Busting the Holiday Gender-Fest

How Barbies, Hollywood, and fruit flies push gender stereotypes

‘Tis the season for gender enforcement. This is a time of year when we venture forth to buy gifts for kids and are surrounded by action heroes and Barbies, pink toy ovens and blue toy trucks, fully clothed Santas and scantily clad female helpers. What we buy for children demonstrates what we expect them to aspire to and to be like as they grow up. 

There is nothing wrong with a girl liking a doll or a boy liking a truck, but the converse is also true. Our little junior humans should get to be themselves, to have choices in who and how they want to be, not be gifted into stereotyped expectations: they already get enough of that pushed on them by popular media and misrepresentations of science.

We can navigate around myopic gender expectations, but it is not easy. Hollywood and fruit flies stand in our way.

We know that what people regularly see on the big screen, television, tablet, and smartphone, influences the way they see themselves. Sometimes we forget how forcefully our 24-hour a day media envelope pushes a reality of extreme gender differences.

A recent study, supported by the Geena Davis Institute on gender in the media in connection with the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California, analyzed over 11,000 speaking roles in hundreds of feature films and television shows from 2006-2011. It shows just how pervasive the media enforcement of gender stereotypes can be.

Some data: males are 2-3 times more likely to be in speaking roles than females, and males outnumber females 3 to 1 in family films (the same ratio as in 1946). Females are almost four times as likely as males to be shown in sexy attire, and about 36% of females are shown as thin, whereas only 16% of males are. From 2006 to 2009, no female character was depicted in a family film in the field of medical science, as a business leader, in law, or politics, and overall the vast majority of jobs such as politicians, high level executives, investors, district attorneys, chief justices, doctors, were filled by male characters. Across the study, 80.5% of all working characters were male and 19.5% female.

Females are also underrepresented behind the camera: of 1,565 media content creators, only 7% of directors, 13% of writers, and 20% of producers are female. So maybe it is no wonder that only a third of speaking characters are female or that only slightly more than a third of narrators in film or television are female.

But wait, aren’t these patterns of gender difference just a part of human nature? 

No, they are not. There is NO biological reality that supports the notion that females direct, write, work, act, speak, or narrate less effectively than males. These media patterns don’t even reflect many of our daily realities (women are 50% of the workforce, not 19.5%!).

Many of these stereotypes about how males and females differ are not rooted in biology but rather in myths about what the science tells us. Not surprisingly these myths often fit better with our cultural perceptions, those pushed by powerful media presentation of gender stereotypes, than with what we know about the evolution of sex differences. It turns out that those critters that circle the left over fruit cake, the fruit flies, played a role in the origin of these misunderstandings about the science behind gender.

A famous study on fruit flies sixty-four years ago reported that the main difference in the sexes is that females invest a lot in eggs and males very little in sperm. This became the central theme of the assumption that reproduction is costly for females and cheap for males, which leads to major evolutionary differences in behavior, wants, and desires between the sexes. This assumption has inspired decades of theories about why men and women differ, which are often invoked to support the “naturalness” of our gender stereotypes. Turns out, that this assumption is not fully true, or at least it is not at all that simple

In a recent blog Barbara King reminds us about the strong link between science and society when it comes to propping up gendered behavior. She reviews work by Patricia Gowaty and colleagues demonstrating that the basic fruit fly study underlying just how different males and females are, was wrong. Over the past decade a number of researchers (like Zuleyma Tang-Martinez) have also demonstrated that the basic concept that males and females are totally different due to the differential costs of reproduction is a dramatic oversimplification. Unfortunately, in spite of this recent research the idea that females are burdened by reproduction while males are carefree (and promiscuous) providers of sperm is still presented as valid, and continues to be invoked in support of the notions of gender in our own species. We believe females are nurturers caring for babies, wanting dolls, and preparing for motherhood, and males like to compete, play aggressively, and not prepare for fatherhood. In reality the story is much more complicated.

I am not saying that gender differences are not present and are not important or that biology plays no role in differences between males and females. They are and it does. It is just that much of our gender expectations come not from our biology but from our cultural beliefs, perceptions, and practice.

Why is this particularly important in the holiday season? As Geena Davis states, “If she can see it, she can be it.” Many gender patterns are not hard-wired or even based on biological processes, they are produced and shaped by the culture we create and exist in: what we see affects how we think the world is. So think about the gift you are giving and what it tells the child about her/himself. We should use the joy of gift giving as a chance to enable children’s’ flourishing, as opposed to locking them in to a tired set of unimaginative gender constraints.

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