Gender Stereotypes Are Messing with Your Kid

A new Common Sense Media study shows that learning gender roles from movies and TV shows has real consequences on kids' self-esteem, relationships -- and even their future careers. By Caroline Knorr

Gender stereotypes are messing with your kid. It's not just one movie. It's not just one TV show. It's constant exposure to the same dated concepts in the media over and over, starting before preschool and lasting a lifetime -- concepts like: Boys are smarter than girls; certain jobs are best for men and others for women; and even that girls are responsible for their own sexual assaults. If you thought this stuff went out with Leave It to Beaver, the new Common Sense Media report, Watching Gender: How Stereotypes in Movies and on TV Impact Kids' Development, will put you right back in June Cleaver's kitchen.

According to the report, which analyzed more than 150 articles, interviews, books, and other social-scientific research, gender stereotypes in movies and on TV shows are more than persistent; they're incredibly effective at teaching kids what the culture expects of boys and girls. What makes these messages stick -- and harder for parents to counteract -- is that they're timed for the precise moment in kids' development when they're most receptive to their influence.

Think of preschoolers who are just beginning to identify as boys or girls. The characters they see on TV and in movies often have an obvious masculine or feminine appearance, such as a superhero's big muscles or a princess' long hair. These characteristics also are often associated with specific traits -- for example, being strong and brave or fearful and meek. Fast-forward to the tween and teen years, when characters begin to wrestle with relationships, sex, and job prospects. That "strong and brave" superhero becomes aggressive and hostile. That "fearful and meek" princess become submissive and weak.

For young audiences who absorb ideas from the media on how to behave and what to become, these characterizations can lead to false assumptions and harmful conclusions. These oversimplified characterizations play out in many ways over and over. According to the report, a lifetime of viewing stereotypical media becomes so ingrained it can ultimately affect kids' career choices, self-worth, relationships, and ability to achieve their full potential.

And lots of parents are concerned about these issues, too. We polled nearly 1,000 parents across the country and found that they believe the media has a significant influence on their kids, from how girls should look and behave to how seeing violence can affect boys' beliefs about themselves. Luckily, parents can assert control over the messages that Hollywood dishes out. Because, let's face it: Exaggerating the differences between boys and girls is just a ploy to keep audiences entertained. It's not what we really want our kids to emulate.

While there are movies and TV shows that defy gender stereotypes -- and Hollywood is making some progress on this front -- you're not going to be able to prevent your kids from seeing everything that sends the wrong message. And your kids probably like a lot of media that reinforces stereotypes. Fortunately, the most powerful messages kids absorb are from you. When you actively role-model gender equality, speak out against stereotypes, and challenge outdated ideas, kids will hear that loud and clear.

Also, you have a lot of control over your kids' media -- mostly when they're little, but even as they grow. Choose quality media that reflects your values, and talk to your kids about the movies and TV shows they watch. (Learn more about what to look for in movies and TV to avoid gender stereotypes.) Use these age-based strategies -- from toddlerhood to the teen years -- to reach kids at the exact moment they need to hear them.

Age 26

At this age, kids: 

  • Learn their gender identities (that they're a boy or a girl).
  • Learn stereotypes about activities, traits, toys, and skills associated with each gender.
  • Begin gender-typed play (girls "clean the kitchen," boys "mow the lawn").
  • Need to hear your input in specific, not abstract, terms.

What you can do

Point out people from real life or TV that show there's more than one way to "do" gender. Try a show such as Doc McStuffins and say, "I notice that Doc's mom works full-time to support the family and that her dad stays home and takes care of the kids."

Comment positively on shows that equally value boys and girls. Watch Odd Squad together and say, "Otto and Olive are equal partners and rely on each other to solve cases."

Find shows that aren't hyperpink or super-blue. Or, at least, balance out your kid's preferences with shows such as Julie's Greenroom, which uses a variety of hues, both on the stage sets and in the characters. The show also exposes some of the technical aspects of stage production, which teaches kids that shows are created by people and are only limited by imagination.

Age 710

At this age, kids:

  • Attribute certain qualities to men and women -- for example, that women are more emotional and affectionate and men are more ambitious and aggressive.
  • Associate specific occupations and academic subjects with each gender. 
  • Self-segregate based on gender -- boys want to play with boys, and girls want to play with girls.
  • Want some choice over what they watch but still respect parents' input.

What you can do

Recognize characters who defy gender stereotypes. Check out a movie such as Big Hero 6 and say, "It's OK to show when you're sad -- and boys shouldn't be embarrassed to cry."

Praise characters who are instrumental to the storyline for what they do versus what they look like. Stream Project Mc2 on Netflix and say, "For the girls on Mc2, being good at math and science are more important than their appearance."

Seek out movies and shows with non-stereotyped characters -- for example, female characters with realistic body types and non-aggressive male characters. Try a show such as Andi Mack where the characters wrestle with peer pressure to look and act a certain way to fit in.

Age 1113

At this age, kids

  • Feel self-conscious about physical changes and feel pressure to conform to cultural gender norms.
  • Are intolerant of cross-gender mannerisms and behaviors.
  • Are concerned about dating potential.
  • Want to pick their own shows -- and they're often shows intended for older kids.
  • Are more interested in peers than parents.

What you can do

Emphasize that worth and happiness don't come from appearance (especially important for female characters) or from physical strength (especially important for male characters). Watch a movie such as Arrival and remark on the lead character being a female professor. Or try Billy Elliot, about an Irish boy who wants to be a dancer despite his father's objections. Ask: "How do these characters go against what society expects of them?"

Comment positively on healthy, supportive, and fulfilling cross-gender friendships and relationships. Try a movie such as Bridge to Terabithia (or read the book), which features an equal friendship between the boy and girl main characters. Discuss what makes them such good friends and what each one teaches the other.

Talk about how transgender characters in movies and on TV are often the target of bullying. Try a show such as I Am Jazz about a transgender teen. Ask: "How did you feel when Jazz was bullied. If you knew her, would you defend her?"

Age 1417

At this age, kids:

  • Mix with other genders and become more flexible about stereotypes.
  • Become preoccupied with their future careers, as well as appearance.
  • Want to learn gender-based expectations for how to behave in romantic and sexual situations.
  • Choose what they want to watch and are willing to discuss abstract ideas (and don't want to be lectured to).

What you can do

Look for shows that feature boys and men expressing their emotions in constructive ways, having diverse interests (other than only sex), and being kind or friendly to non-heterosexual characters. Check out This Is Us and point out how the fathers are shown as nurturing and thoughtful. Or watch The King's Speech, about King George the VI, who must reveal his biggest vulnerability. Ask, "Can a man, or a boy, be both strong and sensitive?"

Point out when female characters voice their own needs. Watch an ensemble show such as Brooklyn Nine-Nine and note how the female characters don't defer to the men.

Find characters who have non-gender-stereotypical professional aspirations (girls who want to be scientists and boys who want to be nurses). Consider a show like Bones, which features a strong female lead in a traditionally male-dominated profession.

About Caroline Knorr

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As Common Sense Media's parenting editor, Caroline helps parents make sense of what’s going on in their kids' media lives. From games to cell phones to movies and more, if you're wondering "what’s the right age for…?"... Read more

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Comments (29)

Parent written by J S

Common Sense has gone off the deep end. I know now I won't be able to trust their "sexual" review category! What's the point of boys having testosterone and a penis and girls having estrogen/progesterone and a vagina if they are not inherently different. A child is taught by their parents whether their emotions are valid. Family of origin is so important. That is why we don't screw with kids AND don't let the teachers and the PC culture screw with our them. It's up to us parents to raise our kids. It seems like we wouldn't be on this site if we didn't care about our kids. RIGHT? I am a doctor and a mother. My husband is a Desert Storm Vet and was a stay at home dad for 16 years. Now I am at home doing what I love best: mothering! Inherently, mothering is what I always wanted to do, but I couldn't just sit around until I was 26 years old waiting for a husband. I chose to do something. And then we, together, chose him staying at home because it worked financially. then 17 years later, we switched. I have 5 adorable kids. My youngest is 9. I stopped working when he was 4. I don't regret it at all. Eat that Common Sense!!!!
Adult written by Freundin

While the main female character in Bones is not stereotypical in her professional life, she works with several competent women, all of whom are beautiful and dress like fashion models, wearing high heals to work on their feet all day, even to chase after people. I feel that it will be necessary to point out how ridiculous it is to expect this of women in real life. Most shows will require some stereotyping analysis with your child to deconstruct these sorts of harmful images that has girls striving to be perfect in all things. The archetype of sexy, brilliant, good girl is hard to live up to. Shows where woman who are flawed are not vilified would be important to seek out. So far, even in PBS kids I find that the stereotypes of females are very harmful. I can list the shows that supposedly support science and how the girls play a secondary role, are cartoons--with stereotype cartoon female figures, or are doing "girly" science, all of which sell females short. Since Bones is not appropriate for my daughter, aged 12, I find that there is not much produced in the US that I find to be girl empowering. A plus is that I have pointed out these stereotypes to my child and she is now looking for these girl demeaning messages, and seeking to show me when something is girl empowering.
Adult written by T L

This article is ridiculously written with a lot of assumptions. It shames anyone who might believe that there's a difference in genders. I mean, really, we're all one big gender, right? Everyone is exactly the same, right? Come on! The fact that CSM posted this garbage is sad, and makes me question my use of their site. They claim men aren't shown as caring or having feelings is ludicrous. That's all we see now. And that isn't necessarily bad. John Wayne had feelings too and it wasn't a bad thing then. And it isn't a bad thing now for the male superhero to want to save the pretty girl. Hello, did the author even bother to look at one of the biggest movies of the summer....WONDER WOMAN? I'm not saying anyone should be censored, but CSM should do a better job of editing their content before they become just another website amongst the wasteland that is internet garbage.
Adult written by Ethan C.

Cruddy. Feel bad for the kids who have to listen to this. their childhood is going to be filled with "make sure not to hurt anyone's feelings". They're probably not even allowed to breath because it might cause some traumatic memory . Yeah I get you don't want them to grow up being homophobic or transphobic but just teach them without controlling what they watch. If you censor gender steryotypes completely there won't be any movies to watch.
Parent written by G G

What is wrong with gender stereotypes? Your whole argument is based on an assumption that there is something inherently morally wrong with gender roles in society. I'm sorry but I'm not sure I can subscribe to your inherent bias. But in any case I think if you had a truly open mind you might consider the possibility that actually the bias is against boys and men. It seems almost universal to me that TV shows, movies and books usually portray girls and women as smart and boys and men as clueless and dumb. In my view rather than focussing on gender bias common sense media should be focussing on encouraging media that displays positive virtues - virtues like gentlessness, compassion, peace-making, honesty - because these are the sort of things our kids need to be thinking about.
Kid, 11 years old

I agree with the idea that people should be open to showing virtues as being caring and kind but gender roles are not good for society and kids. Girls aren't into science and math because of gender roles, so is it really a good thing?
Teen, 15 years old written by sjcardi

I agree, instead of saying "It's ok to be a girl and like sports, it's ok to be a boy who feels like a girl, etc.", we should be saying "It's ok to express yourself however you feel as long as you don't hurt anyone else" and then explain real values for kids instead of drawing more attention to stereotypes.
Kid, 11 years old

I suggest Steven Universe for some good gender role defying. There are three to six females working on the team depending on what episode, and the main male on the show actually does feel sad and other feelings. He is even a healer, which in media is unusually a thing females are.
Adult written by Bradley S.

Yeah look I agree with most of what you guys are trying to do but all the stuff you're putting out keeps me coming back to the same question: what exactly are you trying to achieve? In the article above you list what parents 'should do', as if our kids need to be 'fixed'. What is the obsession with gender anyway? Let kids be kids. You purport to be fighting the current system of indoctrination, but is this not becoming another form of indoctrination itself? Men and women are fundamentally different. Just ask my wife! And that's great! I love those things about my wife, just like I love things about my son! Sure teach kids kindness, respect, self-esteem but be careful you don't rob them of the levity of childhood by loading them with well-intentioned baggage.
Teen, 14 years old written by Whatshisname

I couldn't agree more, we can't be influencing kids at such a young age about this gender identity crap. They're too young, it's at an older age where they have acknowledgement of the world and such where they find out about this stuff. Propaganda people.
Parent of a 15 year old written by selden61

Devastated to see this pc liberal garbage. Labeling and shaming normal people won't help those with different lifestyles. Face it, we're all different but to try and hide bigger muscles and testosterone and nurturing and estrogen just messes kids up. Stop! Or CSM goes to the trash.
Adult written by Stephjc

I am done with Common Sense Media. I am a teacher and have been a strong supporter and proponent, shared your sight with parents and teachers numerous times over the years but that will cease immediately. You have jumped on the politically correct band wagon. I am sick of the message and will no longer use or refer this site to anyone and I will explain why to them. Why can't you just stick to technology and apps etc....??
Parent of a 10, 13, and 15 year old written by Lisa S.

I disagree with even the concept of this article and this is not the reason I joined commonsense media. I would rather see you emphasise which shows have intact families and parents modelling appropriate behaviour towards their children . We like Love and respect are being shown and yes -it's okay for a father to be strong and protect his family and a mother to nurture because (I'm sorry) that's the way God created most of us! I absolutely agree that shows should not promote bullying but this is a political issue and I want you to know that your audience is not necessarily in support of this type of article! And as a matter of fact I would like to know which shows do portray homosexual families and people in non-traditional roles. this would be a good thing for me to know before I watch the show but for the opposite reason that you are broadcasting.
Parent of a 15 year old written by TonyF 2

Ms. Knorr, there are indeed gender stereotypes against men. Perhaps you should watch a few commercials where men and women interact. If not always, it's pretty close to always--the bumbling man needs the brilliant woman to explain how to do something. There have been studies confirming that. It's been that way for as long as I can remember, and I'm 64. If you were honest, what's happening is that men are portrayed as sexist, or apelike, or as "dogs," and women in general don't understand what's wrong with that. If you want to be honest here, then boys should not be raised to believe that they're bad if they act like boys. But good luck with that. One other thing: the word "gender" used to refer to masculine or feminine in LANGUAGE. When, and why, did we change the word "sex" in these instances to "gender"? Modern society is just too much. We're turning men into terrified metrosexuals who are afraid to compliment a woman or ask her out. But it's apparently OK for people who are unsure about which sex they feel like being to use any public restroom they want. You want to talk about "messing with" kids? Thank God I grew up with June and Ward Cleaver.
Parent of a 9, 14, and 16 year old written by hendricks7

Thank you!! Raising 4 boys to adulthood now is really tricky. Boys can't tell girls they're pretty or they are misogynistic. Men are almost always portrayed as disgusting or stupid in sitcoms. It's so frustrating. These articles are not why I come to this site, anyway. I think I'll stick with pluggedin.
Parent of a 15 year old written by tessera

I've got two teen boys whom I home schooled through 8th grade and I couldn't agree more with the post of TonyF 2. Both education and pop culture have become extremely anti-male (except for the perverse glorification of thugs) unless a boy sits quietly, plays with dolls and identifies as a girl. It's a hostile environment for boys and those of us who love them as they are.
Adult written by M R

This is starting to get annoying. Why are these articles so politically charged? And what's up with the sensationalistic headlines.
Parent of a 14 year old written by Victorianna

I grew up playing with Barbie and making doll clothes. I sew, knit, tat, crochet, can do a little bobbin lace, spin, and weave. A friend described me as the most feminine person he'd ever met, but I also have a master's degree, can also hook up to my little cattle trailer, deliver a baby goat, and this morning I was out with my .22 trying to shoot a snake on my pond. Many of the women that I know are like this, and even more so (I know women who can re-do a house and who run large farms) and there's no conflict in them about their "gender". Neither is there any conflict in a man being a loving father who can cook a meal or change a diaper. (Although I do believe that the sexes are very different biologically as well as in how the brain operates, and that most men tend to find more fulfillment in being the breadwinner and protector. That's simple biology, not media conditioning.) In the end, don't let the Disney and the media lie to your kids on ANY subject. Honestly, I put a quietus on the whole "Disney princess" nonsense pretty early, and as soon as I felt that my daughter was old enough we studied the lives of some REAL princesses. Trust me, being a princess often required some serious political acumen to keep your head attached to your shoulders. It was NOT swans, castles, shopping, and ball gowns; that's not "feminine" that's just shallow materialism. Girls, according to their ages, need to know the TRUTH about life: it takes a lot of quiet, gentle strength to be a woman, and great women have always been strong (not brash, coarse, and vulgar as some of the "heroines" are today.) Surround kids with good, strong adult role models and "real life," and view some of this cartoon-drivel as you would cotton candy: okay occasionally, but certainly not something fit for a steady diet.
Parent written by Dan G.

My observations is that nature is the biggest spreader of gender based stereotypes. Nature dictates that only females have the parts necessary to become mothers, only males have the parts necessary to become fathers, that males are generally taller, females are generally smaller, males are generally more violent and females less so, males are generally stronger, etc., etc. It is obvious that stereotyping by sex happens much earlier than we will admit. When will Common Sense Medio have the courage to take on nature and work to abolish these sexist ideas that are at the root of any stereotyping that we as human beings may do?
Parent of a 5, 10, 13, and 14 year old written by Timothy B.

There are many helpful suggestions here - even for those who do not share all of the same presuppositions about gender and sexuality. I appreciate the focus on respect and critical thinking, which is often lacking in the unidirectional absorption of media! The point is well-taken: use a critical mind to evaluate what you and your family absorb from the media. My question for Common Sense Media is how these factors can be incorporated into the reviewing process, as this is the primary reason why many people are connected to the site. And, how can this be done in a way that respects the ideological presuppositions of people on different sides of these issues.
Adult written by Peanut B.

I disagree 100%. You have all heard it before, but here it is again. Boys and girls are born with certain qualities that differentiates them from one another. I have a male and female cat...I see differences in the two of them, no one put anything in their heads! I'm not talking about kids who may identify with both genders. I'm talking about the "normal" boy and girl. What is so wrong about seeing a woman being nurturing, cooking dinner, making beds??? I find it offensive that you all find those kinds of things offensive. What is wrong with seeing a man mowing grass? Keep in mind that when families had more distinct roles, family life was stronger. Now mom's and dad's don't get home until late, kids are left with sitters, everyone is rushed, and end up eating take out. How is this better??? Why couldn't women embrace the fact that they were meant to be nurturers by nature, and men had their roles? I also want to disagree with one more thing...the article says that you always see men as the problem solver...that is so ridiculous! I can't even count the shows that show the women as the brains behind a certain situation, leaving their husbands scratching their heads. For goodness sake, with all the nasty stuff on TV today this is what you guys are worried about? Why aren't you talking about the vulgarity. Why aren't you talking about the GIRLS who demean women??? People like Beyonce and Madonna. No man can demean a woman like another women can. Saying it's okay for women like that is just plain hypocritical. That's what your target should be. Not fairy tales.
Adult written by melanie914

I agree 100% with "Peanut B", and I will add that I'm getting sick and tired of the "women and girls are victims" mentality. And I have also noticed that many modern TV shows (and advertisements) have the Dad looking stupid and the mother outsmarting him. And I am extremely sick of the hypocrisy of being told by the PC crowd that women and girls should celebrate the success of famous women who act and sound like absolute pigs with no respect for themselves at all.