March 24, 2020
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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, shared the negative and often unhealthy implications of these stereotypes to a packed house in the latest Kenyon Unique lecture Feb. 27. The lecture series features distinguished faculty members whose talks are recorded for a digital archive. Murnen’s speech also was livestreamed.
Her talk, “Boys Act and Girls Appear: Gender Stereotypes in Popular Culture,” drew from the wide variety of studies she publishes, often with student researchers. Three psychology majors — Abigail Younger ’15, Hope Boyd ’12 and Claire Greenfield ’13 (a double major in modern languages and literatures) — received author credits on Murnen’s most recently published study 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 that 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 seen.
“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.
Murnen, often working with co-researcher Linda Smolak, professor emerita of psychology and deputy civil rights/Title IX coordinator, said the research topics spur engaging classroom conversations about how gender roles are associated with power. “That’s the great thing about teaching at a liberal arts college. You have very interested students,” she said. “You can talk about this in class with students who want to do research.”
Part of what interests Murnen is how a culture of sexier clothes and stereotyped products affect people’s perceptions of women. For example, in one study, people who viewed images of a fifth-grader in more revealing clothing judged her as less competent and moral compared to those who saw her in childlike clothing.
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. “The increased pressure on men to look increasingly muscular in unrealistic ways is related to the pressure on women to appear thinner and more sexual.”
While parents are encouraging their daughters to recognize that they are powerful, Murnen said she would like to see more emphasis on encouraging boys to be nurturing and to acknowledge and challenge sexist behavior.
Murnen, whose student research team now is poring over images of famous male and female athletes, is critical of popular books that use sketchy research to promote the unsupported idea that men and women are biologically different. She is glad to have the chance to bring an in-depth conversation about gender, similar to her classroom discussions with students, 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.