Stereotyping is a mental activity that is neither natural or necessary; however, due to laziness, upbringing or coincidental experiences (Lester, 1996, p.1), the stereotyping of individuals results in harmful generalisations that ultimately deny an individual’s ‘unique contribution to humanity’ (Lester, 1996, p.1). When the mass media engage in stereotyping, misleading representations concerning members from diverse cultural groups are confirmed. In this essay, a broad range of texts will be used to
examine the ways in which the mass media construct and reinforce social stereotypes around gender, ethnicity and age, as well as how the media shape one’s imagination though direct images.
It cannot be doubted that the media profoundly influence people’s attitudes and outlooks. They convey a whole variety of information which individuals would not otherwise acquire. Newspapers, books, television, radio, films, recorded music and popular magazines (Giddens, 1989, p.79) bring individuals into close contact with experiences of which we ‘would otherwise have little awareness’ (Giddens, 1989, p.
79). There are very few societies, in current times, even among the more traditional cultures, which remain completely untouched by the mass media. Electronic communication is accessible even to those who are completely illiterate, or in isolated areas of the world.
According to Juredini and Poole, gender usually refers to the ‘behavioural and attitudinal characteristics’ as well as roles that are learned and derived from a ‘particular cultural milieu’ (2000, p.171). An important source of gender information in a consumer society is television. Despite some notable exceptions, for example ‘Sesame Street’, most television shows continue to portray males and females in stereotypical gender roles (Sigorelli, 1990, citied in Newman, 2000, p. 136). In a recent study of television programs, male characters are more likely than female characters to occupy leadership roles and achieve them, as well as being portrayed as inquisitive.
In addition, they are more likely to be portrayed in a recognisable occupation, demonstrating to audiences that males are more career orientated and dedicated to work, and emphasising stereotypes that they are the traditional ‘bread winners’ of the household. Alternatively, females are cast into the role of the caregiver (Thompson and Zerbinos, 1995, cited in Newman, 2000, p. 136). Despite the fact that women make up a majority of the population, most prime time characters on television are male (Smith, 1997, cited in Newman, 2000, p. 136), and are still portrayed as powerful and rational. Women express emotions more easily and are more likely to be flirtatious in order to get their own way.
Similarly, in print advertising, women were seen to be in the home, being dependent upon men, and not making ‘independent and important decisions’ (Creedon, 1989, p. 249), and are often viewed by themselves and by others as sex objects. In addition, the symbols involved in advertising often have a more profound influence on social behaviour than the stated messages the advertising wishes to put forward. Thus, gender divisions are often symbolised in ‘what goes on in the setting or the background of a commercial’ (Giddens, 1989, p. 446), rather than what it is explicitly selling. In many advertisements, men appear mentally and physically alert, while women are shown gazing into the distance in a dreamy way (Goffman, 1979, cited in Giddens, 1989, p.446).
A central gender concern is that advertising is a ‘shorthand form of communication’ (Creedon, 1989, p. 249) that must make contact with the consumer immediately, in order to establish a shared experience or identification, and is most popularly undertaken through stereotypical imagery. In turn, these images form the ‘cores of [one’s] personal tradition, the defenses of [one’s] position in society’ (Creedon, 1989,
p. 249), thus reinforcing the social stereotype.
Children also receive gender lessons. Understandably, most research about the influence of television and the media has concerned children, given the sheer volume of their viewing and the ‘possible implications for socialisation’ (Giddens, 1989, p. 444). In their literary pursuits, books have the capabilities to teach children what other children do in their culture and what is expected of them. In a study undertaken in America analysing preschool books, boys played a ‘more significant role’ in the stories by a ‘ratio of 11 to 1’ (cited in Newman, 2000, p. 135). Together, boys were portrayed in adventurous roles or undertook activities that required independence and strength, whereas girls were likely to be confined to indoor activities and portrayed as ‘passive and dependent’ (Newman, 2000, p.135).
Similarly, the mass media construct and reinforce social stereotypes around ethnicity, particularly through their stereotypical images and portrayal of ethnic groups performing certain roles in society. Sociological approaches which attach particular importance to racism emphasise the limitations imposed on ethnic minorities by such hostility and discrimination (Haralambos and Holborn, 1995, p.688). The attention is not placed upon the ethnic minority itself, however on the wider society which is the minority group.
Negative stereotypes of African Americans in particular have been deeply ingrained in Anglo American cultures since Africans were brought into the country in chains (Lester, 1996, p. 21). The stereotypes served an essential purpose – they justified Anglo enslavement of Africans. Today however, the Anglos in America have been influenced by media images frequently seen on television and in newspapers of African Americans who are ‘violent, criminal, drug-addicted and on welfare’ (Lester, 1996, p. 21). As in Australia, Aborigines have been given similar treatment, however they have ‘expressed deep concern’ (Ericksen, 1996, p. 45) about the way they have been represented in the Australian media.
Through this, there has been considerably more Aboriginal presence in prime time television, particularly with programs outlining Aboriginal issues such as ‘Black Out.’ Despite such advancements, regular direct and indirect means of associating Aboriginal persons with criminality, irrational destructiveness and disorder frequently occurs in today’s media. Through words such as ‘riot’ (Ericksen, 1996, p. 46) in Aboriginal headlines and disturbing footage on television, audiences are influenced into constructing ethnic stereotypes of all persons belonging to that culture or group.
Corresponding with gender and ethnicity, the media construct and reinforce social stereotypes around age. According to Golman (cited in Lester, 1996, p.113), all too many television commercials fall back on stereotypes, showing the aged as feeble, foolish or inept, passing their time aimlessly in rocking chairs.’ Because seniors are a large and increasingly affluent market, one destined to grow larger as the 1950s baby boomers mature (Lester, 1996, p.114), advertisers should be sensitive to this group. If no sensitivity is used, some seniors may take out their anger and frustration towards images and advertising by ignoring or actively boycotting the product.
The mass media reinforce images of the aged through stereotyping, which inevitably engender fear among the elderly, labelling them as ‘sick’ or ‘too old’ for certain things. In many cases, older men are seen to have power, whereas older women as seen as weak. Such an example can be seen in the instance where an older chairman in an American television commercial was shown preparing to give a speech to his stockholders in a commercial for Coopers and Lybrand in 1993 (Lester, 2996, p. 90). Being an older woman is not so glamorous and well respected. If an older woman is not portrayed as loving grandmother, there is a good chance she will be portrayed as senile.
Despite the media’s reinforcement of social stereotypes among the aged, awareness could assist a better understanding of the elderly in particular. Advertising agencies and advertisers employ young people to write and prepare commercials. Most recent writers on this subject could conclude that ‘the age of the advertising producers is an important factor’ (Lester, 1996, p. 116) in creating the stereotypical images of age. Young creators working on senior accounts can be a problem, as they do not have the senior’s perspective, thus, engaging typically in stereotyping. Such hurdles can be overcome by consulting the large amount of research readily available on seniors, and by focusing on a group composed of seniors, which in turn will reinforce alternative views on age and aging.
It is also arguable that the media, instead of being seen as a ‘neutral umpire’ between competing interests and an efficient way of disseminating information, critical theorists argue that the media are ‘very much implicated in power relations’ (Juredini and Poole, 2000, p. 313) in society. The most critical view of the media’s operations represents the reading, listening and viewing public as victims of a ‘giant con trick’ (Juredini and Poole, 2000, p. 313), believing in a truth convenient for the powerful groups who describe and interpret the world around us, thus, reinforcing the social stereotypes.
The modern media of communication are similarly central to an individual’s life, providing many necessary information services as well as offering possibilities for self-enlightenment and entertainment. The media constructs and reinforces social stereotypes around gender, ethnicity and age around the images that are produced, and by the way they are capable of shaping the individual’s attitudes and beliefs. Despite such interpretations, it is the choice of the individual what they decide to consume from the diverse amount of information that is served openly to the public, and to eliminate misleading representations concerning members from diverse cultural groups.