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Local Newspaper Highlights Summer Research

Student/faculty study gender stereotypes in children's programming

7/14/2008 9:17:42 AM


Excerpt reprinted with permission by the Lynchburg News & Advance .

By Christa Desrets

Published: July 12, 2008

‘It will be challenging’

The three sat in front of a television, straining their eyes in concentration for hours at a time.

Play. Pause. Write down observations.

Rewind. Play again.

For watching cartoons, it was serious business.

“After two episodes you start to zone; attention really goes (away),” said Randolph College psychology professor Holly Tatum. “You’re watching very intently. It’s not like watching TV, it’s like doing an observational study.”

The three-member team this summer studied more than 50 episodes of children’s cartoon shows and coded them for instances of gender stereotypes.

In the fall, they hope to test their findings on local children and see whether clips of the shows can affect how boys and girls perceive each other.

“That next step will be to test the notion that being exposed to these images may have some short-term change in attitudes and beliefs about males and females,” Tatum said. “It’s one thing to summarize, and the second part will be – does it really matter?”

She and rising psychology juniors Anu Thapa and Laura Phillips studied nine programs currently running on four networks – everything from “Kim Possible” on the Disney Channel to “Arthur” on PBS and “The Fairly Odd Parents” on Nickelodeon.

They picked shows targeted to roughly 5- to 7-year-old children, and grouped them according to whether the lead characters were male, female or a mixed group.

“All these female leads, when you watch them, it’s like the girl always has someone she has a crush on,” Thapa said. “Even the meanest of the ‘Powerpuff Girls,’ she has a crush on some guy. When you watch male leads, you don’t really see much of that.”

Those shows tend to characterize a boy’s relationship with a girl as competitive, she said.

And the shows with mixed leads tend to show a more friendly, realistic relationship between genders, Tatum said.

The group watched more than 50 episodes – and often found the theme songs stuck in their heads – while coding each one for instances of verbal abuse, gender segregation, hypersexualized clothing, flirting and more, Phillips said.

The group finished their work for the summer earlier this month.

In the fall, Tatum hopes to observe a group of local children watching the shows, to see if their attitudes toward the opposite sex are affected.“If you can manipulate that in an experiment in a few minutes, then clearly watching these on a regular basis would change the beliefs and expectations and attitudes about gender,” she said. “It will be pretty difficult to come up with an experiment because clearly, they are already exposed to this.

“It will be challenging. It will be fun.”

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CONTACT: Brenda Edson, Director of College Relations


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