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Renee's essay and what her lecturer thought

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Essay topic:

Examine the ways in which the mass media construct and reinforce social stereotypes around gender, ethnicity and age.


Stereotyping is a mental activity that is neither natural or necessary; however, due to laziness, upbringing or coincidental experiences (Lester, 1996, p.1), the stereotyping of individuals results in harmful generalisations that ultimately deny an individual's 'unique contribution to humanity' (Lester, 1996, p.1). When the mass media engage in stereotyping, misleading representations concerning members from diverse cultural groups are confirmed. In this essay, a broad range of texts will be used to examine the ways in which the mass media construct and reinforce social stereotypes around gender, ethnicity and age, as well as how the media shape one's imagination though direct images.

It cannot be doubted that the media profoundly influence people's attitudes and outlooks. They convey a whole variety of information which individuals would not otherwise acquire. Newspapers, books, television, radio, films, recorded music and popular magazines (Giddens, 1989, p.79) bring individuals into close contact with experiences of which we 'would otherwise have little awareness' (Giddens, 1989, p. 79). comment There are very few societies, in current times, even among the more traditional cultures, which remain completely untouched by the mass media. Electronic communication is accessible even to those who are completely illiterate, or in isolated areas of the world.


According to Juredini and Poole, gender usually refers to the 'behavioural and attitudinal characteristics' as well as roles that are learned and derived from a 'particular cultural milieu' (2000, p.171). An important source of gender information in a consumer society is television. Despite some notable exceptions, for example 'Sesame Street', most television shows continue to portray males and females in stereotypical gender roles (Sigorelli, 1990, citied in Newman, 2000, p. 136). In a recent study of television programs, male characters are more likely than female characters to occupy leadership roles and achieve them, as well as being portrayed as inquisitive. In addition, they are more likely to be portrayed in a recognisable occupation, demonstrating to audiences that males are more career orientated and dedicated to work, and emphasising stereotypes that they are the traditional 'bread winners' of the household. Alternatively, females are cast into the role of the caregiver (Thompson and Zerbinos, 1995, cited in Newman, 2000, p. 136). Despite the fact that women make up a majority of the population, most prime time characters on television are male (Smith, 1997, cited in Newman, 2000, p. 136), and are still portrayed as powerful and rational. comment Women express emotions more easily and are more likely to be flirtatious in order to get their own way.

Similarly, in print advertising, women were seen to be in the home, being dependent upon men, and not making 'independent and important decisions' (Creedon, 1989, p. 249), and are often viewed by themselves and by others as sex objects. In addition, the symbols involved in advertising often have a more profound influence on social behaviour than the stated messages the advertising wishes to put forward. Thus, gender divisions are often symbolised in 'what goes on in the setting or the background of a commercial' (Giddens, 1989, p. 446), rather than what it is explicitly selling. In many advertisements, men appear mentally and physically alert, while women are shown gazing into the distance in a dreamy way (Goffman, 1979, cited in Giddens, 1989, p. 446).

A central gender concern is that advertising is a 'shorthand form of communication' (Creedon, 1989, p. 249) that must make contact with the consumer immediately, in order to establish a shared experience or identification, and is most popularly undertaken through stereotypical imagery. In turn, these images form the 'cores of [one's] personal tradition, the defenses of [one's] position in society' (Creedon, 1989, p. 249), thus reinforcing the social stereotype.


Children also receive gender lessons. Understandably, most research about the influence of television and the media has concerned children, given the sheer volume of their viewing and the 'possible implications for socialisation' (Giddens, 1989, p. 444). In their literary pursuits, books have the capabilities to teach children what other children do in their culture and what is expected of them. In a study undertaken in America analysing preschool books, boys played a 'more significant role' in the stories by a 'ratio of 11 to 1' (cited in Newman, 2000, p. 135). Together, boys were portrayed in adventurous roles or undertook activities that required independence and strength, whereas girls were likely to be confined to indoor activities and portrayed as 'passive and dependent' (Newman, 2000, p.135).


Similarly, the mass media construct and reinforce social stereotypes around ethnicity, particularly through their stereotypical images and portrayal of ethnic groups performing certain roles in society. Sociological approaches which attach particular importance to racism emphasise the limitations imposed on ethnic minorities by such hostility and discrimination (Haralambos and Holborn, 1995, p.688). comment The attention is not placed upon the ethnic minority itself, however on the wider society which is the minority group.

Negative stereotypes of African Americans in particular have been deeply ingrained in Anglo American cultures since Africans were brought into the country in chains (Lester, 1996, p. 21). The stereotypes served an essential purpose - they justified Anglo enslavement of Africans. Today however, the comment Anglos in America have been influenced by media images frequently seen on television and in newspapers of African Americans who are 'violent, criminal, drug-addicted and on welfare' (Lester, 1996, p. 21). As in Australia, Aborigines have been given similar treatment, however they have 'expressed deep concern' (Ericksen, 1996, p. 45) about the way they have been represented in the Australian media. comment Through this, there has been considerably more Aboriginal presence in prime time television, particularly with programs outlining Aboriginal issues such as 'Black Out.' Despite such advancements, regular direct and indirect means of associating Aboriginal persons with criminality, irrational destructiveness and disorder frequently occurs in today's media. Through words such as 'riot' (Ericksen, 1996, p. 46) in Aboriginal headlines and disturbing footage on television, audiences are influenced into constructing ethnic stereotypes of all persons belonging to that culture or group.

Corresponding with gender and ethnicity, the media construct and reinforce social stereotypes around age. According to Golman (cited in Lester, 1996, p.113), all too many television commercials fall back on stereotypes, showing the aged as feeble, foolish or inept, passing their time aimlessly in rocking chairs.' Because seniors are a large and increasingly affluent market, one destined to grow larger as the 1950s baby boomers mature (Lester, 1996, p.114), advertisers should be sensitive to this group. comment If no sensitivity is used, some seniors may take out their anger and frustration toward images and advertising by ignoring or actively boycotting the product.

The mass media reinforce images of the aged through stereotyping, which inevitably engender fear among the elderly, labelling them as 'sick' or 'too old' for certain things. In many cases, older men are seen to have power, whereas older women as seen as weak. Such an example can be seen in the instance where an older chairman in an American television commercial was shown preparing to give a speech to his stockholders in a commercial for Coopers and Lybrand in 1993 (Lester, 2996, p. 90). Being an older woman is not so glamorous and well respected. If an older woman is not portrayed as loving grandmother, there is a good chance she will be portrayed as senile.

Despite the media's reinforcement of social stereotypes among the aged, awareness could assist a better understanding of the elderly in particular. Advertising agencies and advertisers employ young people to write and prepare commercials. Most recent writers on this subject could conclude that 'the age of the advertising producers is an important factor' (Lester, 1996, p. 116) in creating the stereotypical images of age. Young creators working on senior accounts can be a problem, as they do not have the senior's perspective, thus, engaging typically in stereotyping. comment Such hurdles can be overcome by consulting the large amount of research readily available on seniors, and by focusing on a group composed of seniors, which in turn will reinforce alternative views on age and aging.

It is also arguable that the media, instead of being seen as a 'neutral umpire' between competing interests and an efficient way of disseminating information, critical theorists argue that the media are 'very much implicated in power relations' (Juredini and Poole, 2000, p. 313) in society. The most critical view of the media's operations represents the reading, listening and viewing public as victims of a 'giant con trick' (Juredini and Poole, 2000, p. 313), believing in a truth convenient for the powerful groups who describe and interpret the world around us, thus, reinforcing the social stereotypes.

The modern media of communication are similarly central to an individual's life, providing many necessary information services as well as offering possibilities for self-enlightenment and entertainment. The media constructs and reinforces social stereotypes around gender, ethnicity and age around the images that are produced, and by the way they are capable of shaping the individual's attitudes and beliefs. Despite such interpretations, comment it is the choice of the individual what they decide to consume from the diverse amount of information that is served openly to the public, and to eliminate misleading representations concerning members from diverse cultural groups.


[Lecturer's overall comment]


Campbell, C.P. (1995), 'Race, Myth and the News', Sage Publications, California.

Creedon, P. J. (ed) (1989), 'Women in Mass Communication', Sage Publications, London.

Ericksen, H. (ed) (1996), 'The Media's Australia', The Australian Centre, Melbourne, Australia.

Giddens, A. (1989), 'Sociology', Polity Press, United Kingdom.

Haralambos, M., Holborn, M. (1995), 'Sociology - Themes and Perspectives', 4th edn, Collins Educational, Italy.

Jakubowicz, A., Goodall, H. Martin, J., Mitchell, T., Randall, L., Seneviratne, K. (1994), 'Racism, Ethnicity and the Media', Allen and Unwin, Australia.

Juredini, R., Kenny, S., Poole, M. (eds) (1997), 'Sociology- Australian Connections' 1st edn, Allen and Unwin, Australia.

Juredini, R., Poole, M. (eds) (2000), 'Sociology- Australian Connections', 2nd edn, Allen and Unwin, Australia.

Lester, P. M. (1996), 'Images That Injure - Pictorial Stereotypes in the Media', Praeger Press, London.

Newman, D. (2000), 'Sociology- Exploring the Architecture of Everyday Life', 3rd edn, Pine Forge Press, California.

Reeves, B., Nass, C. (1996), 'The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television and the News Media Like Real People and Places', Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, Australia.

Robbins, K., (1996), 'Into the Media Image- Culture and Politics in the Field of Vision', Routledge Press, New York.

This essay is...

This is a well-structured paper that makes good use of the sociological literature and examples to support the assertions that are made. It received a grade just short of a Distinction.

One main area for improvement is that of language use:

  1. in the use and understanding of sociological concepts
  2. in the technical aspects of academic writing, particularly the use of precise and accurate language

The comments below suggest ways in which the paper could be improved to bring it up a grade.

Supporting your assertions

Renee has provided support here for her strong assertion that the media "profoundly" influences people's attitudes, through reference to the literature. However, she also needs to provide a reference to support her assertion that the mass media influences even those who are illiterate or in isolated areas of the world.

Link needed here

This paragraph needs a linking sentence to connect the topic of the previous paragraph - the influence of the media - with the topic of this paragraph - the way that gender is portrayed in the media.

The linking sentence should also be used to indicate how these two topics are being used to build an argument.

A linking sentence for these two paragraphs might read something like the following:

Given the influence of the mass media on people's perceptions, how does it represent gender and, in so doing, construct and reinforce stereotypes around gender?

Use precise and accurate language

  1. Be as accurate as possible in your description of the facts.

    Hence, to be accurate the following phrase "females are cast into the role of the caregiver" should be rewritten as "females are often cast into the role of the caregiver", as females are not always cast in such roles.

    Note that in other parts of this paragraph, Renee has adopted qualified phrases such as "male characters are more likely to be portrayed", which is more accurate than saying "male characters are portrayed as...".

  2. It is also important to make the distinction between what people are and what they are portrayed as, viewed as, perceived as, and so on.

    Hence, "Women express emotions more easily" should be written as "Women are portrayed as expressing their emotions more easily".

  3. Avoid using an informal, spoken style of writing.

    One phrase in this sentence also needs to be more academic in style:

    The phrase "More likely to be flirtatious in order to get their own way" could be rewritten as, "in order to achieve their purposes".

For help with these aspects of writing see the section on Academic Style in Skills for Writing in Sociology.

Use sociological concepts

The use of the terms "teach" and "learn" are not appropriate when discussing the process of socialisation.

Hence, the word "lessons" needs to be replaced with the word "socialisation", and the word "teach" should be replaced with "expose".

Good link to the topic

This is a good opening sentence to this second section of the essay. The word "Similarly" serves to link the topic of ethnicity back to the previous section on gender; and a reiteration of the main concepts of the topic - the "construction" and "reinforcement" of stereotypes - reminds the reader of the main thrust of the essay.

Notice that, in a similar way, the introduction to the third section on age is linked with the first two sections on gender and ethnicity and refers back to the topic. This helps to provide a continuity of argument within the essay.

Meaning unclear

This confused phrase would no doubt have been improved with another edit of the paper.

It is important to allow yourself enough time during the drafting process to do several edits.

Informal, inaccurate term

"Anglos" is an informal, and not strictly accurate, term. It is too narrow.

This is debatable

This point is somewhat debatable. Having a presence in prime time, commercial television is different from being presented in documentary style programs.

Also, you should indicate what channel presents this program - be specific in your reporting of the facts.

More than this

The social, political, and personal consequences are much more significant than this point suggests.

Do not suggest solutions

At this point in your studies you are not required to suggest solutions. You are not yet versed in the complexities of sociological analysis. What you are required to do is to identify problem areas.

Also, note that the use of the word "seniors" here is too informal. Use a word like "the elderly" instead.


This actually contradicts the previous sentence. "Real" choice is difficult if individuals have already internalised particular stereotypes from their social environment.

Final comment

This essay received a grade of D-, which is a solid result in Sociology.

The paper demonstrates a robust discussion of the issues with each point substantiated by reference to relevant examples or the literature.

Significant attention needs to be directed to the technical areas of writing an academic paper at this level.

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