Our research demonstrates that in the U.S., children's TV shows treat feminine girls and masculine boys better. Meanwhile, masculine girls and feminine boys are treated worse. How? Take the show Scooby Doo, for example. Two of the main characters are women. Daphne is fairly gender-stereotypical, whereas Velma is less so. My colleagues and I found that characters like Daphne are treated with more warmth, smiles, and positivity than someone more counterstereotypical, like Velma. In fact, this pattern goes beyond Scooby Doo. We found evidence for this pattern across 12 popular children's TV shows in the U.S. And it wasn't just one type of show. This pattern was in animated and live-action shows from various networks, writers, casts, and directors—and it didn't matter whether episodes came from the beginning or end of a season.

What's even more interesting is what children do after they see this pattern. In our studies, we asked girls aged 6 to 11 to watch 4 minutes of silent clips featuring the pattern. After watching these clips, they felt like their parents and peers wanted them to be more feminine. The more pressure the girls felt, the more they played with stereotypical "girl toys" and—when we asked them to record a video message to introduce themselves to peers at another school—the less intelligence they conveyed. Subtle patterns like this one could have major impacts.

This is not the first work to show that children can learn from nonverbal behavior they see. In 2008, Luigi Castelli and his colleagues at the University of Padua found that when children watched an interaction in which a White person behaved negatively towards a Black person (for example, avoiding eye contact, leaving an empty seat in between them, using hesitant vocal tone), the children in the study were less willing to interact with the Black person or want to share a toy with him.

In our studies, we showed girls 24 different 10-second interactions from actual TV shows. Even though these clips were short, they were complex. And yet, who was consistently treated better didn't go unnoticed. Girls spotted how well stereotypical and non-stereotypical characters were treated even among variations in things like the art style of the show, the identities of the characters, and the storylines featured in the clips. That is a lot to track, which makes it that much more interesting that children still got the message. We did find one caveat, though. Only girls who were already good at reading emotion were influenced by the pattern we showed them. Kids get better at reading emotion as they grow up, especially between the ages of 6 and 11, which was the age range of the girls in our studies.

What Does This Research Mean For Us?

How do we counter the influence these television shows have on kids? We don't know yet, but we do have some ideas. And we think it's an especially important question because this pattern we documented in TV could extend to other facets of children's lives. We studied television because kids from all over the U.S. and from different socioeconomic statuses watch TV and they often watch the same shows. This pattern in which feminine girls and masculine boys were treated better may also exist in the interactions kids see at the grocery store, in classrooms, or on the street. We don't have the data to know if this is true yet. However, scientists have shown one way that people can counter the effects of stereotypical imagery: their imaginations. In studies published in 2001, Irene Blair and her colleagues at the University of Colorado found that when adults were instructed to imagine people who defied the stereotype (such as a strong woman), they had weaker implicit stereotypes as a result. In the future, it will be important to test if these and other strategies could help children counter the effects of the subtle and insidious gender biases on television.

For Further Reading

Lamer, S. A., Dvorak, P., Biddle, A. M., Pauker, K., & Weisbuch, M. (2022). The transmission of gender stereotypes through televised patterns of nonverbal bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000390

Sarah Ariel Lamer is an Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where she and her team at the Social Perception and Cognition lab study when and how people learn social biases from the subtle patterns around them.