Examining Media's Socialization of Gender Roles

Do the media create, or maintain, or reflect the gender-based roles that saturate our environment? If you picked "All the Above," you and I would have filled in the same oval on our imaginary multiple-choice bubble answer sheets.

Promoted very consciously and carefully taught to us throughout our lives, "gender roles" (sometimes called "sex roles") include the set of socially defined roles and behaviors assigned to the sex assigned to us at birth. This can and does vary from culture to culture. Our society recognizes basically two distinct gender roles. One includes the "masculine," having the qualities and characteristics attributed to males, and the other, the "feminine," having the qualities and characteristics attributed to females. A third gender role, rarely condoned in our society, at least for those assigned "male" at birth, is "androgyny," combining assumed male (andro) and female (gyne) qualities.

A fairly simple way to remember the differences between "sex" and "gender" is to consider "sex" as a noun and "gender" as a verb (a repeated action). According to social theorist Judith Butler in her 1990 book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity:

The act that one does, the act that one performs, is, in a sense, an act that has been going on before one arrived on the scene. Hence, gender is an act, which has been rehearsed, much as a script survives the particular actors who make use of it, but which requires individual actors in order to be actualized and reproduced as reality once again. (p. 272)

So back to the media, which comprises a social institution that casts actors in performances on this stage who rehearse, learn, "actualize and reproduce" the gendered scripts handed to them long before they entered the scene.

Let's investigate two companies, for example, analyzing how the actors perform their scripted television commercial roles.

I am particularly struck by the relatively recent series of commercials created by the La Quinta Inns and Suites chain. All of the four scenarios profile businessMEN who, after spending a comforting stay at La Quinta, perform exquisitely well in their respective business presentations by "getting his ducks in a row," or by "taking out all the stops," or by "thinking outside the box," or by "bringing home the bacon." In the latter scenario, the businessman literally bowled over and buried his waiting and expectant wife with an enormous truck load of bacon.

Another series of commercials that particularly caught my attention was produced by Depend Shields and Guards for Men. A brawny Tony Siragusa shouts out over the television screen that for men "who leak a little," using Depend Shields and Guards for Men will "guard your manhood." Siragusa reminds us that he "has been around some of the toughest guys in football," and advises the leaking men in the audience to use "man-style protection" and to create "man space" in their bathrooms replete with a dart board and darts, bowling ball, free-standing weights, poker chips, table ice hockey set, and a humungous sports trophy. For further training by the former football star, guys need to connect to the web at "guardyourmanhood.com."

As one scrolls down, a series of objects jump to the fore (a set of billiard balls, guitar, boxing gloves, and, of course, boxes of Depend Shields and Guards. Tony's video "Know Your Gear" appears for the viewer to begin the "training."

Using his deepest of deep voices, "First, let's talk about the tools of the trade." Reminding the guys that "Ladies have their own stuff," while he grabs and lifts a white flowered basket filled with brightly colored, primarily pink, products, he sternly warns: "See this? This is for girls. This is NOT for you!," as he forcefully hurls it to the floor. Pointing firmly with both hands (no hint of a limp wrist showing) to the boxes of Depend: "This is for guys... This is made for men! You don't see any pink do you? No girly package."

In a following "training" video, he helps guys determine which type of Depend to depend upon. Picking up a golf ball and crashing it into the bathroom glass window, "If you've got a little leakage, like this, you probably want to go with the Shields....If there's more than a little bit..." Siragusa flings darts at a dart board, "... like that, you probably want to hit up the Guards."

Scrolling down further, a couple of darts fly across the screen on their own (symbolic?), table tennis paddles, and, of course, various balls (symbolic?) appearing interspersed with additional videos for viewing in sequence, picking up where the last left off.

The television commercials for Depend for Women, on the other hand, emphasize primarily appearance by demonstrating that this form of "protection" transforms virtually undetectably under women's garments, including a stunning red evening gown, and even beneath a tightly fitting dance outfit while the dancer performs a wild cha cha cha.

A number of critical questions need addressing in these two series of commercials. In the first, why does the company and advertising agency project men only as representatives of business travelers? What does this indicate about gender-based roles constructed by our society? What messages does it covertly as well as overtly send to boys and men, and also, to girls and women? What impact may it have on boys and men, girls and women's self-esteem and decision making? What implications does this have on women in the workplace in terms of hiring, advancement, and levels of salaries compared to men?

The second series, while seemingly more like Saturday Night Live parody television commercials, raises a number of issues as well. Upon this humanly devised and regulated binary, then, how does our society determine or define so-called "manhood" and "womanhood"? How are these constructed? How are they maintained? How are they measured? What does it mean to "Man Up," or to "Take it like a man," or to "Be a man," or to "Talk man-to-man"? What does it mean to "Act like a lady," or to "Be ladylike"? Is one considered to have lost one's "manhood" if one leaks from either of the two orifices inside one's under pants? Is one considered "unladylike" by displaying a visible panty line? What are the rewards for upholding our socially scripted roles, and what are the penalties and punishments doled out for those who transgress unintentionally or willingly?

No matter how we respond to these questions, the fact remains that we as individuals and as a society should be expected to critically, reflectively, and creatively investigate and analyze the media rather than simply absorb them at face "value." Not only must our schools help equip students with communication literacy skills, but also they must actively teach skills of media literacy to empower students in deconstructing, analyzing, and reflecting upon the media images and messages that bombard them like atmospheric microwaves on a daily basis.

Maybe then will we all exhibit proficiency in "thinking outside the box."