Release: Feb. 17, 2016
GAMBIER, Ohio – Sarah Murnen, the Samuel B. Cummings Jr. Professor of Psychology, has examined photos, toys and clothes for years seeking evidence of gender stereotyping: hands in powerful fists for male superheroes, low-cut tops marketed to young girls or a demure head tilt on princess dolls.
Murnen, a sought-after authority on gender issues in the national media, will share the negative and often unhealthy implications of these stereotypes in the latest Kenyon Unique lecture at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27, in the Community Foundation Theater of the Gund Gallery, 101 1/2 College Drive. The lecture series features distinguished faculty members whose talks are recorded for a digital archive.
Her talk, “Boys Act and Girls Appear: Gender Stereotypes in Popular Culture,” will draw from the wide variety of studies she publishes, including her latest on popular children’s Halloween costumes, dolls and action figures and boxed Valentine’s Day cards that kids give out at school.
One finding was: 78 percent of male characters across the three product categories had uniforms or functional clothing designed for action, while 88 percent of females had clothing designed to be decorative and looked at.
“These male characters are much more likely to be shown in motion, and the female characters are shown in decorative clothing, posed in various ways to look like they are supposed to be an object rather than an actor,” she said.
Research shows that persistent objectification of women and girls leads some of them to objectify themselves, which could mean that they monitor their bodies closely, feel ashamed of their looks or compare themselves with other females or unrealistic body ideals, Murnen said.
That body shame is associated with developing eating disorders and depression. “Stereotypes are potentially dangerous,” she said. “Extreme gender role behavior is not healthy.”
Men are not immune to these messages, and part of what makes Murnen’s research distinctive is that she considers stereotypes for both sexes. Images and depictions of males increasingly include hyper-masculine characteristics, such as unattainable muscularity, which are associated with aggression and an inability to show empathy, she said.
While parents are encouraging their daughters to pursue math and science confidently and to recognize that they are powerful, Murnen said she would like to see more emphasis on encouraging boys to be nurturing and to recognize sexism and to challenge it. She is glad to have the chance to bring an in-depth conversation about gender to a wider audience through Kenyon Unique.
“I hope the talk will help people think a little more critically about how our culture continues to propagate gender stereotypes despite the change in women’s roles,” she said.