated and labeled "female" behaviors.
Two coders trained on the use of the above coding scheme by coding a sample
episode, comparing results, and discussing. This procedure was repeated for
four episodes which were not used in the study. Of the 33 episodes included in
the study, eight were randomly selected and coded by both coders. These eight
episodes were used to determine a measure of intercoder reliability. On the
behavior variables for each character in the sub-sample, intercoder agreement
ranged from 92% to 95%.
Representation by Gender
Coding resulted in 161 total foreground characters (100 in young shows, 61 in
old shows) with males outnumbering females 95 (59%) to 66 (41%). In the young
shows, males outnumbered females 58 (58%) to 42 (42%). In the old shows, males
outnumbered females 37 (61%) to 24 (39%). When only major characters were
counted in the young shows, males outnumbered females 25 (60%) to 17 (40%), and
in the old shows, males outnumbered females 17 (57%) to 13 (43%). Thus the
ratio of males to females remained surprisingly consistent at roughly 60:40
regardless of show age range or major/minor status of characters.
A more significant difference became evident when the behaviors per scene (bps)
variable was compared among major characters. The difference between males and
females for bps was greater in young shows. In these programs, major male
characters averaged 2.3 bps while females averaged 1.5 (t=3.68, df=40, p<.001).
In the old shows, major male characters averaged 1.7 bps while females averaged
1.5. This difference was not as great and was not statistically significant.
These results suggest that while the ratio of males to females remained roughly
the same between young and old shows, the amount of activity differed. In young
shows, the difference between major male and female characters' amount of
behavior was significantly greater than that of their old show counterparts.
To reveal differences in stereotyping of males and females, their social
behaviors (calculated as average behaviors per scene [bps])were compared in two
different ways: Across gender for both young and old shows, and across program
age range for both males and females.
Aggregated Social Behaviors Compared Across Gender (see TABLE 1)
In the young shows, both males and females exhibited significantly more
stereotypic behavior than the other gender. On average, males exhibited almost
twice as many "male" behaviors as females, and females exhibited more than twice
as many "female" behaviors as males. In the older shows, there was a
significant difference between males and females in exhibiting "female" behavior
with males averaging .5 bps and females averaging .9 bps; however, there was no
significant difference between males and females in exhibiting "male" bps.
Aggregated Social Behaviors Compared Across Program Age Range (see TABLE 2)
Among female characters, there was no significant difference between young and
old shows. Females in both young and old shows exhibited female stereotypic
behaviors at roughly the same rate. Among male characters, however, those in
young shows exhibited significantly more male stereotypic behavior than those in
old shows. Male characters in young shows exhibited 1.4 "male" bps and those in
old shows exhibited only 1 bps.
Results of the comparisons of social behavior across both gender and program
age range suggest that males are the only characters to escape gender
stereotyping, and then only in the
older shows. Males in younger shows and females in all shows remain stereotyped
in their social behaviors.
Individual Social Behaviors Compared Across Program Age Range
To get a more specific picture of the differences between males and females
across young and old shows, their social behaviors were also compared
individually. To do this each character's rate of a given behavior was
expressed as a percentage derived from the following formula:
number of occurrences of a given behavior for character "X"
total number of all character "X's" behaviors
There was no significant difference between young and old program females on
any of the social behaviors. Among males, however, there were several
significant differences (presented in TABLE 3). Males in old shows were more
likely to exhibit deference; and less likely to exhibit construction,
aggression, and harm avoidance than males in young shows.
The first hypothesis--which stated that among E/I programs for young children,
the majority of shows will be for and about boys--was at least partially
supported by the results dealing with gender representation. While males did
outnumber females by roughly three to two in the young shows, this ratio stayed
relatively consistent for the old shows as well. However, when the total amount
of behavior for these characters was measured, it was found that in young shows
major male characters exhibited significantly more behavior than females, while
in old shows this was not true. This offers some evidence that males play a
more dominant role in programs intended for younger children.
Further evidence to support the first hypothesis can be gained by simply
examining the lead characters and titles of the programs under study. Six of
the eleven programs had titles indicating a bias in gender representation
(Bailey Kipper's P.O.V., Bobby's World, Life with Louie, C-Bear and Jamal,
Captain Planet, Doug). All of these programs had a single male lead character
and all of them were in the young age category. The four programs making up the
old age category contained ensemble casts with no single central character
(Saved by the Bell, Hang Time, California Dreams, Sweet Valley High). There
were no E/I programs with a female as the central character. The gender bias
represented by both the young shows' titles and main characters suggests that
males play a more important role in them, and offers further support for
The analysis of gender-related behaviors yielded different results for males
and females. Using the aggregated "male" and "female" behaviors as a measure of
gender stereotyping, it was found that both genders were stereotyped in both
young and old programs; however, males in old programs were stereotyped to a
lesser extent than their young program counterparts. Young program males
exhibited significantly more "male" behavior than those in old programs. Among
female characters, however, there was no significant difference between young
and old programs. Females in young and old shows exhibited female stereotypic
behavior at roughly the same rate.
These results partially support the second hypothesis which suggested that E/I
programs intended for young children would be more gender stereotyped than
programs intended for teens. This hypothesis was supported for the male
characters but was not supported for female characters who remained stereotyped
equally in young and old programs.
Analysis of individual behaviors revealed a more specific picture of how males
in old programs differed from males in young programs: They exhibited less
construction and aggression--two stereotypical male behaviors, and more
deference--a stereotypical female behavior. These differences suggest that male
characters in the old programs were able to break out of the traditional male
stereotype to a certain extent. They became less traditional in terms of gender
stereotyping. Males in old programs also exhibited less of one stereotypic
female behavior--harm avoidance, an attribute which would initially appear to
make them more traditional in terms of gender stereotyping.
One explanation which would address the above findings and the apparent
exception to them, may lie in an examination of the structures and plots of the
programs. Most of the programs in the young age category featured a single male
central character--typically a young boy of elementary school-age. The plots of
the shows tended to focus on the experiences of these boys in and around their
schools. Typical plots dealt with run-ins with school bullies, parents, and
teachers--all confrontational situations in which characters were placed in
positions of "harm" (as defined in this study). On the other hand, old show
plots, set primarily in high schools and featuring ensemble casts of males and
females, dealt primarily with romance and relationship problems. There were
fewer situations in which characters were placed in "harm" in these programs.
It only makes sense then that males in the old shows exhibited less harm
avoidance simply because they had less of an opportunity or need to avoid
The differences in plot lines as noted above also offers an explanation as to
why males in old programs exhibited significantly less "male" behavior. Because
the stories of these programs dealt with romance and relationship issues,
characters had to use cooperation to a greater extent in resolving the plots.
Female characters, who in young programs were already equipped with behaviors
such as deference to others and nurturance toward others, could operate
effectively in these types of stories. Males on the other hand, who were
equipped with attributes such as aggression, influencing others, and overcoming
obstacles in young programs, were forced to change to become effective elements
of the old program plots. Males in old programs were forced to exhibit more
"female" and less "male" behavior to function and take part in the resolution of
these plots, whereas females could retain their traditional social behavior
Considering this difference from a television producer's standpoint, it makes
sense then to allow male characters to break from traditional stereotyping while
keeping females locked in to their more traditional roles. Such an arrangement
works well in the types of plots typically offered in the programs intended for
teenagers. However, taken from a child development viewpoint, this difference
is quite alarming in two respects: First, in the consistent presentation of
gender stereotyped characters in programs aimed at young children, and second,
in the unequal presentation of gender stereotypes in programs aimed at teens.
As discussed in the first half of this paper, child development theorists
suggest that children first become aware of their own gender at an early age and
develop their sex-roles throughout early childhood. This time period
corresponds to the intended age range of the "young" E/I programs. Given the
potential importance that television role models play in children's sex-role
development, it is alarming that children are consistently exposed to highly
gender-stereotyped television characters at arguably the most important point in
their own sex-role development. It is at this young age when children are
learning what is socially accepted of and expected from them as girls and boys,
and the television characters they watch are certainly very powerful role models
for these attributes.
While teenage males are given slightly less stereotyped role models in the old
E/I programs, teenage girls are stuck with the same old thing. They are
consistently presented with the same gender stereotyped female characters who
were present in the shows they watched as young children. They also witness a
gender inequity between how males and females are allowed to act. As the male
characters "grow up" from young to old programs, they become more fully
developed and are given more latitude in their social behaviors. Female
characters on the other hand remain equally stereotyped regardless of the age
range of the intended audience.
A final observation concerning the potential effects of gender stereotyped
behavior in E/I programming concerns the classification of these programs as
"educational." The fact that these shows must satisfy the FCC-defined
educational and informational needs of children may lead to a
"stamp-of-approval" perception among the public. The programs are identified as
educational/informational (E/I) in television program listings and carry a
notice at the beginning of the show to notify viewers of this categorization.
Because of this labeling, parents may be more willing to allow and even
encourage their children to watch such shows. Such unquestioning support may
only enhance any negative messages to which children are exposed.
It was not the goal of this study to question whether E/I programs are
educational; the goal was to suggest that they are in fact more educational than
we realize. Children learn many more lessons from television than are proposed
in an educational program's written objectives. Unfortunately one of these
lessons is a reinforcement of conventional gender stereotypes. Even more
unfortunate is the fact that this message seems to be strongest at precisely the
time in a child's life when he or she is actively seeking sex-role information
and forming attitudes which may influence behavior later in life.
While gender stereotyping is very complex and there are many ways that it is
presented through television messages--this study examined only one:
gender-related social behavior. While it may seem to present a limited window
for examining such a diverse issue, the study of characters' behavior in
relation to one another presents a unique opportunity. Gender stereotyping at
this level is very subtle. As opposed to obvious character traits such as
occupation, family role, and physical appearance, social behaviors, as measured
by this study, occur very inconspicuously. The majority of viewers, whether
children or not, probably do not take notice of them. This kind of latent
information could be the most harmful because it is impossible to be critical of
that which we do not consciously notice. It is hoped that results from this
study will make clear the importance of examining television programming at a
very subtle level and emphasize the point that often the most inconspicuous and
seemingly unimportant information can convey very powerful messages. It is also
hoped that this study will encourage parents to take an active role in examining
the programming which they allow and encourage their children to watch,
regardless of how it is labeled.
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TABLE 1: Aggregated Social Behaviors Compared Across Gender
Behaviors Per Scene
Behaviors Per Scene
TABLE 2: Aggregated Social Behaviors Compared Across Show Age
Behaviors Per Scene
In Young Shows
In Old Shows
Behaviors Per Scene
In Young Shows
In Old Shows
TABLE 3: Individual Male Social Behaviors Compared Across Show Age
Behaviors for Male Characters
Rate (%) of Behavior
In Young Shows
In Old Shows