Sex-Role Stereotypes in TV Programs Aimed at the Preschool Audience: An Analysis of Teletubbies and Barney & Friends

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Abstract: This essay suggests that new television programming aimed at one- through five-year-old children has the potential to influence gendered behavior early, as gendered expectations are formed. We analyze depiction of gender and messages about gender expectations in two popular preschool programs, Teletubbies and Barney & Friends, both aimed at children ages two through five. We conclude that some change in portrayal of sex-roles to a preschool audience is happening through Teletubbies and Barney & Friends. However, this change is mostly opening up accepted behavior for boys, while sex-roles are primarily being reinforced for girls.


From birth, children quickly learn that a great deal of their lives have to do with masculinity and femininity. Though many environmental factors influence construction of gender in children, "Nothing in biology labels behaviors as right or wrong, normal or abnormal. Any stereotypes we impose on children--and by extension, adults--are purely cultural, not biological" (Blum, 1999, p.1). Oskamp, Kaufman and Wolterbeek (1996, p.1) argue one of the most important lessons that young children learn is socialization into expected gender roles. These lessons are taught unintentionally and intentionally by parents and teachers, yet also learned from the mass media, to which children are exposed daily. As has been proven, a significant source of cultural gendered messages is television, perhaps most powerful for children who watch up to an average of four hours daily (McKenna & Ossoff, 1998). Television programs set powerful standards for children's behavior and as Vande Berg (1991) argues are, "designed to exnominate yet evoke, activate, reference, and occasionally challenge mainstream social myths, policies, and beliefs, including those concerning gender."

A constant theme in all of the television sex-role research is the common definition of a sex-role stereotype. A sex-role is a set of activities deemed to be appropriate for one sex but not the other, and is determined by social norms or attributes (Basow, 1980; Busby, 1974; Durkin, 1985; Kagan, 1964; Tuchman, 1978). A stereotype exists when actions are thought of as simply masculine or feminine and tend to be resistant to change (Abercrombie, Hill, and Turner, 1988; Basow, 1980). That children's television represents the sexes in stereotyped roles is well established (Barcus, 1983; Chu & McIntyre, 1995; Durkin, 1985; Grusec & Brinker, 1972; Signorielli, 1991; Thomson & Zerbinos, 1995). Sex-role stereotypes in children's television programs have been researched since the late 60's, with an abundance of studies in the late 60's until the early 80's. After a ten year decline, there has been a resurgence of interest. Much of this research has concentrated in the areas of children and advertising, what children understand about television, and children and violence (Abelman & Atkin, 2000; Lemish, 1997; Signorielli, 1990; Smith, 1994). Of the studies that examine sex-role stereotypes in particular, many are dated (Basow 1980; Busby 1974; Durkin 1985; Kagan, 1964; Tuchman 1978) yet stand the test of time to be the studies most contemporary researchers draw from. More contemporary research has confirmed that television does reflect predominately stereotypical gendered characters in occupations while also showing more male than female characters (Bretl & Cantor, 1988; Craig, 1992; Lovdal, 1990). According to Signiorelli (1990) in the Sourcebook on Children and Television, "The majority of women in television have not really changed during the past two decades; society has undergone numerous changes, and while things are not perfect, they are greatly improved" (p. 80).

Researchers agree that children establish sex-roles very early in life and that television contributes to creating sex-role expectations (Barcus, 1983; Frueh & McGhee, 1975; Maccoby & Jacklin, 1974; Miller & Reeves, 1976; Signorielli, 1990). …