Mean Girls? the Influence of Gender Portrayals in Teen Movies on Emerging Adults' Gender-Based Attitudes and Beliefs

By Behm-Morawitz, Elizabeth; Mastro, Dana E. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Mean Girls? the Influence of Gender Portrayals in Teen Movies on Emerging Adults' Gender-Based Attitudes and Beliefs


Behm-Morawitz, Elizabeth, Mastro, Dana E., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


This two-part exploratory study utilized a social cognitive theory framework in documenting gender portrayals in teen movies and investigating the influence of exposure to these images on gender-based beliefs about friendships, social aggression, and roles of women in society. First, a content analysis of gender portrayals in teen movies was conducted, revealing that female characters are more likely to be portrayed as socially aggressive than male characters. Second, college students were surveyed about their teen movie-viewing habits, gender-related beliefs, and attitudes. Findings suggest that viewing teen movies is associated with negative stereotypes about female friendships and gender roles.

Research examining the effects of media exposure demonstrates that media consumption has a measurable influence on people's perceptions of the real world, and, regardless of the accuracy of these perceptions, they are used to help guide subsequent attitudes, judgments, and actions. For example, these results have been yielded for viewing media representations of race,1 the mentally ill,2 and the elderly.3 Past research additionally indicates that watching televised gender portrayals has an effect on individuals' real-world gender-based attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.4 Based on this research, and the tenets of social cognitive theory, it would be expected that consumption of teen movies would have an analogous influence on audience members' gender-based attitudes and beliefs. Despite the popularity of teen movies, the influence of such films on emerging adults has not been examined. This is particularly surprising given the upsurge in popular media coverage devoted to scrutinizing gender portrayals in these films.5 The present study explores this issue in two ways. First, the manner in which gender is depicted in teen movies is systematically documented. Second, the extent to which exposure to these images influences emerging adults' beliefs about gender and female relationships is empirically examined.

Effects of Mediated Gender Portrayals

According to Bandura's social cognitive theory, media messages serve as a meaningful source for the acquisition of "gender-linked knowledge and competencies" and the development of expectations of gender roles and conduct, self-evaluative standards, and self-efficacy beliefs.6 It is argued that individuals adopt gender characteristics in part by monitoring the rewards and consequences associated with others' behavior. Thus, representation of female characters in the media would be expected to play a role in viewers' perceptions regarding gender identity, which may ultimately influence attitudes and beliefs about appropriate gender roles.

The period of life referred to as emerging adulthood is a particularly unique phase of identity development/ during which time media messages may serve as one source of information used to make life choices. The increased independence and freedom emerging adults experience is thought to contribute to their heightened relational and work explorations." The lion's share of research on gender identity development, however, has focused on adolescents rather than emerging adults. Although the influence of teen movies on adolescent consumers is of import, the popularity of this film genre among emerging adults suggests that the impact of exposure on college students warrants consideration. Accordingly, the present study examines the influence of teen movies on emerging adults as the messages offered in these movies may provide examples of gendered behavior that subsequently guide real-world judgments about gendered friendship behaviors.

Teen Queens of the Big Screen

According to a 2005 New York Times article, "In recent years, girls have been increasingly portrayed in everything from serious journalistic studies to light comedies like 'Mean Girls' as tyrannical, bullying and devoted to a ruthless caste system."' This focus on the "queen bees" of female teenage friendships seems to dominate teen film portrayals of girls, when, in reality, this stereotype of the "mean girl" does not reflect the true variety in female friendship roles and the positive attributes of these friendship networks. …

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