Girls, Media, and the Negotiation of Sexuality: A Study of Race, Class, and Gender in Adolescent Peer Groups

Article excerpt

This study examines how peer group activity and social context affect adolescent girls' interactions with mass media.1 The study consisted of a five-month field observation of middle-school girls from varying race and class backgrounds. The data analysis showed that the peer context was one in which gender identity was consolidated via reference to mediated standards of femininity and sexuality, though these standards differed according to race and class factors. It is concluded that the peer group is of crucial significance: interventions such as media literacy efforts cannot be effective unless they are sensitive to peer group functioning around issues of race, class, and culture.

Adolescence for girls in the United States has been characterized as "a troubled crossing," 2 a period marked by severe psychological and emotional stresses. Recent research indicates that the passage out of childhood for many girls means that they experience a loss of self-esteem and self-determination as cultural norms of femininity and sexuality are imposed upon them.3

Much attention has been paid over the last decade or more to the role of the mass media in this cultural socialization of girls:4 clearly, the media are crucial symbolic vehicles for the construction of meaning in girls' everyday lives. The existing data paint a disturbing portrait of adolescent girls as well as of the mass media: on the whole, girls appear to be vulnerable targets of detrimental media images of femininity. In general, the literature indicates that media representations of femininity are restrictive, unrealistic, focused on physical beauty of a type that is virtually unattainable as well as questionable in terms of its characteristics, and filled with internal contradictions. At the same time, the audience analysis that has been undertaken with adolescent girls reveals that they struggle with these media representations but are ultimately ill-equipped to critically analyze or effectively resist them.

These studies are linked to the considerable body of research documenting adolescent girls' difficulties with respect to issues such as waning self-esteem,5 academic troubles,6 negative body image,7 conflicts surrounding sexuality,8 and other issues related to girls' development. Although the majority of these studies were conducted with upper-middle-class White girls, some of them take into account the impact of race, ethnicity, and class on girls' experiences of adolescence. These findings indicate that-contrary to popular belief-girls of color and girls from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are very hard hit by adolescence and have fewer available resources for help with problems like eating disorders, pregnancies, or depression.9

Bearing these issues and their implications for girls in mind, this study seeks to broaden and deepen our understanding of the role of the mass media in girls' socialization, with a particular emphasis on the context in which this socialization takes place. New theories of child development contend that socialization is context-specific and that the peer groups of childhood and adolescence are responsible for the transmission of cultural norms as well as the modification of children's personality characteristics.10 However, most of the research done to date on adolescence and mass media does not take into account the peer group dynamics involved in media use, nor the race and class factors that might influence these processes.

The key question in this study, then, is how peer group activity and social context affect adolescent girls' interactions with mass media, especially in terms of their dealings with issues of gender and sexuality. This study consisted of a long-term participant observation of middle-school girls combined with in-depth interviews with the girls and their teachers. A significant aspect of the study is that the girls were from sharply varying race and class backgrounds, and these factors were crucial components of the analysis. …