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The Media: THe Social Construction Of Gendered Parental Roles Essay, Research Paper

The Media: The Social Construction of Gendered Parental Roles

There is a type of discrimination that occurs every day in our modern society. It goes largely unnoticed and unacknowledged, but hurts millions with its silent sting. It is the discrimination against fathers and is perpetrated by the long tendrils of the media. Every father, no matter how adequate, inadequate or superb, is affected by this constant defamation. This discrimination consists of the constant degrading of the parenting role of the father and is, as well as has been a detriment to the fostering of positive relations between a father and his child or children increasingly over the past years. This treatment is unfair, unfounded and harmful. Unfortunately, it is also prevalent in our society. The media, as the largest shaper of social constructions, is most effective through two of its most popular subdivisions, the entertainment media and the advertising media. Both parts have a long-standing record of discrimination against fathers and show no sign of recognizing the implications of their actions, let alone stopping them. The reason why this is such a tragedy is that the images that the media portrays are so often taken as fact, that these beliefs have sunken into our societal consciousness and become “truths” in the mind of the average American when they truly are not. With few images to hint at the contrary in our lives, how can we defend ourselves from falling victim to the unfounded dominant belief? The truth is that we cannot, but at least we can attempt to recognize the roots of our beliefs and at least begin to question the “givens”. The discrimination against fathers is an issue of culture and not of nature.

Through the television and movies, all we see, in regards to fathers, is the media’s portrayal of their fabled inability to effectively parent. It is rarely directly said that fathers are not as well equipped to parent as mothers, but it is greatly implied. Every night it gains way into our living rooms through the evening news and our favorite sitcoms. Through television shows such as Home Improvement and Coach, we learn to see men, and more specifically fathers, as insensitive and preoccupied with “manly” things, and overall not as able to parent as mothers. We see the television characters that have come to symbolize the “average” man in our society, a symbolization that they truly do not deserve. On their funny shows, they are seen doing all they can to get out of family activities to go watch football games. We laugh at their foolishness when they cannot figure out how to put a diaper on a baby and blow up the baby’s bottle in the microwave. We swallow these story lines and laugh at them and say, “oh, that’s so true”. By seeing these daily images in such a humorous and entertaining manner, we do not view them as harmful, but it is this comfort level which makes us blind to their detrimental effects. These messages are also conveyed through the almost weekly “TV movie” which all too frequently airs on the major networks. These sappy movies, more often than not, are about a “mother’s story”. The specific movie topics range from stories of the hardships that a mother must go through to get her child back from an evil father to how difficult it is living as a single mother. These kind of stories surely happen in our society, but I have never once seen a story about the love a father has for his children in fighting against a psychotic mother. This type of show just wouldn’t be successful, as people like to play to their current stereotypes and rarely to the truth.

A survey that I conducted yielded revealing results as to the media’s affect on people’s formulation of perspective. Twenty percent of the respondents said that the media’s image of the “deadbeat dad” was a noticeable contributor to their images of the current perception of fathers. One student said that mothers were better parents because “Fathers abandon their children”. Another said that she admired mothers so much because they are always there when “the father runs out on the child”. These are clear images of the media’s profound affect on us when it comes to our gendered beliefs. The further solidification of this assertion is that neither student had a parent that left them nor did either report to favor one of their parents over the other. If their beliefs do not come from personal experience, then where do they come from?

In the same survey, when asked for a television show, movie, or advertising campaign that demonstrated, for them, the perfect family, twenty-five percent of the respondents said that Leave It to Beaver was their choice. One student even partially acknowledged the roots of his reply; “I guess because the media always says they’re the picture perfect family and it seems to be implanted in our heads.” Responses are both shocking and disturbing. They hint at a lack of acknowledgement for changing social norms. Another student noticed the fault in this antiquated image; “The media is caught up in the past, a world of unequal social ‘rules’; its time to move on.” It was refreshing to read one male student’s response regarding the “perfect family”, he said, “These days there is no such thing as a perfect family because there are so many types of families.” With this statement, he solidified the argument for a progression away from the gender governed days of the fifties into a more modern and equitable family situation. One example of this was many of the respondent’s belief that The Cosby Show was their definition of the perfect family because everyone was valued and shared both love and responsibilities with their children.

Stereotypes sell at the box office too. Movies such as Liar Liar, The Santa Clause, and Donnie Brasco all did extremely well while all three had main characters that were horrible fathers to their children. The fathers in these movies each forgot an important day for their children (birthday, Christmas and Holy Communion) while the mothers were there to comfort the children about their father’s absence. Why in the entertainment media are fathers always seen as irresponsible and ignorant while the mothers remain a pillar of stability and support? We, as consumers of this bunk, fall into the belief, through our constant exposure to this image, that this is obviously the case. We receive the same barrage from all facets of our media exposure, including the news, the Internet, radio and most affectivity, through product advertising.

Discrimination pays in the consumer market when it comes to children’s commodities. All products seem to jump on the “anti-father” bandwagon. Cereals such as Kix have found it useful to show their preference for mothers with their slogan, “Kid tested, mother approved”. What does this imply to the consumer? That buying this product is okay because mothers say that it is good? Jiff Peanut Butter believes that “choosy moms choose Jiff”. What do choosy fathers choose? Pull-ups Diapers tells its customers that when their toddlers use their product, they will say, “Mommy wow, I’m a big kid now”. If this phrase were to be taken literally, this would imply that only mothers are proud of their children’s accomplishments. All of these slogans should lead the consumer to ask the question, where are the fathers? The reason why these types of ad campaigns are so successful is that, in large part, the fathers are in the isles buying these products along side mothers and are blind to the severity with which they are being shafted.

There has never been a time in history more deserving of equality amongst parents than in our present era. With both children in daycare and women in the work force increasing (21.1% in 1960 to 58.2% in 1990), there is no better time for fathers to rise and take their position as respected and loving parents (www.xenocide.nando.net). According to the same source, children in daycare is also on the rise; this can only beg for greater time for fathers to spend more time with their children and demonstrate all that they have to offer. The only reason these one sided images are prevalent in the media is because we allow them to be. As one respondent in a survey of Boston College students shared, unknowing of the full implications of his response, “Media = reality.” Believing this, it is all too easy to fall in line of culture. It is too often held as fact that mothers are the better-equipped parents of the children. This concept holds its strength in its longevity. The media needs to recognize that fathers are taking a larger role now, than ever before, in the upbringing of their children. The movie Mrs. Doubtfire is one example of how the media can portray fathers in a more positive light and still be well

The survey also indicated that respondents with mothers who worked and fathers who stayed home with the children had completely different responses. They had the same general perceptions of society’s view that mothers are better parents, but had different personal beliefs. Unlike nearly all of the other respondents, they equated nurturing, loving and supporting to their fathers and strength, rationality, and toughness to their mothers. This hints at a correlation between the family’s division of responsibilities and the respondent’s perceptions of which parents occupy which characteristics and speaks of a connection between. Another evidence that these beliefs are cultural and not natural.

received. More films, television shows and advertising campaigns need to open their minds to the realities of fatherly roles. In order for fathers to successfully continue to increase their role in the upbringing of their children, they need equal treatment with mothers. We no longer live in the 1950s and the media needs to recognize this in its portrayal of fathers. How easy would it be to give father characters in the movies and television shows a more updated societal definition and, in advertising, say “parent”, instead of “mother”? The answer to this question is sadly not at all easy. This is the case because the viewers have such strongly engrained images that fathers will not soon be accepted in the public eye. Fathers don’t sell in the media-how can we expect them to appear when we, the public don’t want to see them.

We have to ask ourselves why we so often believe, as one of the survey respondents replied that, “mothers are more caring and loving than fathers.” This “fact” is all too often cited and supported by phrases such as, “mother knows best”, “a face only a mother could love”, and the sacred “maternal instinct.” Not only do these phrases speak to mothers’ abilities, but they also, by lack of opposite gendered accompaniment, imply that fathers do not bear the same characteristics. Is there no paternal instinct? no father’s love for ugly children? These beliefs use the “natural” argument in their own support, that females are born to be better parents that men, are preposterous. As the well respected sociologist Anderson questions: “we have to wonder why biological differences are so often claimed as explaining inequality between the sexes.” (Anderson 28) The problem with such questioning such a societal “given”, is that its tendrils lay in every facet of our lives. If we were to look at the television, down the street, or into any part of our lives, we wold see nothing other than the furtherance of these images. It is only when we see the networks of tradition holding up these beliefs and shadowing the true equality between the sexes, that we will be able to agree with the sociologists who believe that sex and gender roles, “[are] a cultural and not a biological phenomenon.” (Anderson 31)

The belief that mothers are more innately able to parent than fathers is far from truth. This belief which rests so firmly at the heart of our core beliefs is all too often taken as fact. The derivations of such beliefs are curious yet obvious. These hegemonic ideas are proliferated in the name of culture and are accepted because, “that’s the way it has always been and always will be.” Why is this the case? This is true because we have grown immune to the stinging effects of culture. We see our cultural lives with rigid boundaries when in fact, they are an ever-changing region of social acceptance. Where once homosexuals and minorities were viewed as obviously lesser people, the boundaries have shifted to, at least in name, include them in the dominant beliefs of society. Who knows how long it will take for fathers to receive their recognition, but one can only hope that this change will occur sooner than later. In order for such social inequalities to be remedied, social recognition and acknowledgement must take place. It is only when we challenge our definitions of “obvious” and “natural” that fathers will receive their just recognition. But with bias cultural margin setters such the media in the way of this shift in acceptance, it can only be hoped that individuals will take notice to the inequalities surrounding parenting roles. It is only when we acknowledge these cultural ills that they can be fixed. As Anderson concurs: “People are not mere receptacles for social life; rather they actively participate in and create social change.” (Anderson 49) We see these images in the media because the media knows that we want to. How can we expect to see anything different when we truly believe what we see, that mothers are better parents than fathers? How can we expect the media to change its point of view when we ourselves refuse to question the validity of our beliefs?


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