In TV for Tween Girls, Appearance Still Counts

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Female characters focused more on looks and being attractive than male characters on shows aimed at eight to 12 year olds.

That’s the conclusion from a new study that found even if girls were doing the same things as boys, they still had to look attractive.

The report, published in the journal Sex Roles by investigators at the University of Missouri and the University of Delaware, looked at gender portrayals in 49 episodes of 40 different shows that aired on popular tween channels such as the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network in 2011 in the two main tween genres — teen scene, directed at girls, and action/adventure, aimed at boys. They found that in action/adventure series, boys outnumbered girls more than three to one and that boys had a range of looks, not all of which were always attractive. There were no unattractive girls portrayed in any of the shows, whether for the male or female audience. Moreover, girls were portrayed as being concerned with their beauty, working at it, and often receiving comments about it.

These findings are worrying  for several reasons, says study co-author, Ashton Gerding, a doctoral student in communication at the University of Missouri. For boys, seeing so few girls in the world of action and adventure may lead them to think males are more important. For girls, the message is that no matter what else you do, you have to be good-looking. “Only attractive girls can appear in these shows,” says Gerding. “That is culturally created.”

The authors and adolescent experts find such media portrayals potentially more harmful than gender stereotyping in adult programming. For one thing, tweens watch more television than any other group, between 4 1/2 to 5 hours a day. They are also at a particularly vulnerable age when it comes to forming their sense of self, which they often model from the society and culture that surrounds them.

“The “tween” period is one in which children learn ‘what is cool, who is cool and how to be cool,’” says Ramel Smith, a licensed psychologist at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. This is the period, he says, when they are creating identities separate from that of their parents, and are looking for a guide from the culture and their peers.

It is also a time of physical changes and awkwardness that can make kids self-conscious about their bodies. Girls can feel especially anxious about these changes, says clinical psychologist Jennifer Powell-Lunder. “These shows do a disservice to these girls because they prey on these feelings of vulnerability and awkwardness.”

That makes both boys and girls at this stage more impressionable, less experienced and critical. “Adults, “says Smith, “are more stable cognitively and can distinguish (usually) reality from fantasy. However, for most of these children, these constructs and images are forging their realities.”  For this reason, the study authors argue that this age group should be given media literacy training to help them view what they see more critically. Parents, they say, can help their children do this by watching TV with them and talking to them about their impressions.

Another complicating factor in tween programming, cultural observers point out, is that the characters on these shows are generally played by actors who are older, usually 16-19. “Frequently, young adults that are far past the days of pimples and braces portray teens in high school,” says Aeva Doomes, a board certified child psychiatrist. This mismatch is one of the factors that can make these shows a “minefield,” she says, for a young girl’s feeling of self-worth. Pubescent girls are already focused on their attractiveness, so media that reflect these tendencies feed off each other, sometimes in a negative cycle. “These issues of appearance are a concern for tween girls, but they become a greater concern the more they are exposed to media that makes it a concern,” says Isaiah B.  Pickens, a clinical psychologist in New York City who works with children and teens.

While some culture scholars believe that this focus on beauty and perfection for women is an especially American obsession, others see it as more global. “Cultural preferences for attraction show up in every international market, “ says Kristine Weatherston, a media studies professor at Temple University. “Putting attractive people on television occurs globally because TV is a visual medium and human beings pay more attention to what we find attractive.”

At least if you’re female.  The good news from the study is that in programs for both boys and girls, girls were represented as being just as brave and true and smart. They could be tech wizards or courageous rescuers of children or kittens. They just had to make sure their lipstick was on straight first.