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Community and Family Studies

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This report seeks to determine what influence television may have on the development of children’s understanding of gender roles and their own gender identity. It provides a critical review of the available evidence concerning this issue. Whilst focusing on the role of television on child socialization many other environmental and biological influences are detailed. It explores the biological, social and cognitive development theories that are believed to influence gender role development in children. The complex relationship that exists between television and gender identity is demonstrated.

This research project consists of a survey of 47 children from year 1, year 3 and year 5 and their guardians. Also completed was an observation of the most popular television show within this group, “The Simpsons”, in conjunction with critical reviews of secondary research. Through these methodologies and secondary research it has been possible to explore the question “What role does television play in child gender role development?”

The outcomes of this research were that television does reflect gender role stereotypes and these have the potential to effect children. From the questionnaires correlations between the amount of time spent watching television and the child’s gender role development are demonstrated. It is also evident that children are influenced by their admiration of particular characters on television. We can also note that the role of television is not necessarily negative and can result in a broader view of gender roles.

It is apparent that more research must be conducted, and it is recommended that this occurs on a larger scale to be representative of more individuals. An effective methodology should be developed which eliminates the majority of other factors influencing gender role development, so that television can be specifically isolated. As such, the research has simply shed light upon the possible effects that television may have upon children’s concepts of gender roles.

Body of report


How children learn and acquire gender roles is a topic which has recently gained increased interest. To what extent the environment influences children is a question common to many individuals. If the environment is seen to be influential, there is the potential for humans to be affected by the constant bombarding of information often obtained from television. It is quite possible for this information to shape gender role acquisition. A recent Australian study showed the most popular of all activities for children was watching television or videos, with 98% of children participating.

It was also found that each child spent on average 22 hours a fortnight participating in these activities1. From such statistics it seems inevitable that television will play an important role in developing the vulnerable and impressionable minds of children. The increased accessibility of television sets within households and the growth of mass media will only exacerbate this effect. Television has the potential to provide an image for what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in society. In its portrayal of ‘normal’ life, it reflects many important social roles, one of these being gender.

Of the many variables that influence a child’s understanding of gender, television is one of the most misunderstood. While television has been unjustly identified as uniquely responsible for many social problems such as obesity, violence and sexuality, its role is often overlooked or perhaps underestimated in areas such as gender-role development in children. Due to the increased amount of time children are watching television it would seem unwise not to pay some attention to it.

For these reasons the research question ‘What role does television play in gender role development?’ was chosen. This question relates to the “Individuals and groups” and “Families and communities” chapters in the HSC preliminary course. The substantial amount of secondary information, and the topics potential for primary research was a contributing factor to the choice of this topic. This topic question will be answered by researching the factors which affect child gender role development and will be supported by primary research. The goal of this research project is to offer some understanding into the multifaceted implications of television on the lives of children, in terms of gender role development.

Definition of Key terms


“Gender is the primary category by which individuals identify themselves as well as being identified by others.”2 “The word gender describes the (biological) condition of being male, female, or neither. Gender comes from Middle English gendre, from Latin genus, all meaning “kind”, “sort”, or “type”.”3

Sex “Sex is a biological term which refers to the functional differences between males and females and their reproductive potential.”4

Gender Role “The term Gender role is used to signify all those things that a person says or does to disclose himself or herself as having the status of boy or man, girl or woman, respectively. It includes, but it not restricted to, sexuality.” “It is the adoption of masculine or feminine behavioural traits that are deemed appropriate or characteristic of a particular gender.”5


An individual between the age of 5 and 146

Development “Development is a significant event, occurrence, or change. It is the act of progression from one stage to another.” 7

Gender role development

“The process whereby children come to acquire the behaviors, attitudes, interests, emotional reactions, and motives that are culturally defined as appropriate for members of their sex.”8

Literature review

In order to determine the role of television in gender role development it is necessary to review the existing information and research previously conducted. Current theories in which television might be considered in the acquisition of sex roles must be addressed. There are three main theories that will be discussed; these are ‘Biological Development Theory’, ‘Social Learning Theory’, and ‘Cognitive Development Theory’.

‘Biological Development Theory’

The biological theory suggests that people are born with intrinsic gender roles. According to this view, ‘prenatal exposure to androgen influences the development of gender identity – the feeling an individual has of being a man or a woman.’9 This theory of gender-role development argues that women are born with ‘feminine identities’ and are naturally suited to roles such as mothering, and housekeeping. Whereas men are ‘natural’ hunters whose role is one of dominance.10 We can deduce from this theory that television will have no influence on the gender role development of children. According to this theory, the gender stereotypes on television are simply reflecting the social behaviours as they are in reality. Consequently the research carried out in this project, would be unlikely to support this theory.

Social Learning Theory

Some believe that it is environmental aspects which account for sex role acquisition. One theory that agrees with this is the ‘Social Learning Theory’. Among others Albert Bandura is considered the leading proponent of this theory. Bandura’s ‘Social-cognitive Theory’ is a more recent version of social learning approaches that highlights the active role of children in their observational learning. This theory believes that “we are psychosexually neutral at birth and that socialization is responsible for the development of gender identity.”11 It emphasizes that behaviour is learnt by a set of ‘learning principles’. These are observation, reinforcement, imitation and modeling. The ‘Social learning theory’ explains human behavior in terms of continuous equal interaction between cognitive, behavioural, and environmental influences. In terms of acquiring the concept of gender, ‘Social Learning theorists would argue that this occurs by the child observing gender-typed behaviour, having it reinforced through attitudes and

example, until the child imitates it and eventually adopts it.’ 12 Bandura (1977) states “Learning would be exceedingly laborious, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do”13. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling. From observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action.”14 The role of television in gender role development of children becomes a concern in terms of this theory. In this context, television becomes one of many factors that can contribute to sex role development.

Evidence relating to this theory is rather contradictory. Bandura (1966) concluded that children were more likely to imitate same-sex models and that the imitation was intensified if reward was given. Wolf (1973) found evidence to support this and discovered that children even imitated their gender role model when the models behaviour was not stereotypical. At the same time Barkley (1972) found the reverse to be true. He concluded that children imitate behaviour appropriate to their own sex regardless of the sex of the role model. Supporting the concept that children have already learnt sex-appropriate behaviour.

Parents are around children constantly, providing them with specific role models. They can influence what the child understands from what they see on television15. Grusac and Brinker (1972) considered the role of parents and found that children attend equally to all models, but imitate the same-sex models because they are reinforced for doing so. Thus if parents are constantly praising the actions of ‘traditional’ gender role characters on television, it is likely that the child will also adopt these beliefs and behave in that manner.

Cognitive development

Lawrence Kohlberg (1966) is one of many to propose a cognitive development theory for gender role acquisition. While recognizing the importance of observational learning, Kohlberg presented a very different account of how children come to understand and enact gender roles. In Kohlberg’s words his theory “assumes that basic sexual attitudes are not patterned directly by either biological instincts or arbitrary cultural norms, but by the child’s cognitive organization of his social world along sex-role dimensions” In other words the cognitive developmental approach takes into account the role that the child has in the process and argues that the attainment of gender roles is slightly dependant upon the child’s cognitive understanding of their social environment.

Kohlberg, and other proponents of this approach, argue that children develop a sense of gender identity in a sequence of distinct stages, an idea developed by Jean Piaget’s work on cognitive development. The Kohlberg sequence of gender identity development involves three stages: 1. The child identifies as male or female. 2. The child recognizes that gender is stable and does not change. 3. The child realizes that gender is permanent and consistent.

From the cognitive development perspective, television could play a role as a source of information for children constructing their gender roles and social understanding. Thus if television characters portray biased or stereotyped gender roles, that is what such a child will be likely to adopt.

Research into gender by cognitive development theorists suggests that the influence that television can have on gender roles depends upon which of the three stages of cognitive development the child is at. The results of a study conducted by Van Evra (1984) indicated that younger children perceived the stereotypical portrayals on television as similar to real life, whereas older children tended to recognize the stereotypes. Slaby and Frey (1975) found that children of six years of age were more likely to focus on the same sex models observed in films. One could argue that the cognitive development theory is perhaps the most effective when looking at a topic such as this, as it takes into account a wider amount of variables.

Interesting and relevant Case Study

Tannis McBeth Williams (1985) conducted a study in Canada to examine the impact of television on a community which had previously had no television reception. She also did control studies at a town with a single television channel, and one with four broadcast channels and cable. They studied the town twice: once before television came to the town (Phase 1) and again after it had television for two years (Phase 2).

She tested the sex role attitudes of a number of children who lived in the community both in phase 1 and then phase 2. In this study each child was given a list of characteristics (e.g. honest) and then chose whether these were more typical of boys and fathers or girls and mothers. A lot of differences would indicate strong sex-typing.

In Phase one she found that children in a community where there was television were more sex stereotyped than the children in the community who had no television. She found in Phase 2 that those introduced to television after two years were significantly more gender stereotyped than they had been before. This evidence suggests that television plays a significant role in gender role development.

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