Boys to men: tools and messages to look for gender equality in media

Published: Thursday, Feb. 7 2013 9:16 a.m. MST

Gender roles are a tough issue for some educators to tackle.

Colin Stokes, director of communications for a nonprofit group and a father of two, delivered a TED talk at the beginning of January on the messages on gender roles sent by protagonists in children's movies.

"The movies are very, very focused on defeating the villain and getting your reward and there's not a lot of room for other relationships and other journeys," Stokes said of kids' movies.

There is a message sent, but somehow the most important messages aren't really being sent to boys, he said. This gives girls plenty of lessons on certain gender roles, while sending boys less in-depth looks at their roles, he said.

"They are doing a phenomenal job of teaching girls how to defend against the patriarchy, but they're not necessarily showing boys how they're supposed to defend against the patriarchy. There are no models for them," Stokes added.

Ultimately, Stokes believes that boys need to be shown and taught a new definition of manhood — not simply one of traditional manliness, but also not one in which women do it all.

"The definition of manhood is already turning upside down. I mean, you've read about how the new economy is changing the roles of caregiver and wage earner," he said. "So our sons are going to have to find some new ways of adapting to this new relationship with each other.

"I want fewer quests where my son is told, 'Go out and fight it alone,' Stokes said. "And I think we really have to show them and model for them how a real man is someone who trusts his sisters and respects them and wants to be on their team and stands up against the real bad guys."

Common Sense Media, an organization educating parents on how to teach their children about healthy and positive media consumption, has a tool specifically to help teach children about gender roles in the media — the Gender and Media Toolkit to help teach kids about the relationship between gender and media.

"From the moment we're born, we're taught what it means to be a boy or a girl and how we're expected to behave, based on our gender," says the online introduction for the toolkit. "One of the most influential teachers of these expectations is the media."

The toolkit illustrates ways to best educate children in all age ranges when it comes to digital life and gender roles, which is important since "gender informs all of the content we create," according to CSM.

Increased television consumption for boys — specifically Caucasian boys — strengthens self-esteem, defined as an overall feeling of self-worth, according to a study in May 2012.

"While the study focused solely on how the amount of time spent in front of the TV affects a child's self-esteem, the programs likely are what gives white boys a confidence boost," said Amy Jordan, of the University of Pennsylvania, in a CNN article on the study.

"Boys making the transition from elementary to middle school are probably exposed to superhero cartoons including, 'Superman,' 'Batman,' 'X-Men.' The lead characters of these shows tend to be male," Jordan said.

And though producers and creators of television shows have been working in more recent years to show more strong female and diverse characters, there is still a disconnect with gender roles, according to the study.

Mandy Morgan is an intern for the Deseret News, reporting on issues surrounding both family and values in the media. She is a true-blue Aggie, studying journalism and political science at Utah State University, and hails from Highland, Utah.

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