have you ever wondered...why the aisles in toy stores are color-coded (pink for girl toys and blue for boys)...why certain foods and drinks are marketed to women, while others are marketed to men ...why advertisements for pickup trucks use male voices and fast paced editing...why women are supposed to like romantic comedies while men are supposed to like action films?

key concepts

  • Sex is a system of classification based on a combination of biological and physiological factors (generally male or female). Gender refers to the cultural meaning that is ascribed to a person's sex (generally labeled masculine or feminine).
  • Masculinity and femininity are the terms that are often used to identify a set of characteristics, values, and meanings related to gender. In our society, the values tied to masculinity have been generally seen as superior to those associated with femininity.
  • From an early age, children are socialized and encouraged to perform specific gender roles and conform to gender roles. The repetition of gendered narratives and images in media has helped to shape these cultural norms around what it means to be a man or a woman, masculine or feminine.

the big picture

Media creates meanings about about gender, and plays an important role in the way we understand it as part of our identity, our history, our social institutions, and our everyday lives. Gender is a word we hear in everyday conversation. It is commonly used to describe an individual’s identity as male or female. However, the term “gender” is actually more complicated, and needs to be distinguished from one’s sex (male, female). 

Sex is a system of classification based on a combination of biological and physiological factors (genitalia, chromosomes, hormones, internal reproductive organs). Biology is not always distinctly male or female, as there are some who are born as "intersex," with some variations in chromosomes or sexual organs.

Gender refers to the cultural meaning that is ascribed to a person's sex. We can think of gender as a social construct, an idea, or ideology, a way of seeing. It is not set in nature like biology.  Because gender is a lens or social construct, it means different things in different parts of the world and at different times in history.

When we discuss gender, we use the terms “masculinity” and “femininity” to identify a set of characteristics, values, and meanings. The meanings of masculinity and femininity play a central role in how we understand people -- male and female individuals— and ourselves.

In Western society (that is, in countries like the United States and Western Europe) , we historically have adhered to certain ideas and values that define masculinity and femininity:

masculinity

femininity

  • strength
  • dominance
  • aggression
  • independence
  • empowerment
  • active
  • rational thought
  • production
  • breadwinner
  • subject
  • outdoors
  • technology
  • weakness
  • submission
  • compliance/vulnerability
  • dependence
  • disempowerment
  • passive
  • emotion
  • consumption
  • nurturer
  • object
  • indoors
  • nature

After examining these two lists, think about your own life. Do you believe that the characteristics associated with masculinity are seen as more valuable, less valuable, or equally valuable to those associated with femininity?

The important thing to remember is that masculinity and femininity are not only oppositional; They are also hierarchical. The values tied to masculinity, by and large, have been seen as superior to those associated with femininity.

This does not mean that men are superior to women; rather it suggests that the characteristics associated with masculinity are culturally valued above those associated with femininity. In our culture, we tend to value strength over weakness. We value being rational over emotional. We value independence over dependence.

Given that masculinity and femininity are embedded with cultural values and meanings, it’s important for us to think about how those meanings circulate in our everyday lives and the media. We need to consider the way our thoughts, values, and media representations are gendered—the way in which femininity and masculinity shape

  • who we are
  • how we are perceived
  • how we see the world and interact with it

gender in everyday life

Before we are even born, gender can become a key factor in shaping who we are.

Imagine your aunt was going to have a newborn baby boy, and you went out to buy your new baby cousin a gift. Do you think the baby's sex would influence what you purchased?

Clothing…..Toys….. Room décor…..

Many of these items are purchased based on assumptions about what it means to be a boy or a girl.  Girls get pink, flowers, butterflies, and dolls. Boys get blue, trucks and balls.

You might be asking yourself – why does gender play such an important role in shaping people, from such an early age? And was it always this way?

Not necessarily. Until World War II, for example, the colors pink and blue were not exclusively assigned to either sex. In fact, some sources from the early 20th century indicate that the social rules were reversed: boys wore pink and girls wore blue. This does not mean that gender did not matter in previous eras. Quite the contrary, it simply shows that our understandings of gender norms are socially constructed and can vary in different times, cultures, and contexts.

Assumptions about what is right or appropriate for girls and boys has an influence well beyond whether their room is painted pink or blue. Gendered assumptions often lead to very different codes of conduct.

Girls play quietly and gently, and it's ok for them to cry. By contrast, boys “rough house” and should always be tough, never showing emotion.

When boys and girls don’t adhere to these “rules” or assumptions, they may be criticized or ostracized. Children are therefore often socialized or encouraged to perform specific gender roles and conform to gendered norms.

These norms are circulating all around us. We see them acted out by our peers, family members, and role models. We see them in school, at work, in politics, and in the media.

why it all matters… food for thought

It may seem natural that men go to work and women stay home. It may seem natural that men are warriors and women are sex objects. It may seem natural because we see these images over and over again. These images are repeated in the movies and television we watch, the books we read, and in the conversations we have with friends and family. They become familiar, and we tend to treat them as if they have always existed as natural facts.

Often the roles men and women play in media echo and reinforce the ideas and values tied to masculinity and femininity (see above). Men and boys might take on the role of hero, protagonist, do-er, while females might be more passive or nurturing. When women do take on the hero role, they may simultaneously be objectified and sexualized. In the professional world, men might have more powerful jobs as politicians, athletes, corporate leaders, while women may take on more marginal roles or be valued for their appearance.

But are these representations and ideologies really “natural”?  It’s important to think critically about how gender plays a role in the way we produce and consume stories, images, words, and characters. This will help us gain a better understanding of the world around us, help us decide whether we think certain representations promote the types of values we believe in, and help us come up with ideas for how we might work to change things for the better.

As you look through the media examples on this site, use them along with this overview as building blocks and avenues to dig deeper into this facet of identity and ask questions. We might start by asking:

  • How are masculinity and femininity represented in the media?
  • What specific images and words contribute to our understanding of what masculinity and femininity mean?
  • Does the media make assumptions about what men/boys like and how they (should) behave? Are there similar assumptions made about women/girls?
  • What impact do such media representations have on real-life opportunities and possibilities offered men and women in their personal and professional lives?