Reality TV viewing is associated with increased support for traditional gender roles among adolescents

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Heteronormative stereotypes about how men and women should act in relationships are prevalent in our society and often depicted in popular media. New research published in The Journal of Sex Research found that heavy consumption of reality television is associated with greater endorsement of traditional gender role stereotypes in adolescents.

“Men are expected to actively pursue sexual relationships, to value women mainly for their physical beauty, and to avoid commitment and emotional attachment; conversely, women are expected to be sexually passive, to set sexual limits, to use their body and looks to attract men, and to prioritize emotion and commitment,” wrote study author L. Monique Ward and colleagues in reference to traditional heteronormative stereotypes. “These combined assumptions about the culture’s gender roles and sexual roles have been labeled gendered sexual scripts.”

Internalization of gendered sexual scripts (GSS) can have negative effects on adolescent well-being such as lowered self-esteem in girls and tolerance of sexual coercion or violence in boys. Scripted comedies and dramas, music videos, and reality TV are three genres were gendered sexual scripts are particularly prevalent. Although there is evidence that links regular TV consumption with greater acceptance of gendered sexual scripts in adults, the research on adolescents is overall mixed.

For Study 1, the researchers recruited a final sample of 574 high school students to complete an online survey. Participants indicated how much TV and how many music videos they typically watched. To measure genre specific TV consumption, participants indicated how much they had been exposed to 33 shows in each genre such as Keeping up with the Kardashians (reality TV) and Game of Thrones (scripted drama).

Participants then completed measures of the GSS variables: acceptance of heteronormative sexual roles (e.g., “The best way for a girl to attract a boyfriend is to use her looks.”), adversarial sexual beliefs (e.g., “Men are only out for one thing.”), and endorsement of traditional beliefs about gender roles (e.g., “Swearing is worse for a girl than a boy.”)

Results show some general gender differences such as girls reporting more viewing of scripted dramas and reality TV than boys and boys endorsing the GSS variables more than girls. Further analyses show that, regardless of gender, heavy reality TV show viewing was associated with stronger support for traditional gender and sexual roles. Also, higher music video viewing was associated with stronger endorsement of adversarial sexual beliefs, but only for girls. Scripted programming viewership was not associated with GSS endorsement.

Study 2 sought to address limitations of Study 1 namely by recruiting a sample of adolescents from across the U.S., assessing viewership of different relevant TV genres (sitcoms, fantasy dramas, traditional dramas, and reality TV), and using different measures of GSS endorsement.

The researchers recruited a final sample of 398 adolescents to participate in Study 2 online. They were again asked to indicate their level of exposure to 36 different shows in the relevant four TV genres. To assess GSS, participants filled out measures of support of traditional gender and sexual roles.

Results once again showed some overall gender differences such as girls being heavier viewers of traditional dramas than boys and boys more strongly supporting traditional gender roles than girls. Girls and boys were equal, though, on their support of traditional sexual roles. Like in Study 1, results show that heavier consumption of reality TV was associated with higher endorsement of traditional gender and sexual roles regardless of gender. Sitcom viewership was associated with less support of women as sexual objects, but only for girls. Fantasy nor traditional drama consumption was associated with GSS endorsement.

In general, results from both studies suggest that reality TV viewing might be particularly influential at perpetuating gendered sexual scripts. Of interest were the specific results of the influence of music videos (Study 1) and sitcoms (Study 2) in girls and not in boys. The authors offer some possible explanations. “Because boys are already more likely than girls to endorse GSS, perhaps it is difficult for media use to produce even stronger agreement with statements that are already supported. Or perhaps, because norms about the male sexual script often dominate TV’s presentation of GSS, girls may be more open than are boys to accepting these stereotypes about the other gender.”

The authors cite some limitations to their work including the predominantly White racial makeup of their samples and the correlational nature of the data. In other words, we cannot say from these data whether viewership causes changes in GSS endorsement or vice versa.

The study, “Living Life as the Bachelorette Contributions of Diverse Television Genres to Adolescents’ Acceptance of Gendered Sexual Scripts“, was authored by L. Monique Ward, Petal Grower, and Lauren A. Reed.

Reality TV viewing is associated with increased support for traditional gender roles among adolescents

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