Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Race, Class, and Gender Identities in Reality TV

“Identities are the definitional categories we use to specify, both to ourselves and to others, who we are. They are social locations that determine our position in the world relative to other people. At times, we purposely call attention to them, through how we dress, walk, and use language, whom we choose to associate with, perhaps even where we live. At other times, though, people ascribe identities to us, whether we want them to or not (Newman, 2007, p. 33)”

The quote above is taken from Newman’s book, Identities and Inequalities. Identity is something that each person possesses. While some people may act differently in certain situations, identity essentially remains the same. Race, class, and gender are three very important parts of identity that will be used to analyze a character from a reality television show on MTV. Sometimes, identities are assigned to people, like Newman shares. Sometimes these identities are helpful, while other times they come in a package with negative stereotypes. The character, Brianna, from MTV’s reality television show, The Real World (Season 20), is victimized by stereotypes in the areas of gender, race, and class, both through her own actions and through the assumptions made by her peers (MTV, 2008).

The first stereotype that Brianna is susceptible to is the role of gender. In today’s patriarchal society, media and advertising often morph women into sexual objects, instead of humans with feelings and personalities. Because of this depiction, ideas are ingrained in the minds of women, that they can achieve success and receive attention, by adopting a sexual persona and acting in a submissive manner. At the same time, men are exposed to the promiscuity and submissiveness of the female body through the media and advertising. Author, Anna Whitehead, sums this point up in the article, Girls, Sexuality, and Pop Culture:

“In this culture of heterosexual, patriarchal privilege, men are entitled to the bodies of girls. And why shouldn’t they be? Men have seen girls’ bodies in numerous sexy and emotionless displays, in everything from movies television to advertising. There is also little distinction between real and fantasy girls. This popular culture will not acknowledge the emotional and physical consequences of its abuse because it does not see girls as human beings; instead, they are as inanimate as mountains and exist only to be conquered (Whitehead, 2002, p. 23).”

Brianna is imprisoned by this philosophy, that girls are simply sex objects. She illustrates this through her profession, prior to her appearance on The Real World, as an exotic dancer. She becomes submissive to men by stripping for them to make money. The inclusion of twenty year old Brianna, into this season of The Real World, strengthens the message of “sex sells”, to teenage girls who watch the show. Since this show is considered “real”, it becomes ever more serious because girls see this profitable occupation as attainable.

In addition to Brianna’s night time job as a sex icon, she also fits the stereotype that women should be thin and attractive. All of the girls on The Real World are thin and often parading around in small bikinis and skin baring outfits. Even though it is considered a reality television show, in reality, not all women have thin bodies that they enjoy exposing.

As mentioned before, women are not only sexually objectified in media, but portrayed as submissive. This is most apparent in the field of advertising. In several advertisements, women are often seen in a belittling position, looking up at men. Another common symbolism in advertisements is the positioning of women so that their mouth is completely or partially hidden. This symbolizes that women should be seen, but not listened to. This symbolism reaffirms that men are superior, the premise of a patriarchal society. Allan G. Johnson describes patriarchy in his article, Patriarchy, the System: An It, Not a He, a Them or an Us, “It's about defining women and men as opposites, about the "naturalness" of male aggression, competition, and dominance and of female caring, cooperation, and subordination. It's about the valuing of masculinity and maleness and the devaluing of femininity and femaleness (Johnson, 1997, p. 92).” Patriarchy does not just focus on male dominance, but the outcomes because of it. In Brianna’s situation on The Real World, she is often submissive to males. Brianna seems to pour her feelings over her ex boyfriend, who previously harassed and verbally assaulted her. Even while living on the other side of the country, Brianna still calls her ex boyfriend and continues to be bashed by his accusatory language. Brianna seems to be submissive to other men as well. She is willing to sexually exploit herself to receive attention from guys, and shares that she does not care if she is respected or not.

The second stereotype that Brianna faces on a daily basis is one of race. In The Real World, both overt and inferential racism are seen in the episodes. Brianna is African American and from the city of Philadelphia. Brianna is very light skinned, thin, and has long blonde hair, so she does not have the typical characteristics of black women: dark skinned, curvy, and shorter, ebony colored hair. Racism is still directed at her however, particularly by the other two girls in the show, who called Brianna “a nice girl” but not “close” with them.

To focus on racism in the media, Jennifer Pozner describes many characters that are commonly seen on television in her article, The Unreal World. One of the characters is a female African American. “Women of color are tokenized and often eliminated after each series debut (Pozner, 2004, p. 98).” Although I did not watch the entire season of The Real World, in the first episode, Brianna receives a phone call from her home in Philly, sharing that there is a warrant out for her arrest. Because of this warrant, Brianna believes her time in Hollywood might be cut short, because she only has a month to return home and untangle the messy situation. Pozner’s theory is supported because Brianna is the only character who hints that she may leave early.
Besides this passive racism, there is also the detail, that Brianna is African American and in trouble by the police, to be considered. No one else on the show has a warrant out for their arrest, except the Black girl, which gives the other girls a reason to push Brianna away, since she does not quite “fit in”.

Another description of colored females in Pozner’s piece is that they often play the more common “hyper-sensitive ‘sista with attitude’ whom everyone hates (Pozner, 2004, p. 98).” In another episode of The Real World, tensions build between Brianna and another girl, when Brianna wants to bring some agents to the house but is unable to because there are too many guests already in the house. The fight pushes the other girl to repeatedly use the phrase, “Don’t get ghetto on me!” and accuse Brianna of coming “from Blackville”. This overt racism not only upsets Brianna, but I am sure every other black female who watched it. The girls in the household have quickly gone from “not feeling close” to Brianna to displaying their racist ideologies.

The last stereotype that Brianna faces on The Real World stems from the influence of social class. It is interesting that someone like Brianna would even be portrayed on television, specifically a “documentary” of the lives of people living together in Hollywood. Traditionally, television only focuses on middle class society and upper class society. Rarely do people from the working class go on reality TV, or have lives depicted in network shows. This excerpt from an article by Croteau and Hoynes (2000), shares the secret behind class and media, specifically newspapers. However, it can be applied to television, magazines, radio, books, and other types of media.

"Newspapers receive about two-thirds of their revenue from advertisers, not readers; therefore, they must be sensitive to advertiser needs in order to stay in business. In turn . . . advertisers want to reach only readers with enough disposable income to buy their products. . . . To sell advertising space at a premium, newspapers want to improve the demographic profile (in terms of average household income) of their readership. They can do this in two ways: attract more affluent readers, and/or get rid of poorer readers. (Croteau & Hoynes, 2000, p. 215)"

Basically, this quote explains that advertisers want upper and middle class people to be depicted on television, because it will attract the interest of these classes. As a result, these wealthier families will view advertisements that will encourage them to buy products ultimately benefiting the advertisers (Newman, 2007).

While Brianna avoids thr stereotype of not existing in media at all, she has some other prejudices to tackle. Brianna is from the city of Philadelphia, and it is clear that she does not come from a wealthy or overly caring family. She explains in one episode that her sister is “crazy”, her father left her family, and her mother kicks her out on a regular basis. When Brianna was nineteen, she became pregnant and could not afford to keep the baby or pay for an abortion. For this reason, Brianna decided to become a stripper, after she raised enough money for an abortion, she continued to dance because it was profitable. Upon learning all this information, her female housemates quote, “I make fun of girls like her at home”. It is apparent that Brianna is from a low socioeconomic class and that she has a lot of problems: stripper, abortion, warrant for arrest, starts fights with others, etc. As a result, viewers may associate this rebellious lifestyle as a result of low social status. Since the working class is not typically illustrated on television, the few times that it is brought up are crucial. The way Brianna is depicted on The Real World is not in favor of the working class.

To sum it all up, race, gender, and class stereotypes exist in today’s hegemonic society, alienating certain groups. Some characters display these stereotypes on reality TV, such as Brianna from The Real World. Identity is something that each individual has but it can often become distorted by these stereotypes. It is important to try to remain unbiased when watching shows on television, even if they are considered to be “reality”.

Johnson, A. G. (1997). Patriarchy, the system: An it, not a he, a them or an us. The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy. Temple University Press.

Let’s not get ghetto. (2008) [Television series episode]. In The Real World: Hollywood. MTV.

Newman, D. M. (2007). Identities and inequalities. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Pozner, J. L, (2004). The unreal world. Learning Gender.

Welcome to Hollywood. (2008) [Television series episode]. In The Real World: Hollywood. MTV.

Whitehead, A. (2002). Girls, sexuality, and pop culture. Off Our Backs. (32)5, 22-26.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Behind the Scenes at Cosmopolitan: Mixed Messages (Blog Post #2)

In this day and age, if you open up a magazine geared toward young females, it is likely that the first page will be an advertisement. The second page, the third page, and the fourth page should be advertisements as well. The trend probably continues until the table of contents is located. In one particular Cosmopolitan magazine, there was page after page of advertisements, until I finally found the list of articles on page 23 (not that the articles are free of marketing and bias either). Every single one of the advertisements sold either a make up product, clothing line, skin care product, or hair care product. There is no wonder that women in society are so obsessed with looking good. Not only are the advertisements selling products and putting beauty on a pedestal, but they are also sending conflicting messages to women, about who they should become, and how they should act. “Blend in and stand out” is the catch line for one make up advertisement. “Sexy vs. Skanky” is the headline of another article, which tells women what is “acceptable” and what is “over the line”. The content of magazines and their advertisements send several conflicting messages to girls about beauty and behavior and pressure them to fit into the “ideal” female mold, which is unattainable.

An article by Higginbotham helps portray the messages that magazines like Cosmopolitan are sending, “Several months’ worth of Teen, Seventeen, YM, and Sassy left me with a blur of contradictory messages about how to navigate life as an adolescent girl. The sum of it is this: be pretty, but not so pretty that you intimidate boys, threaten other girls, or attract inappropriate suitors, such as teachers, bosses, fathers, and rapists; be smart, but not so smart that you intimidate boys or that, god forbid, you miss the prom to study for finals; be athletic, but not so athletic that you intimidate boys or lead people to believe that you are aggressive, asexual, or a lesbian or bisexual; be happy with yourself, but not if you’re fat, ugly, poor, gay, disabled, antisocial, or can’t as least pass as white (Higginbotham, 1996, p. 96).” Although the collage that I have created does not show every single one of these conflicting messages, I tried to incorporate as many as I could. One advertisement bears the words, “Philanthropist or sex kitten? Now you can be both,” telling girls that they should be sexy, but smart. Another favorite is the advertisement for cologne, with a man, that bears the slogan, “Do you respond when called upon?” This advertisement sends the message that women should be submissive. However, most other advertisements in this magazine encourage women to “make an entrance” and “look downright dangerous”. Another contradicting message is that, even though most of the magazine sells beauty products and gives beauty tips on how to stand out, one clothing advertisement displays a quote, “I love wearing this dress like this because it takes no effort. You just put it on, and you automatically look pulled together.” So even though Victoria’s Secret tells you that “the sexist women in the world wear Very Sexy makeup” another advertisement tells girls that all they need is a “little black dress.” It is no wonder why females are never satisfied with their appearance. The ideal female is impossible to attain.

Although the ideal “look” is impossible to attain, females do not know that. They see advertisement after advertisement and article after article of women who appear to be “perfect”. What these same women do not know is that the models are airbrushed and photo shopped to look this way. Companies are trying to sell their product by showing their audiences that the product will make them look “perfect”, the way they want to look. One advertisement for Diet Coke, actually digitally created a woman to advertise that Diet Coke is apparently like a “diet” and will help women become slender. These images are not real, and certainly not possible. Hesse and Biber describe in chapter three of their book how the situation works. “Most women feel their bodies fail the beauty test, and the American health and beauty industry benefits enormously from continually nurturing feminine insecurities. If women are busy trying to control their bodies through dieting, excessive exercise, and self-improvement, they are distracted from other important aspects of selfhood that might challenge the status quo." In the words of one critic, "a secretary who bench-presses 150 pounds is still stuck in a dead-end job; a housewife who runs the marathon is still financially dependent on her husband. (Hesse & Biber, 2007, p. 63)" These advertisements are not helping women, but harming them instead. Women are being sucked into a glamorized world where they try to become someone who they are not. As a result, the rest of reality may fall apart because the quest for such beauty is endless and threatening. In an advertisement for sexual lubricant, the slogan reads, “The best thing to happen to sex since love.” In a world ruled by appearance, love does not exist because women have morphed into sex objects. Another advertisement reads, “Tantalizers. Finally, faking it is better than the real thing.” This encourages women to be someone they are not because it is better. There are also pictures with a man with multiple girls, showing that the heteronormative lifestyle is no longer “in”. These messages are not positive and are harmful to women by sending them on a downward spiral to dissatisfaction.
Hesse & Biber, (2007). The Cult of Thinness. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Higginbotham, A. (1996). Teen mags: How to get a guy, drop twenty pounds, and lose your self-esteem. Learning Gender, 93-96.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Blog Post #1

Sugar and Spice and All that is Nice vs. Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails

One of the most obvious stereotypes in American society regards gender. Adults often do not think twice about dressing their daughters in pink and their sons in blue. However, as soon as young adult men and women graduate college and the male receives a higher positioned job offer than the equally educated female, these gender labels are suddenly a concern. Newman states in chapter four of his book, Identities and Inequalities (2007), "One of the most important aspects of identity that people must learn is gender. Distinctions along sex/gender lines are the cultural, institutional, even architectural foundations of everyday life. Its importance as a shaper of our social experiences is beyond debate. What is debatable, though, is where gendered traits and behaviors come from" (p. 109). Gender stereotypes have always been a problem, and even as some parents might work hard to avoid the stereotypes, (such as the parents of the twins in the beginning of this same chapter) children will learn how boys and girls "should" act according to societal norms through other means.

In order to study how girls and boys learn gender roles, I examined a child care center and how identity is affected by toys, teaching behaviors, and advertising. Before I observed the classrooms, I expected boys and girls to learn their behaviors from engendered toys and different types of media. While I found no evidence to support my theory from the center, this does not mean that the internalization of gender roles does not take place through these means at home. First, the setting of the child care must be described to illustrate how its setting is not conducive to gender stereotypes.

The Setting

The children, toys, teaching behaviors, and advertising were all evaluated at the Merrill Lynch Family Center (MLFC) in Hopewell, New Jersey (this is where I work seasonally). The family center serves as a learning and caring environment for newborns to children of the age of six. The center is for children of Merrill Lynch employees only. It is run by an organization called Bright Horizons, which sets up child care centers globally, focusing on providing employer-sponsored care (Bright Horizons, 2008). Considering that these child care centers are mainly built to cater the needs of parents who work for large businesses, it can be expected that the company the center serves will heavily influence the way in which their children are taught. For example, in each component of the day care center: infants, toddlers, preschool, and kindergarten; the classrooms are named to reflect the financial and marketing goals of the firm. The components are dubbed "baby bulls", "toddler tickers", "mini market makers" and "junior investors" respectively.

However, besides this creative naming of each component, Merrill Lynch does not have a large say on what their children learn and the setting in which they learn. Preschoolers are not learning how to invest money and toddlers are not evaluating the decreases in the stock market. While children do learn how to count, they do not spend all day learning mathematics. The center is accredited under the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and follows strict guidelines to maintain this honor. The center has very limited corporate involvement and almost no advertising, except for a few unavoidable objects. The toys are seemingly appropriate for what society would consider acceptable for both boys and girls to play with. The center also cares for a very diverse population including most minority groups. All children are of at least middle class social status, considering that their parents pay the private center a considerable amount for their services. Despite, this "developmentally appropriate" family center (by NAEYC's standards), children still fall into the preconceived gender roles of American society.

A sign labeling a toddler classroom as "toddler tickers".

The family center works hard to provide a developmentally appropriate atmosphere for children. These dolls help children become culturally aware of different races and ethnicities.

"Toy"ing with Gender Roles

The first area for examination is the role of toys in molding children into gender roles. While Barbie and Bratz introduce young girls to glittery makeup, tight fitting clothing, and pink convertibles, Power Rangers and Transformers are surrounding young boys with violent weapons, noise-making race cars, and other unrealistic scenarios. Newman writes briefly on this topic in his book (2007), "Toys and games that parents provide for their children are another influential source of gender information. A quick glance at Saturday morning television commercials or a toy manufacturer's catalog or web site reveals that toys and games remain solidly segregated along gender lines. Decades of research indicate that "girls' toys" still revolve around themes of domesticity, fashion, and motherhood and "boys' toys" emphasize action and adventure" (p. 112). After reading this information that Newman shared, I looked on the website for Toys R' Us ( I noticed that on the home page there were no distinct categories for shopping for boys or shopping for girls. However, once a category was clicked on, the link gave the option of shopping for each gender. Even the category of books was gender sorted. I also noticed that the website was broken down by brand name. I was curious to see if a brand such as Bratz would be categorized by gender, and I was surprised to see that it was. I clicked the link "boys" and several dolls, games, and DVDs appeared in the toy search engine. I found this interesting because it did not comply with the typical gender stereotype that dolls are for girls.

Relating this information back to the MLFC, I took notice that each classroom did not have many toys that could be stereotypically for boys or girls only. The classroom is full of various manipulates and centers that would be deemed appropriate by societal norms for boys or girls. There are computers, a dramatic play area, a blocks and building area, a writing center, a science center, and a few others. Pink sparkly Barbies and light sabers can not be found in the classroom. Yet, despite the absence of apparent gender specific toys, the boys and girls use the toys differently from one another. This is similar to the beginning scenario in the Newman book, where the boys and girls used the seemingly unisex toys in gender specific ways.

From observing the students I have seen that boys spend most of their time in the blocks and building area, while girls tend to favor the dramatic play area. Girls often spend a considerable amount of time coloring, while boys also appear attached to the computers. Occasionally, a few boys will play in the dramatic play area, but it typically is the same students over and over again. This evidence helps to show that gender roles are established outside the classroom. The children are presented with the same toys, yet they still show favoritism.

A male student plays in the blocks and building area, while two female students play in the dramatic play area.

Most toys do not appear to be gender specific.

Two gender specific computer games found in the classroom. Computer games labeled as "for boys" and "for girls".

Unconscious Behaviors

The second area of examination is how teacher and adult behavior influences the identity that children habituate. The heteronormative society has followed a constructionist approach about how girls and boys should behave. Newman states it plainly in his book, "Because gender-typed expectations are so ingrained, parents are often unaware that they are treating their children in accordance with them (p. 111). When a person is use to behaving in a particular way, it is often hard to realize that their behavior may not be the most appropriate. For example, in the classroom at MLFC, it is common for teachers to make unconscious judgements with their words and actions. When a child walks into the room for the first time of the day, a teacher often will make a suggestion depending on their gender. If the child is a girl, a teacher might suggest that they draw a picture of a princess or make a card for their mother. If the child is a boy, it is common for the teacher to suggest that they build a tall Lego tower. Although, boys might enjoy drawing, and girls might enjoy building with Lego's, gender stereotypes are reinforced because teachers have the idea in their head that each gender has a particular preference toward one activity than the other.

Teachers' actions, as well as verbal cues, are also part of the influence of gender roles as well. I have noticed that teachers in the center tend to yell at the boys and remove them from activities, while they give girls more warnings and use calmer voices when a child is disruptive. This enforces the stereotype that boys are more physical and unable to talk things out or control their physical behavior.

Subliminal Messages Through Advertising

The last point I would like to discuss from my evaluation of MLFC is the way that advertisements impact the children in the classroom. According to Giroux's article in the collection Gender, Race and Class in the Media (2003), "Schools are being transformed into commercial rather than public spheres as students become subject to the whims and practices of marketers whose agenda has nothing to do with critical learning and a great deal to do with restructuring of civic life in the image of market culture" (p. 173). Schools are becoming giant billboards for companies selling various products to easily influenced children. As long as companies are willing to give funds, schools advertise their products in reciprocity.

Although advertising is a bigger problem for public schools, some private schools are falling “captive” to corporations as resources are traded for “billboard” space. Considering the close attachment between Merrill Lynch and the family center, it is expected that at least inferential messages would be advertised (Merrill Lynch is not owned by any media giants however, and is a large global entity.) However, the center is seemingly “ad”less; walls are blank except for child art work and important bulletins, that at most, bear the logo for “Bright Horizons”. As for toys and games there are only a few consistent brands that appear in each classroom. Lakeshore, Discount School Supply, and Scholastic are the main companies that toys are purchased from. However, each classroom is not limited to purchasing their toys from these manufacturers. While favoring some companies might seem like a marketing plot, it is difficult to say that play dough from one company is sending different messages than the play dough from another. In fact, most toys are removed from their original packaging and place in a plain basket so that the company which created the toy is unidentifiable by children. There are even a few center rules that limit advertising. For example, books, toys and games that have name brands such as Dora the Explorer, Blue’s Clues, Barbie, and Sesame Street are not recommended for teacher purchase.

While classrooms appear to be essentially free of company involvement, advertising does sneak in. A company called Hatch supplies computers and internet safe desktops for preschool, kindergarten, and employee use ( ). Computers, mouse pads, and desk tops all display the Hatch logo. As far as I know, Hatch solely supplies developmentally appropriate toys for early childhood curriculum. Most of the computer games also sport their logos before children play them. Analyzing each program would take a considerable amount of time, though might yield interesting results.

Besides the Hatch influence on the computers, the only other possible advertising influence comes from food services, which is provided by Sodexo. Snacks such as Rice Krispy Treats and Tropicana Orange Juice are used frequently in the classroom. I did not find much information on which companies Sodexo is linked to but it does provide more than just food services. Different branches of Sodexo have been questioned on their nutritional values. Several children in schools in Chicago received food poisoning from burritos distributed by Sodexo. (The food in Eickhoff and Travers/Wolfe Hall are products of Sodexo and a sore topic among The College of New Jersey residents).

While the center is not as affected by companies as greatly as some other schools, the way advertising affects children is inevitable. Children love to bring in their Transformers magazines, talking dolls, and Hot Wheels. Daily children wear Spiderman and Disney Princess shirts. Advertising seems to sneak in through all the cracks. The impact of advertisements and companies are illustrated in the play of children. Whether they set up a Friendly’s ice cream parlor in the dramatic play area, or play Power rangers on the playground, the influence of advertising is unavoidable and affects a child’s perception of who they are and how they should behave.

Toys are removed from original packaging and placed in baskets without any logos or brand names.

Walls only show children's work and important bulletins. Advertisements are not to be found.

Standard puzzles and games are used, popular name brands are avoided.


My analysis of the childcare center showed that even though the center was free from gender specific toys and marketing, the children in the center were well aware of what is expected of boys and girls. Identity development and gender stereotypes are learned by children through a variety of means. Even in a developmentally appropriate center under NAEYC guidelines, constructionist views slip through the cracks.

Works Cited

Bright Horizons (2008) Retrieved May 20, 2008, from Web site:

Dines, G. & Humez, J. (Ed.). (2003). Gender, race, and class in media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Hatch (2008). Retrieved May 20, 2008, from Web site:

National Association for the Education of Young Children (2008). Retrieved May 20, 2008, from Web site:

Newman, D. M. (2007). Identities and inequalities. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Toys R'Us (2008). Retrieved May 20, 2008, from Web site:

Walker, T. (2002). Who is Sodexho? Retrieved May 20, 2008, from LabourNet UK Web site:

Monday, May 12, 2008

test blog

just testing out this blog...

all my posts are associated with the following site:

check it out ;-)

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