A groundbreaking research study, “If He Can See It, Will He Be It? Representations of Masculinity in Boys’ Television,” finds that male characters on the most popular TV shows for boys (7-13 years old) are portrayed as aggressive, uncaring, and as hands-off parents. The report launched today by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media at Mount Saint Mary’s University, in collaboration with Promundo and the Kering Foundation, is part of a series of new research and resources from the Global Boyhood Initiative. The research was presented during a launch event on June 23rd featuring Kering Foundation Board Director Salma Hayek Pinault, Institute Founder and Chair Geena Davis and Actor along with Actor and Advocate Justin Baldoni, Advocate Wade Davis, and Actor and Political Activist Joshua Rush.
Much of the existing research on gender representation in children’s television has focused on girls and women, and for good reason – female characters are typically underrepresented and shown in highly stereotypical ways. Far less is known about depictions of masculinity in contemporary children’s programming. This new report aims to fill that gap by examining messages about masculinity in TV popular among boys ages 7-13, drawing from a dataset of 3,056 characters from 447 episodes. It also provides recommendations for how media-makers can have a positive impact by creating diverse and healthy representations of boys and men onscreen; and how parents can support these efforts.
The report reveals that the most prominent stereotype about masculinity depicted in children’s television is of boys and men as aggressors: In boys’ favorite TV shows, male characters committed 62.5% of violent acts against another person, compared with 37.5% of acts perpetrated by female characters. This portrayal of aggression is particularly true for male characters of color, who are less likely to express an emotion other than anger to other male characters (7.0% compared with 14.5%), revealing the perpetuation of a harmful racial stereotype.
On the whole, male characters are shown as more stoic than female characters, keeping even positive emotions to themselves: Male characters are less likely than female characters to express empathy (22.5% compared with 30.6%) and even happiness (68.3% compared with 75.2%); and when it comes to romantic relationships, men of color are less likely to be shown communicating with an intimate partner.
Although male characters are equally likely as female characters to be depicted as parents, they are less likely to be shown engaging in hands-on parenting duties (4.5% compared with 7.7%); and when they are depicted as fathers, male characters are less likely to be shown as “very competent” parents than female characters (3.9% compared with 7.5%).
"For 12 years, the Kering Foundation has worked to combat violence against women and has empowered women around the world in an effort to achieve equality. We have seen that what started as a dialogue has recently turned into action. Two years ago, we understood that this new focus on women has raised a lot of questions for men and as we redefine the perception of femininity, we arrive at the question of how does it affect our perception of masculinity. We find that to achieve equality we have to equally hear both sides, continue the dialogue and work together in a path of evolution” - Salma Hayek Pinault, Academy Award nominated actress and Director of the Kering Foundation
The lingering presence of these long-standing stereotypes in television is not surprising, it mirrors other social pressures boys and men may encounter: Promundo’s study, The Man Box, found that 72% of young men (18-30 years old) say they’ve been told that a real man behaves a “certain way”: “real men” are often defined as self-sufficient, tough, stoic, physically attractive without effort, engage in high risk behaviors, are heterosexual, and value paid labor but not caregiving.
“We know that boys receive – and absorb – stereotypical messages about what it takes to ‘be a man’ from an early age. If they embrace these ideals, it can have long-term impacts, our research finds that they may be: less likely to have close relationships, more likely to have poorer mental health, and more likely to use violence later in life. […] If we want to create a gender equal, nonviolent future, we need men in particular to model vulnerability, connection, and respectful relationships, on and off screen.” - Gary Barker, President and CEO of Promundo
The study also finds that there are no LGBTQIA+ characters or characters with disabilities in leading roles in the most popular boys’ television shows. When it comes to racial parity, while people of color make up 38.0% of the U.S. population, and 36.0% of leading characters, the shows in this study too often repeat racist stereotypes about men of color.
“Media representations of masculinity – much like messages coming from friends and family – can have “real world” effects on the well-being and behavior of boys and men. Characters onscreen have the power to challenge limiting masculine norms in ways that support boys’ health and happiness. As a mother of two sons, I think it is vital that we do a better job for our boys in the portrayals of males that we show,” - Geena Davis, Chair and Founder of the Institute.
The good news is that there are positive findings to build on: When it comes to representation, leading characters are split nearly equally by gender: 49.6% of whom are female and 50.4% are male. The report reveals that female characters account for 68.0% of speaking time and receive 57.2% of screen time; and female characters are also more likely to be shown in positions of leadership (40.8% as compared to 36.3%) than male characters. This indicates that boys are consuming content with female characters – including female characters in positions of power.
The report provides recommendations to improve healthy representations of men and boys on screen, including to: avoid common stereotypes about men and parenting; allow male characters to express a full range of emotions – and to ask for help; represent alternatives to violence; and commit to inclusive storytelling.
Parents can also support their children’s exposure to positive masculine norms by aiming to: find media and television shows that challenge gender norms and identify healthy or positive role models; call out stereotypical depictions of manhood when they see them; and maintain an open dialogue and actively reach out to boys with help and support. The older children get, and the more platforms become available for TV viewing, the harder it can be to restrict the content they are exposed to. Parents can help to prepare boys to navigate the media landscape by maintaining a continuous dialogue about the media they like and consume.
We all have a role to play, in creating a gender equal, nonviolent future. We need all adults—including parents and content-creators, and men in particular—to model vulnerability, connection, and respectful relationships, on and off screen.
To learn more on how action can be taken in this matter, find a toolkit with tips for parents and adults in boys’ lives as well as tips for content creators below.
About the Report:
In this report, representations of masculinity of analyzed from the most popular boys’ television programs from 2018. The project began in 2019 and made use of available data from 2018. The study examined the top 25 Nielsen-rated television programs among boys ages seven to thirteen. The television dataset includes a total of 3,056 characters from 447 episodes.
Read the full report here.
About the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media at Mount Saint Mary’s University
Founded in 2004 by Academy Award Winning actor Geena Davis, the Institute works collaboratively with the entertainment and media industries to reduce negative stereotyping and to achieve cultural equity and inclusion onscreen. We are the only research-based organization examining representation of six identities: gender, race, LGBTQ+, disability, age, and body size. For more information on our research, training and impact visit www.seejane.org.
Founded in Brazil in 1997, Promundo works to promote gender equality and create a world free from violence by engaging men and boys in partnership with women, girls, and individuals of all gender identities. Promundo is a global consortium with members in the United States, Brazil, Portugal, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Chile that collaborate to achieve this mission by conducting cutting-edge research that builds the knowledge base on masculinities and gender equality; developing, evaluating, and scaling up high-impact interventions and programs; and carrying out national and international campaigns and advocacy initiatives to prevent violence and promote gender equality. For more information: promundoglobal.org
About the Global Boyhood Initiative
Together, Promundo and the Kering Foundation, are developing the Global Boyhood Initiative. Launching in the United States and expanding globally in partnership with Plan International, the Global Boyhood Initiative will reach adults in boys’ lives and equip them with tools and resources for raising, teaching, coaching, and setting an example for boys to become men who embrace healthy masculinity and gender equality. The Global Boyhood Initiative will include: a digital and media campaign; an interactive platform featuring evidence-based approaches, tools, and content; and a global network of organizations supporting and engaging boys (ages 4-13) and their families. Learn more: www.BoyhoodInitiative.org