NEWS

Heavy Consumption of Reality TV May Reinforce Gender Roles for Adolescents

teenagers watching tv together in living room

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Key Takeaways

  • High levels of reality TV viewing may reinforce heteronormative behaviors in adolescents.
  • Heavier TV consumption impacted the acceptance of gendered sexual scripts among girls, but not boys.
  • Given how rigid expectations about gendered sexual roles have been associated with dating violence, there needs to be a greater investment in media literacy for youth.

Often, media literacy can help people to grasp how TV viewing patterns may reinforce certain narratives. A new study published in The Journal of Sex Research found that heavy consumption of reality TV was linked to greater endorsement of gendered sexual scripts among youth.

These research findings were based on two studies of adolescents, both of which found that high levels of reality TV viewing can bolster heteronormative behaviors, as mediated by gender expectations.

Sexual scripts based on gender may have troubling implications for dating violence, so such research insights should be incorporated into developing responsive media literacy programming to better support youth.

Understanding the Research

Initially, researchers conducted an online survey, which found that there was no association between scripted program viewing and endorsement of heteronormative behaviors among 574 high school students.

To address the first study's limitations, they then relied on a sample of 398 youth from across the US and assessed viewing of various TV genres, and found that it may reinforce sexual scripts based on gender.

Gendered sexual scripts reflect expectations based on heteronormative assumptions that reinforce stereotypical gender and sexual roles, and often frame women as sexual objects.

A limitation of the research was the primarily white, middle-class samples that only made use of binary gender, so these findings may not be applicable to low-income, racialized, and gender-expansive youth.

More Diverse Gender Representation Needed

Neuroscientist and clinical social worker Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C, says, "Gender stereotypes are based on society’s traditional standards of masculinity and femininity, where males are viewed as leaders who are hard, aggressive, competitive, vocal, and void of feelings, while women are viewed as softer, quiet, passive, emotional, and nurturing."

Women are portrayed as sexually provocative and seductive for love, as Weaver notes that they are expected to settle for the sake of men, "while men are career-driven, promiscuous, and overall, self-focused," she says.

Weaver highlights how in the study, adults were impacted by gendered sexual scripts while youth were most influenced by reality TV.

"The researchers suggest that the difference was that the people in reality shows were thought to be leaders with real views, versus acting out a scripted role," she says.

While reality TV may reinforce gendered sexual scripts, Weaver notes that more studies are needed with people who are not part of the dominant culture.

"More research can be conducted to determine the influence of television shows now, as opposed to in the past," she says.

Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C

The researchers suggest that the difference was that the people in reality shows were thought to be leaders with real views, versus acting out a scripted role.

— Renetta Weaver, LCSW-C

Weaver reflects, "In the past, certain topics weren’t discussed or embraced the way they are now, so it would be worth studying if today’s live-out-loud society is changing the influential power of television."

Based on her therapy practice, Weaver wishes the public knew how empowering authentic diverse representation can be.

"Exposure to ideas outside of the confines of our own mind allows us to expand our worldview, and accept and embrace those who are different," she says.

Weaver explains, "A lot of my work is centered on supporting my clients with discovering and embracing their identity. Many of my clients deal with confusion because they feel differently on the inside than what people expect of them based on their outside appearance."

Especially when clients may be navigating shame and guilt because they do not align well with societal expectations, Weaver notes how groundbreaking a TV series like Pose was.

"It expanded the definitions of masculinity, femininity, sexuality, relationships, etc.," she says.

Weaver highlights, "For those who don’t fit into the stereotypical definition of masculinity and femininity, Pose was probably the first time they saw a positive representation of themselves in media. We know that representation matters because it eradicates stigma, shame, and guilt."

Media-Literate Parental Discretion is Key

Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner with Mindpath Health, Summer R. Thompson, DNP, PMHNP-BC, says, "An interesting takeaway from this study is that media use may contribute to gender stereotypes; however, there are multiple limitations to this study." 

Thompson explains, "Limitations include that the study was conducted among white, middle-class adolescents, and from research, we know that minority youth consume media in very different ways."

Since these findings were based on a correlational study, Thompson notes that this type of research seeks to understand if two things are related based on studies, but cannot confirm causality between the phenomena.

Summer R. Thompson, DNP, PMHNP-BC

If a significant heteronormative script is noted, then it creates an opportunity to discuss what [children] are watching and the many ways people can and do deviate from these heteronormative themes.

— Summer R. Thompson, DNP, PMHNP-BC

Thompson highlights, "Gendered scripts reflect stereotypes about gender-specific behaviors in relationships. Stereotypes of masculinity prioritize aggression, competition, and showing minimal emotion; femininity focuses on being emotional, caretaking, and appearance." 

Reality TV can reinforce gender norms, as Thompson notes that men are expected to pursue sexual relationships, only value appearance, and avoid commitment.

"In contrast to this, women are expected to be passive and use their looks to attract men, and prioritize commitment," she says. 

Thompson recommends that parents ask their children about what they are watching and the themes of the different shows.

"If a significant heteronormative script is noted, then it creates an opportunity to discuss what they are watching and the many ways people can and do deviate from these heteronormative themes," she says.

A takeaway from this research is that adolescents are highly influenced by what they are exposed to on an ongoing basis, according to Thompson.

"Parents should be aware of the media their children are consuming with the understanding that it may influence their child’s emotional development," she says.

What This Means For You

As this research demonstrates, reality TV may reinforce heteronormative behaviors among youth. Given these findings, greater media literacy intervention and open communication are needed to prepare adolescents for how to think critically about the television they view.

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  1. Ward L, Grower P, Reed L. Living Life as the Bachelor/ette: Contributions of Diverse Television Genres to Adolescents’ Acceptance of Gendered Sexual ScriptsThe Journal of Sex Research. Mar 8, 2021;59(1):13-25. doi:10.1080/00224499.2021.1891519