Defenders of the media sometimes argue that while media portrayals are often sexist, their effects are benign. “That only happens on television,” they say. “People don’t really believe that stuff.” There is evidence, though, that contradicts their argument; many people do believe that stuff. The majority of research on media effects has focused on television largely because of its popularity, particularly with children. Television viewing may affect an individual’s self-evaluation as well as more general perceptions about gender. There are several factors that mediate the effects of television on viewer’s perceptions. For example, the ability to correctly judge whether a program is fact or fiction increases with age; by about ten or eleven, most children can distinguish fact from fiction in television programming. However, judgment about the plausibility of a program’s content are unrelated to viewer age. Heavy television viewers tend to judge programs as more realistic than light viewers do. Thus, a person who watches television a lot is more likely to consider the gender portrayals he or she sees as realistic. Young women appear to be more critical of television than young men are, and their dissatisfaction stems from the lack of programs about “important and serious issues,” as well as the lack of female characters in the programs.
Some have argued that an observed relationship between television viewing and gender stereotyping does not necessarily mean that the television viewing causes the stereotyping. It may be that those who tend to stereotype also tend to watch more television, or more programming that confirms the stereotypes they already hold. There is research that shows that children tend to choose programs that conform to gender stereotypes they have already learned. In other words, the media reinforces gender stereotypes that children are taught both by their parents and in school because children will select those media presentations that conform to what they have previously learned.
Research on advertising has also produced interesting findings. Gender depictions In television in advertising may be understood as gender prescriptions by female viewers and may affect their real-life aspirations. Advertisements that are gender-stereotyped or that portray gender-role reversals can cause women to re-stereotype their futures, emphasizing more homemaking and less achievement outside of the home. The media, especially television, are teaching tools; what is taught depends on what is shown. When the media, and television in particular, provide “pro-social” content, they can effectively reduce gender stereotypes and other forms of prejudice.