New Media, Old Themes: Sexualization in Children's TV Shows

New Media, Old Themes: Sexualization in Children's TV Shows

By Elizabeth McDade-Montez, PhD | March 28, 2017
Senior Research Associate, ETR

TV is not what it used to be. Over the past decade, we have seen a range of new methods of content delivery (Netflix, AmazonVideo, Hulu), new ways of watching (bingeing on favorites, catching short segments on YouTube, checking out cute kittens suggested by friends on Facebook), and new ways of calculating ratings.

Unfortunately, although television platforms have clearly modernized over time, television themes and stereotypes around gender and sexuality have not. I recently conducted an analysis of popular children’s television shows to quantify the amount of sexualizing content within these shows. My findings were disturbing.

McDade-Montez, E., Wallander, J., Cameron, L. (2016). Sexualization in U.S. Latina and White girls preferred children’s television shows. Sex Roles. doi: 10.1007/s11199-016-0692-0.

What Is Sexualization?

Sexualization is the process whereby characters are portrayed and treated in an overly sexual manner. Typically, these characters are women and girls. Sexualization can occur through conversations, comments, glances and touches from others, and also in the way in which female characters dress and behave.

My research goal was to quantify the amount of sexualization in television shows popular among girls ages 6 to 11. I looked at a random sample of 3 episodes from the 10 most popular children’s television shows, for an overall sample of about 30 different television episodes.

My team and I coded over 60 different sexualizing behaviors, ranging from sexualizing comments from others, to participating in beauty contests, to dressing in revealing clothing.

Common Examples of Sexualizing Behaviors in Children’s Media
  • Wearing clothing that reveals or exposes sexualized body part
  • Animal-type behaviors (e.g., crawling, purring)
  • Performance-related occupation where appearance is emphasized (e.g., background dancer, beauty product salesperson)
  • Move, reposition, grab, or otherwise physically treat individual as an object rather than a person
  • Unwanted sexual touching, kissing, hugging, caressing, etc.
  • Comments about weight, weight loss, fatness, etc.

What the Research Revealed

I found that sexualization was present in every episode that was coded. Female characters were significantly more likely to be sexualized than male characters. There was an average of 24 instances of sexualization per episode.

Findings: 10 Most Popular Children’s TV Shows
  • Female characters were much more likely to be sexualized than male characters.
  • We found an average of 24 instances of sexualization per episode.
  • A broad range of sexualizing content was present, including sexualizing comments, body exposure, self-sexualizing physical behaviors and activities, sexualizing physical behaviors toward others, and more.

The most common forms of sexualization included self-sexualizing behaviors, such as wearing revealing clothing or heavy makeup, but there were also instances of more aggressive forms of sexualization, including sexual harassment and unwanted sexual touching.

Why Should We Care?

A number of researchers have documented that what children are exposed to through media affects a variety of health behaviors including sexual activity, substance use and aggression.

For example, exposure to sexualizing content in media predicts intercourse initiation and dating violence victimization. It’s also associated with a greater acceptance of dating violence and sexual harassment among youth and adults.

In addition, it is theorized that viewing sexualized media causes women and girls to internalize these beauty standards and gender roles, leading females to self-objectify, or view the self as sexual object. A recent study found that level of engaging with Disney Princesses via media and products predicted female gender-stereotypical behavior one year later.

What Can We Do About It?

Parents, educators and children can take steps to counter messages of sexualization. Adults can teach children to value others for who they are, rather than for their looks. Adults can also encourage and provide activities that emphasize talents and abilities rather than appearance.

Parents can pay attention to what their children watch and voice their concerns and opinions with their children’s choices. For example, if your child wants to watch a show that you feel is sexualizing, share your thoughts and have a conversation about these ideas.

Educators can work with media literacy resources that help children and youth build skills to identify a range of sexualizing and other effects from media. Teachable moments—students talking about a popular movie or TV show, for example—can offer wonderful opportunities for rich discussions and practice in analytic skills.

Children and youth themselves can put skills in media literacy to work in real-life situations. This might involve children speaking up when friends or peers perpetuate sexualized stereotypes from popular media; having students pursue media awareness projects in school or community settings; or children taking steps to boost their own self-esteem, focusing on who they are and what they can do, not how they look.

All adults—parents, educators, friends and neighbors—can model the types of values and behaviors we hope to see in children. And we can all advocate for the types of images we hope to see in popular media.

What More Is There to Learn?

There are a number of unanswered questions about the effects of sexualization in the media. We still do not fully understand the psychological processes by which viewing sexualizing media leads to behavior change. We also do not understand which forms of sexualization in media might be the most negative or harmful for children.

We also need more research to identify the best ways to empower children, families and communities to resist sexualizing messages. Teaching children media literacy skills and teaching parents how to effectively monitor what their children watch are two approaches that might help empower and protect children from sexualizing media.

I know that there is much work left to be done, and I look forward to continuing my work on sexualization in children’s media at ETR.

For More Information

Note: This post is an updated version of a post from February, 2015. Watch a video of Dr. McDade-Montez discussing her research here.

Elizabeth McDade-Montez, PhD is a senior research associate at ETR. She can be reached at liz.mcdade-montez@etr.org.

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