Cartoons Still Stereotype Gender Roles

August 13, 1997

Males Portrayed as Doctors and Scientists, Females as Nurses and Bathing Beauties

CHICAGO -- We haven't come that far, baby. In the 1970's male cartoon characters outnumbered female cartoon characters by a ratio of almost four to one. Research presented at the American Psychological Association's (APA) 105th Annual Convention in Chicago reveals that male cartoon characters still outnumber female cartoon characters almost four to one. Male characters are also still portrayed as dominate, powerful and aggressive. Female characters don't have any "character" at all.

Despite TV watchdogging, Cynthia Spicher, B.A., and psychologist Mary Hudak, Ph.D., from Allegheny College have found little change in the gender stereotypes that America's young minds are spending two to four hours a day viewing. To see what progress has been made in portraying gender stereotypes in cartoon characters, Dr. Spicher and Dr. Hudak videotaped and categorized 118 cartoon characters from a single episode of each of the following Saturday morning cartoons: The Bugs Bunny/Tweety Show, Aladdin, Ninja Turtles, The Mask, Eek!stravaganza, Spiderman, Tick and Life with Louie. Characters were rated on sex, prominence, gender stereotyping, aggressive behaviors and occupational roles.

Carol Spicher and Dr. Hudak found that male cartoon characters are not only more prominent than female characters, but they also portray a broader range of masculine traits. "Male characters were powerful, strong, smart, aggressive and so on. Occasionally there's a token female cartoon character but she's like lime jello -- she's bland," says Dr. Hudak. And, even as women's occupational roles have changed over the past three decades, only a minute number of female cartoon characters are shown in non-traditional occupational roles such as doctors or police officers.

The study did not find that female characters were primarily shown as "damsels in distress." Male characters tended to be the center of attention whether they were aggressors or victims. And this predominance of males in aggressive situations "feeds into the stereotypical understandings of gender roles."

"These findings are disappointingly consistent with past research showing that the portrayal of gender roles on television in general, has been stereotypic, and that female characters have remained under-represented," say the authors. And, even more disappointing, Dr. Hudak adds, "cartoons are the kiddie version of what's portrayed on adult dramas at night."

"Cartoons, in their current state, are depicting significant differences in the status, behavior and capabilities of female and male characters. Thus cartoons tell cultural stories that can't help but inform young minds about who they are to become," the authors conclude.

Presentation: "Gender Role Portrayal on Saturday Morning Cartoons: An Update" by Cynthia Hart Spicher, B.A., and Mary A. Hudak, Ph.D., Allegheny College. Session 4295, August 18, 1997, Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers, River Exhibition Hall (C-2). (Full text available from the APA Public Affairs Office.) The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 151,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 50 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 58 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

American Psychological Association

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