TV Fights: Women and Men in Interpersonal Arguments on Prime-Time Television Dramas

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Interpersonal arguments are the subject of considerable research (e.g., Benoit, 1983; Buss, 1989; Canary et al., 1988; Trapp, 1989; Yelsma & Brown, 1985) focusing on various aspects of argument. The present study contributes to this research through a content analysis of interpersonal arguments in prime-time television dramas. The research question guiding this project asks how women and men, as members of dyads, were presented in interpersonal arguments. Two theoretical assumptions pilot the study. Media socialization theory posits media consumers learn certain behaviors by identifying with and modeling the attitudes and actions of television characters (Jeffres, 1986). Some feminist theorists similarly argue that gender-based behaviors are learned through the socialization process; hence, women and men are taught to behave in feminine and masculine ways (Donovan, 1988; Garskof, 1971). Given these theoretical assumptions, this study addresses four key questions: What behaviors of interpersonal conflict are represented in prime-time television dramas? How do women and men characters argue? What do they argue about? How do they resolve their conflicts?

This study focuses on television representations of interpersonal arguments. Section one provides a review of research in sex-role socialization, interpersonal arguments, conflict issues, strategies of conflict resolution, and media socialization theory. Section two explains the content analysis method. Section three provides the results, and section four discusses the implications of the results.


The following section reviews the research laying the foundation for this content analysis. Sex-role socialization, interpersonal conflicts, conflict issues, strategies for conflict resolution, and media socialization theory each will be addressed.

Sex-role Socialization

Women and men learn certain behaviors and attitudes are expected of them because they are women or men. Gender-role expectations are communicated in many different ways: through parents, organizations, peers, and the mass media. People are taught, generally speaking, that women should behave in a "feminine" way: passive, affectionate, gentle, kind, soft-hearted, dependent, nurturing, understanding, other-oriented. Conversely, men learn to behave in masculine ways: aggressive, confident, independent, rational, self-oriented. Studies indicate individuals accept these gender definitions and apply them in making personal judgments about others (Cowan & Stewart, 1977; Karabetian & Smith, 1977; Richardson, 1981). Indeed, a widely-used psychological instrument, the Bem Sex Role Inventory, assumes these sex-role differences to be recognizable (Bem, 1974).

Gender-based socialization inherently affects every aspect of people's lives, including interpersonal arguments. Within these conflicts, one possible response is physical aggression. For the most part, interpersonal aggression is socially disallowed in the United States. This general attitude, however, is delineated for women and men. Women are taught their "rage is inappropriate. It is not 'nice' to get angry or violent. It is not 'ladylike'" (Schaef, 1981, p. 86). Given that women are discouraged from using aggression, they are unlikely to use it as a means to resolve interpersonal conflict. Men are taught a different lesson. Many studies reveal that boys are more likely to manifest aggressive behavior (Lott, 1981, p. 49). Moreover, such behavior is "winked" at and accepted according to the adage that "boys will be boys. …