The Mass Media, its effect on pre-teen and teenage girls, and what we can do about it.

The mass media is pervasive; if we don’t see glamorous images on billboards walking down the street, we see it on magazine covers and on the television screen. The media tend to target women in a negative way, presenting air-brushed women as “perfect”, even though the image cannot be held as reflecting reality.

Adult women can see through the fallacies of the illogical targeting. The truth is that, even if every woman shaved her head and wore only anoraks from henceforth, the species would still propagate because men, by and large, are biologically hard-wired to be attracted to women, regardless of the clothes they are wearing. Consider the style of the 70s; if humans managed to procreate back then, I don’t think we have anything to worry about.

However, the media can have a very negative influence on pre-teen and teenage girls. They don’t have the tools nor the perspective to see through the unrealistic representation of what a “real” female human being is.

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media was set up by the actress Geena Davis, who, while watching television with her daughter one day, found that there was an obvious lack of confident female characters in the media her child was watching. She began to fund and raise funds for research into gender representation and the effect it can have on children.

This research found that, children’s film and media contained three times as many male characters than female characters, whether it be in speaking roles or in crowd roles. It also found that, in children’s media, females were 85% more likely to be sexualized. An example would be the Bratz dolls, who wear fishnet stockings and miniskirts, yet are aimed at pre-teen girls. Another example is Jasmine in Disney’s Aladdin, who is only fifteen and yet is presented in a highly sexual way, with unrealistic body proportions.

In terms of family movies, research found that the majority were “male-centric”, having more male characters than female ones. Females were more likely to be thin, and referred to as physically attractive by other characters, and were also shown to occupy 20% of the jobs in the fictional worlds, whereas males occupied 80% of jobs.

These results are problematic, as children internalize these messages; they formulate opinions based on what they see on television. If children see women represented as attractive and passive, and men shown as working, active individuals, they will conclude that women do not belong in authority positions. Over time and after repeated exposure, youngsters may even fail to perceive or question gender-bias in their lives.

To females specifically, this media consistently delivers the message that they are of less value than males, and that their inherent value lies in being young, thin and sexualized, purely for the viewing pleasure of other males.

The effects of this message are numerous. Encouraging girls to be “sexy “(for male pleasure) but not “sexual” (subjects in control of their sexuality and their own pleasure) can lead to self-sexualization or self-objectification. This is where females internalize the standards laid out for them by society and perceive themselves purely as sexual objects. The American Psychological Association defines it as such:

Self-objectification involves adopting a third-person perspective on the physical self and constantly assessing one’s own body in an effort to conform to the culture’s standards of attractiveness. Self-objectification in a culture in which a woman is a “good object” when she meets the salient cultural standard of “sexy” leads girls to evaluate and control their own bodies more in terms of their sexual desirability to others than in terms of their own desires, health, wellness, achievements, or competence. (Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. 20)

There are many serious side effects of the self-objectification process.

First, there is an effect on cognitive functioning. The focused attention on physical appearance and the anxiety experienced while trying to attain the unattainable physical ideal leaves fewer cognitive resources for other mental activities. Second, the self-objectification process can lead to lower mental health, causing eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression. Third, self-objectification has been directly linked to diminished sexual health among adolescent girls, as evidenced by decreased condom use and a lack of sexual assertiveness, i.e. the ability to say “no”. This is because girls learn that their body is there to be evaluated by others, but they see that the ideal of physical beauty that is constantly affirmed in the media is in no way similar to their own physical appearance. They will therefore focus on their partner’s desires and wants in order to “compensate” for their perceived lack of attractiveness, or to avoid a negative judgement on their appearance. This makes it difficult for young women to have safe sex as they will tend to let the sexual encounter unfold according to their partner’s interests.

Interestingly, the more a girl or young woman consumes or engages with mainstream media, the more likely they are to endorse the stereotype of women as sexual objects. They become complicit in their own subjection.

How to avoid the pervasive influence of the media? I would first of all suggest that education is the way to promote the sexual confidence that young girls need, but you can’t expect the Catholic-run schools to ever have a socially relevant conversation about sex and sexuality. Therefore, I would suggest instead weaning yourself off of your television as by watching it you are engaging in passive consumption. You are given the illusion of choice in what you watch but, ultimately, that choice is limited to whatever each channel dictates. Supplementing children’s television use with alternative media to balance out the ideas they receive might be beneficial. Examples of such alternative media are web-based magazines, blogs, vlogs, podcasts and ebooks.

The internet is endless in terms of choices: you can choose the material your child will engage with, material that will make them aware of the vast, vibrant, diverse world outside of the mass media’s narrow, unrealistic representation of the world. There are thousands of sources that encourage young girls to develop themselves as human beings, and because there is a variety of content produced by a variety of women on the web, there is no pressure to match an idealized, one-dimensional standard of female as propagated by the mass media. Young girls can grow up valuing who they are rather than how they appear.


Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. American Psychological Association, 2010. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.

Smith, Stacy L. et al. Gender Roles & Occupations: A Look at Character Attributes and Job-Related Aspirations in Film and Television. Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism: Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.

Smith, Stacy L., and Marc Choueiti. Gender Disparity On Screen and Behind the Camera in Family Films; The Executive Report. Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism: Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.

Smith, Stacy. L, and Crystal Allene Cook. ‘Gender Stereotypes: An Analysis of Popular Films and TV’. 2008. Web. 25 Mar. 2013.


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