Teenage Gender Identity & Media Images of Sex, Romance, Drinking

A review of Do Media Portrayals of Drinking and Sexual/Romantic Relationships Shape Teenagers Constructions of Gendered Identities, by Jane E.K. Hartley.

Jane Hartley’s dissertation uses social constructivist perspectives of gender to assess how young people’s understandings and beliefs relating to gender are enacted in relation to their own health behaviours, namely their alcohol consumption and romantic/sexual behaviours. In doing so, she tests whether Milkie’s theory of presumed media influence is a useful way of understanding the media’s position in teenagers’ lives and their understandings of one, gender-appropriate alcohol use and two, romantic and sexual relationships. Hartley’s work makes important theoretical and empirical contributions to public health research and has the potential to inform the inclusion of media and gender education within the delivery of sexual health, relationships and alcohol education.

The first two chapters of the thesis are devoted to laying the groundwork, with Hartley drawing heavily upon the belief that gender is not a static classification of male and female, but rather a socially constructed concept that is enacted through performance and adherence to norms and stereotypes. To elucidate this, Hartley draws upon empirical evidence to demonstrate that masculine representations of heavy alcohol consumption are often depicted by images of competitiveness and invulnerability, whilst women who drink heavily are often frowned upon and described in terms of vulnerability and at risk. It is also shown that similar dichotomies exist within gender-based representations of romantic and sexual behaviour, with masculine traits reflecting sexual prowess, competence and virility, whilst women’s romantic and sexual behaviour is largely categorised by polarised roles such as mistress and wife, virgin and whore. This, Hartley argues is reminiscent of Holland’s work on sexual reputations and the double standards that are seen for men and women in the expression of sexual behaviours. And, is something that is becoming more apparent within “moral panics” over alcohol consumption by young women.

After outlining that gendered constructs exist in relation to both alcohol consumption and romantic and sexual behaviours, Hartley utilised the rest of chapter two to outline the role that the media may play in shaping young people’s attitudes towards health risk behaviours and their understandings of gender-appropriate behaviours. Three hypotheses are proposed. These are that the “media is powerful”, that the “audience is powerful” and that there is a “presumed media influence” upon others. The first argues that the “media is powerful” and that young people are influenced both consciously and unconsciously by the messages that are relayed by the media, whilst the second argues that the “audience is powerful” and that young people who engage with the media are able to evaluate, accept, reject and modify the messages that are seen within the media to suit their own representations of the world.  Finally, the third, based upon Milkie’s work on presumed media influence, is that the media has a complex, indirect effect upon the attitudes and behaviours of young people as they assume that their peers are affected by what they are exposed to within the media. This in turn influences their own attitudes and behaviours through perceived peer norms, and the social comparisons they make.

Throughout the thesis Hartley argues that this latter hypothesis about presumed media influence is likely to explain the role that the media plays in shaping young people’s health behaviours and gendered identities. To support this argument she draws upon empirical evidence that shows there is a clear gender divide in the television and film media that young people access, with girls being more likely to report viewing programmes which focus upon relationships than boys. It is also shown that the viewing of media with peers is segregated, with both boys and girls more likely to view media content with peers of the same sex. This, Hartley argues, may result in views about masculinity and femininity being constructed within same-sex peer groups, which in turn may result in discordant views being formed about the expectations and behaviours of the opposite sex in relation to drinking and sexual behaviours.

The remainder of the thesis is devoted to testing whether the theory of presumed media influence helps to explain young people’s understandings, attitudes towards and expectations of 1) alcohol consumption, 2) romantic and sexual behaviour and 3) gender appropriate behaviours. This was done through a combination of focus groups and in-depth qualitative interviews conducted within young people aged 15-16 in which Hartley used evocative images of alcohol, relationships and sexual behaviour that had been drawn from popular UK television programmes. From the data generated Hartley demonstrates that the media does influence perceptions and expectations about alcohol consumption and romantic/sexual behaviour amongst young people, and that this influence arises from the perceived influence that the media has upon peers and members of the opposite sex. Thus, Hartley concludes that Milkie’s theory of presumed media influence is more compatible with understanding the effect of the media than the polarised assumptions that the “media is powerful” or the “audience is powerful.”

Whilst the thesis has a significant focus upon the perceived relationship that alcohol plays in yougn people’s understandings of romantic and sexual relationships, the most significant contributions that this thesis makes is identifying a differential effect of media upon young people’s understandings of health behaviours, with Hartley demonstrating that the presumed media influence was demonstrated to be more powerful for romantic and sexual behaviour than alcohol. This, it is hypothesised, is due to the less public nature of sexual behaviours leading young people to look for external cues about appropriate behaviours. These cues, which are often gendered and conform to stereotypes of masculine and feminine, then lead young people to make assumptions about what the opposite sex sees as appropriate gendered behaviour in romantic and sexual relationships, leading to behaviour modification to adhere to these perceived expectations. From a public health perspective this finding is significant as it leads to the conclusion that an additional focus may be required in sexual health and relationships education upon gender, perceived gender appropriate behaviours and how these may affect behaviours.

Catherine Nixon
Investigator Scientist
MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit
University of Glasgow
catherine.nixon@glasgow.ac.uk

Primary Sources

Focus groups and in-depth qualitative interviews conducted within young people aged 15-16
Media analysis

Dissertation Information

University of Glasgow. 2011. 388 pp. Primary Advisor: Daniel Wight.

Image: Photograph by Jane Hartley.

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