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Teen series continue to feature stereotyped characters that perpetuate gender differences

April 09, 2019

A study has sought to identify and analyse adolescents' favourite kind of character in Spanish teen series. Teen series are fictional and feature characters that specifically target teenagers and a younger audience. The work by the researchers María José Masanet, of the Department of Communication at UPF, and Maddalena Fedele, of Ramon Llull University, was published in Palabra Clave in April.

To do so, the authors combined two studies, one on audiences carried out with 787 students of Barcelona focusing on the analysis of gender differences when choosing and evaluating teenage characters, and a qualitative study, focusing on the characters deemed the favourites of the teenagers surveyed in the first phase. They investigated the interaction between four variables: the viewer's sex (boy or girl); the sex of the character of the chosen series (male or female); the attributes that the respondents highlight when choosing a character (personality, physical appearance, intelligence, or others) and, finally, characteristics of the favourite characters.

The three teen series selected for the study were Física o química (2008-2011), Los protegidos (2010-2012) and El barco (2011-2013), all broadcast on the Antena 3 Spanish television channel. The researchers selected these series because they are teen series produced in Spain; they had high viewing numbers at the time the study was conducted; and they were the three favourite teen series of the young people of the sample at the time of the survey. The three teen series star teenagers and their plots present the usual dilemmas and concerns at this time of life, such as the search for identity, the first romance and sexual relationships, etc.

The results of the study show that the young respondents tend to choose and value the male and female teen series characters based on gender: firstly, both boys and girls to mostly choose male characters as their favourites; second, the male characters are chosen more because they are "rebels", "fun" and "bad but good deep down", while the female ones are chosen because they are "nice people" and "brave and determined".

The qualitative analysis of the characters confirms that the male characters are rebellious, while the female ones are responsible and attractive. Thus, Spanish teen series build a female sphere, associated with responsibility and sensitivity, and a male sphere, that is rebellious and manly.

Therefore, adolescent males identify with or have as a model a boy who is aggressive and a "bad guy", lacking in the emotional sphere and unable to communicate intimately within a couple relationship. By contrast, the girls are represented as responsible, sincere people who care about others -normally their partner-, etc., which attributes are highlighted by the audience that chooses them because they are "nice people".

In Masanet's opinion, "one worrying aspect from a gender perspective is the fact that "bad guy who is good deep down" constitutes an attractive model for girls and would thus concede the "romantic myth" that to love is to suffer, a myth that accepts conflict and suffering in the relationship."

The study also found riskier, albeit minority, female models

They are strong, independent girls wo live their sexuality freely, are self-confident or are fighters. And it is these same attributes that make them attractive to some of the teenagers and young adults who participated in the study and highlighted these characters' "self-assurance" and "courage and determination". Despite being in the minority, these characters occupy an important place in some series and adolescents value them.

As the authors say, "these results warn of the need to represent more plural, more complex characters that get away from the traditional stereotypes that end up perpetuating gender differences, as they are images that act on the perspectives and desires of adolescents and therefore on their models of emotional relationships".

Universitat Pompeu Fabra - Barcelona

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