Since the fifties, traditional roles for men and women have changed dramatically, as many women further their careers whilst men can be househusbands. It seems, therefore, that the roles and characteristics of gender roles overlap more than ever.
However, contemporary media provides a very different image. Consider, for example, the portrayal of women and men in (fashion)advertisement. While male models often pose standing up straight, depicting an image of strength and dominance, female fashion models often pose standing unbalanced and cowering, bringing forth an image of fragility and submission. In their poses, female models literally make themselves smaller, diminishing the space they occupy. Moreover, that sex is major theme in advertisement can barely go unnoticed. From the advertisement of deodorant for men attracting the desire of dozens of girls incapable of resisting its smell, to the advertisement of girls’ clothing in which the models are conveniently draped over a bed with their legs spread wide: sex sells. How does this depiction of men and women and the imagery of sexuality in contemporary media affect the way we perceive ourselves, specifically in our gender role?
The sexual depiction of men and women and traditional gender-roles
According to the researchers, the portrayal of sex for men and women in media represent more general gender stereotypes. In fact, previous research has shown that as people’s conformity to traditional gender roles (think fifties) increases, women are found to be sexually more submissive and men more dominant, as previous research has demonstrated. To understand how this relates to the role of media exposure to sex, we need to take a look at the role of priming first.
What is priming?
Priming is an effect of the implicit memory, in which a person recognizes or responds to a stimulus quicker when they have observed this stimulus before, albeit without being consciously aware of this. Priming is often considered to play a large role in the continuation of stereotypes, as people are more likely to (subconsciously) make connections they have been exposed to in the past.
Primes are also known to generally have an effect on the active-self, therefore influencing one’s self-knowledge and self-image in a given situation. Importantly, self-image is known be a decisive factor in people behavior in a social context. Moreover, people who identify themselves with a specific group (such as ‘ men’ or ‘women’) are likely to self-stereotype as they abide to the characteristics and norms of the group. What then, are the effects of sex-priming on our self-image and behavior? And more specifically, how do these differ between men and women? The following research, which primed its subjects with sex-related words and images, provides a possible answer to this question.
Testing the effects of sex-priming
Six studies were done with a hundred German university students. The research showed a definite influence of sex-priming. It increases gender self-categorization and the sex-primed students also attributed more gender-stereotypical attributes to themselves.
When subjected to bothersome behavior by the experimenter, women who were sex-primed showed more compliance, patience and submission towards the experimenter than women who were not sex-primed, whilst sex-primed men showed less compliance, more assertive and dominant behavior than did their male-counterparts who were not sex-primed.
Reversing traditional gender-roles?
A second study was performed to measure whether triggering counter-stereotypic self-knowledge could undo or immunize people against the effect of sex-priming. A different group of 130 German university students was collected of which half was primed with traditional gender roles (women as housewives and men as career men) whilst the other half was primed with the opposite, non-traditional gender division (men as househusbands and women as career women). The first group showed similar results to those sex-primed in the above mentioned tests. In the second group, however, priming effects were practically reversed. Sex-primed women here did not ascribe more ‘ feminine’ characteristics to themselves than the male sex-primed participants.
What this means for our subconscious self-image and behavior
These studies indicate that sex-priming has an influence on self-concept because it triggers collective cultural notions of sexuality. What these notions of sexuality exactly are may be observed by looking critically at portrayal of men and women of contemporary media.
The fact that even sex-primes that do not use imagery or words related to dominance or submission (as is the case with these tests) effects men and women’s self-stereotyping strongly suggests the persistence of socio-cultural models of gender in sexuality. Persistent and subconscious exposure to gender-stereotyping thus has a strong influence on our long-term self-image as man or woman.
Flickr, Rachael Moore
Hundhammer, T., & Mussweiler, T. (2012). How sex puts you in gendered shoes: Sexuality-priming leads to gender-based self-perception and behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103 (1), 176-193 DOI: 10.1037/a0028121
gender, media, sex, priming, stereotype, self-image