Constructing Gender Stereotypes through Social Roles in Prime-Time Television

Article excerpt

According to screenwriting guru Syd Field (1994), characters inhabit professional and personal roles. A character's professional life reveals what that character does for a living. A character's personal life reflects her or his romantic relationships and friendships. Through the enactment of these roles, prime-time characters reveal their most basic social functions as breadwinners, spouses, and friends. Social role theory suggests that knowledge of these basic roles provides the content for gender stereotypes (Eagly & Steffen, 1984).

A substantial body of research has documented the gendered way in which female and male characters play social roles (Signorielli, 1982; Signorielli & Kahlenberg, 2001). This study updates this research by examining the enactment of interpersonal and work roles on prime-time programs airing on the six broadcast networks during the 2005-06 season. The current study also extends previous research by examining how the gender of writers and creators working behind the scenes may be related to the gendered social roles of characters.

Building Gender Stereotypes Based on Social Roles

Stereotypes offer generalizations "about people on the basis of their group membership" (Donelson, 1999, p. 40), often maintaining and reinforcing the power of the in-group while subordinating members of out-groups (Fiske, Xu, Cuddy, & Glick, 1999). Traditional gender stereotypes posit that men represent the ideal or norm against which women are judged. As such, women become the perpetual other, valued primarily in their relations to others, men in particular (Donelson, 1999). When multiple programs across the broadcast and cable spectrum repeat these gendered roles, they assume the air of truth and credibility (Merskin, 2006). Traditional portrayals of women thus serve the dual purpose of seeming "natural and normal," while simultaneously perpetuating the gender hegemony (Merskin, 2006, p. 5).

Social roles are the things "people do in daily life" (Eagly & Steffan, 1984, p. 735). These roles range from childcare and other domestic chores to workplace activities. Prior research has examined how fulfillment of these roles signals predispositions toward communal versus agentic goals (Bern, 1974; Spence & Helmreich, 1978). "Agentic qualities are manifested by self-assertion, self-expansion, and the urge to master, whereas communal qualities are manifested by selflessness, concern with others, and a desire to be at one with others" (Eagly & Steffen, 1984, p. 736). Prior research reveals that observing women in lower status positions than men in workplace and domestic settings feeds these stereotypes (England, 1979; Scanzoni, 1982).

The social role perspective argues that the "observed distribution" of women and men into social roles such as interpersonal and work roles underlies gender stereotypes (Eagly & Steffen, 1984, p. 749). "Because the content of gender stereotypes arises from perceivers' observations of people's activities and these activities are determined primarily by social roles, gender stereotypes ... arise when women and men are observed typically to carry out different social roles" (p. 749). This approach suggests that social roles provide the substance, at least in part, of gender stereotypes (Eagly, 1987). In an experimental study, Eagly and Steffen found that only differences in social roles (homemaker vs. employee) accounted for the subjects' beliefs that women are particularly concerned with the well-being of others or communal and men are more assertive or agentic. In their study, "even extremely general information about a person's employment status caused subjects to revise their estimates of women's and men's communal and agentic qualities" (p. 750). Thus, knowledge of an individual's social role can profoundly influence gender stereotypes regarding that individual.

When applied to prime-time television programming, this literature suggests that the basic social roles assigned to female and male characters by storytellers are tremendously important contributors to the construction and maintenance of gender stereotypes. …