The mass media influences all aspects of our lives, including the learning of gender roles. Newspapers and magazines, television, and film all have an influence on the way we view the roles of women and men and on the way we think they should behave.
Four decades ago, traditional women's magazines such as Good Housekeeping and Family Circle talked to women as though they were children who needed to learn the basics of how to care for their families. Today, magazines do not do this. However, they still tend to define the female role in terms of homemaking and motherhood (see cartoon below), and to offer beauty advice to help women attract men and please husbands. There are now a few less traditional magazines such as Ms. that show women in a range of roles and that cover a much wider range of topics. However, the more traditional magazines still dominate.
Television commercials have also, until recently, presented women primarily as sex objects and as housewives. Young sexy women were shown admiring older men who smoked a particular cigarette brand. Housewives were shown smiling joyfully about their clean bathrooms, or looking guilty for not using the right laundry soap to wash their husband's clothes. These days advertisers are more careful about the way they present women, and they are presented in a variety of roles. However, it is still quite common to see advertisements where beautiful young women are dressed in sexy clothes to sell cars or other products. One study also found that the changes are mainly on nighttime television, with daytime commercials still tending to portray women doing household chores (Craig 1992).
Prime-time television programs also often used to stereotype women. In past decades, women were usually shown as lovers, as mothers, or as weak, passive girlfriends of powerful, effective men. Today's TV programs are somewhat different. Women are more likely to be presented as successful and able to support themselves and their families, but the traditional stereotypes of women are still there. Even when women are shown to be successful professionals, the storylines suggest that they should be sexy as well.
Comic strips in the Sunday newspaper are another influence on gender-role socialization. In a content analysis of six Sunday comic strips, the researchers identified several themes. One of these was "if you are a woman and you want a happy home, do not have a career, and if you are a man, never marry a career woman" (Mooney and Brabant 1987, cited in Knox 1990).
Research shows that there has been very little change since the 1970s in the gender stereotypes that America's young minds are watching in TV cartoons. In the 1970s, male cartoon characters on TV outnumbered female cartoon characters by almost four to one. In 1997, researchers Spicher and Hudak videotaped and categorized 118 cartoon characters from popular Saturday morning cartoons and found the ratio had not changed.
They found that male cartoon characters were more prominent in the cartoon stories than female characters and were more interesting personalities. Male characters were powerful, strong, smart, aggressive, and so on. Occasionally there were female cartoon characters, but they were colorless and boring. Although women's occupations have changed considerably over the past decades, in these TV cartoons there were still only a very small number of females shown in nontraditional occupations such as doctors or police officers (Spicher and Hudak 1997).