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How To Fight Gender Stereotypes In The Media Your Kids Consume

Written by Katie Hintz-Zambrano & Caroline Knorr Of Common Sense Media

Photography by Sharareh Lotfi, Photographed by Maria Del Rio

If you haven’t been too vigilant when monitoring the movies and TV shows your kids are consuming, the sobering stats coming out of Common Sense Media might just change your mind. Entitled Watching Gender: How Stereotypes in Movies and on TV Impact Kids’ Development, the watchdog organization just released a hearty report on how media is affecting our children, and it ain’t pretty. All in all, media that upholds gender norms (for example: boys are strong, sex-obsessed, and shouldn’t express softer emotions, girls are soft, less capable, and should be extra concerned with their appearance) are limiting our kids’ relationships, career paths, and ideas about their self-worth (see the stats here).

In a nutshell, popular media more often than not perpetuates the idea that boys have more value than girls, that it’s okay for boys to use aggression, and that a girl’s value is tied to her appearance. The images and bias is so ingrained in media, that some parents have a hard time spotting it. But there are ways you can start to change the message, no matter what age your child is. Below, Caroline Knorr at Common Sense Media shares her sage suggestions for each age group.

Age: 2–6

At this age, kids:
*Learn their gender identities (that they’re a boy or a girl).
*Learn stereotypes about activities, traits, toys, and skills associated with each gender.
*Begin gender-typed play (girls “clean the kitchen,” boys “mow the lawn”).
*Need to hear your input in specific, not abstract, terms.

What you can do:
*Point out people from real life or TV that show there’s more than one way to “do” gender. Try a show such as Doc McStuffins and say, “I notice that Doc’s mom works full-time to support the family and that her dad stays home and takes care of the kids.”

*Comment positively on shows that equally value boys and girls. Watch Odd Squad together and say, “Otto and Olive are equal partners and rely on each other to solve cases.”

*Find shows that aren’t hyperpink or super-blue. Or, at least, balance out your kid’s preferences with shows such as Julie’s Greenroom, which uses a variety of hues, both on the stage sets and in the characters. The show also exposes some of the technical aspects of stage production, which teaches kids that shows are created by people and are only limited by imagination.

Age: 7–10

At this age, kids:
*Attribute certain qualities to men and women—for example, that women are more emotional and affectionate and men are more ambitious and aggressive.
*Associate specific occupations and academic subjects with each gender.
*Self-segregate based on gender—boys want to play with boys, and girls want to play with girls.
*Want some choice over what they watch but still respect parents’ input.

What you can do:
*Recognize characters who defy gender stereotypes. Check out a movie such as Big Hero 6 and say, “It’s OK to show when you’re sad—and boys shouldn’t be embarrassed to cry.”

*Praise characters who are instrumental to the storyline for what they do versus what they look like. Stream Project Mc2 on Netflix and say, “For the girls on Mc2, being good at math and science are more important than their appearance.”

*Seek out movies and shows with non-stereotyped characters—for example, female characters with realistic body types and non-aggressive male characters. Try a show such as Andi Mack where the characters wrestle with peer pressure to look and act a certain way to fit in.

Age: 11–13

At this age, kids:
*Feel self-conscious about physical changes and feel pressure to conform to cultural gender norms.
*Are intolerant of cross-gender mannerisms and behaviors.
*Are concerned about dating potential.
*Want to pick their own shows—and they’re often shows intended for older kids.
*Are more interested in peers than parents.

What you can do:
*Emphasize that worth and happiness don’t come from appearance (especially important for female characters) or from physical strength (especially important for male characters). Watch a movie such as Arrival and remark on the lead character being a female professor. Or try Billy Elliot, about an Irish boy who wants to be a dancer despite his father’s objections. Ask: “How do these characters go against what society expects of them?”

*Comment positively on healthy, supportive, and fulfilling cross-gender friendships and relationships. Try a movie such as Bridge to Terabithia (or read the book), which features an equal friendship between the boy and girl main characters. Discuss what makes them such good friends and what each one teaches the other.

*Talk about how transgender characters in movies and on TV are often the target of bullying. Try a show such as I Am Jazz about a transgender teen. Ask: “How did you feel when Jazz was bullied. If you knew her, would you defend her?”

Age: 14–17

At this age, kids:
*Mix with other genders and become more flexible about stereotypes.
*Become preoccupied with their future careers, as well as appearance.
*Want to learn gender-based expectations for how to behave in romantic and sexual situations.
*Choose what they want to watch and are willing to discuss abstract ideas (and don’t want to be lectured to).

What you can do:
*Look for shows that feature boys and men expressing their emotions in constructive ways, having diverse interests (other than only sex), and being kind or friendly to non-heterosexual characters. Check out This Is Us and point out how the fathers are shown as nurturing and thoughtful. Or watch The King’s Speech, about King George the VI, who must reveal his biggest vulnerability. Ask, “Can a man, or a boy, be both strong and sensitive?”

*Point out when female characters voice their own needs. Watch an ensemble show such as Brooklyn Nine-Nine and note how the female characters don’t defer to the men.

*Find characters who have non-gender-stereotypical professional aspirations (girls who want to be scientists and boys who want to be nurses). Consider a show like Bones, which features a strong female lead in a traditionally male-dominated profession.

For more ideas on what you can do as a parent or educator, check out Common Sense Media’s Watching Gender hub. Also check out Mother’s latest pieces on How To Raise A Feminist Son, The Best Feminist Books For Kids, Dolls For Boys: A Growing Market, and How Super Are Our Female Superheroes?

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