According to a recent New York Times op-ed, “Google, Tell Me, Is My Son a Genius?”, parents’ Google search trends teach us a lot about parents’ biases towards their sons and daughters. Specifically, parents tend to search the internet for information affirming their sons’ brilliance, but when it comes to their daughters, they focus on physical appearances—revealing our deeply held cultural beliefs that boys should be smart and girls should be pretty.
Internalized sexism is alive and well in America today, embedded in the subconscious of well-intended parents.
Now, because I’m a professor with an interest in girls’ media culture, I read a lot of scholarly studies about girls’ socialization. So when I read this op-ed, I immediately thought of studies that show how parents’ unspoken biases can harm their daughters. Specifically, researchers have found that when mothers feel critical about their daughters’ bodies, their daughters are significantly more likely to have poor body esteem—even if the mothers have kept those critical feelings to themselves! Our kids are savvy and attuned to us; they can pick up on our unstated feelings.
Therefore, if Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s op-ed is right—if parents across the U.S. are asking Google if their daughters are thin and pretty—daughters across the nation must be feeling pretty badly about their bodies, even if they never catch wind of their parents’ search strings.
If we parents are trying to do right by our kids, and trying to teach our kids to resist the stereotypes found in our culture–but, paradoxically, we’re part of the same culture we want our kids to resist—what can we do?
First, we can take stock of what we already know about media stereotypes in kids lives. For example, we know that media portrayals of boys and girls mirror cultural attitudes.
For example, studies show that kids feel it’s really important for boy characters in the media to be smart and for girl characters to be pretty—mirroring their parents’ search strings. Girls identify with female characters they consider attractive, whereas boys identify with male characters they consider intelligent. This is probably because of the biases they they pick up on at home, at school, and from other media.
When television shows and toys show girls in stereotypical roles, with stereotypical traits (boys who are valued for being smart and girls who are valued for being pretty), they’re reflecting widespread cultural ideas about girlhood and boyhood. But those stereotypical representations also reinforce those attitudes—making it cyclical. This means we need to break the cycle.
Therefore, my take is this. Effecting change requires three things:
- Consciousness-raising (helping us all to see our own biases, so that we can overcome them);
- Media literacy work (to help parents and kids break down and resist the biases they see on screen); and
- Activism, to hold media producers accountable when they perpetuate these biases.
There’s so much work to be done, it’s overwhelming. But it’s important, and it’s time.
Here are a few resources in each of these areas:
On raising consciousness:
- Read, read, read! Check out blogs like Reel Girl, Operation Transformation, and Beauty Redefined; social media like Princess Free Zone; books like The Beauty Myth, The Body Image Survival Guide for Parents, and Packaging Girlhood.
On media literacy for parents:
- Read my guide to preschool media literacy
- Watch for my book, The Princess Problem, in Fall 2014
Activist organizations to support:
- The Brave Girls Alliance
- Media Literacy Now
- Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood
- Let Toys Be Toys
Note 1: Do you have any additional resources to suggest? Please post them in the comments below so that I might add them here.
Rebecca Hains is a media studies professor at Salem State University. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter. You may also follow Rebecca’s blog by hitting the “follow blog” button at the top left of your screen. Thanks for reading.