Gendered Media: Meanings and Uses
Dafna Lemish

Introduction In this feature, Dafna Lemish, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, considers boys' and girls' interactions with media in order to further understanding of how these are involved in the process of gender development. Do girls use media for different purposes than boys? Are there gender differences in the meanings associated with the various media? Which gender differences are universal and which culturally bounded? Lemish argues that media consumption is both a means and an end to the process of gender construction: media contribute to the cultivation of values, social norms and expectations, which in turn help to shape children's self-evaluation and aspirations.

We asked around 11,000 children and young people in 11 European countries and in Israel about their use of computers and the Internet. In addition we conducted in-depth interviews with pupils and teachers. Our analysis of the comparative data supports two seemingly contradictory conclusions.

First, we may conclude that boys and girls in Europe differ in their access to media, patterns of use and content preferences, as well as in the social practices and meanings they attach to them. Boys are more technologically oriented while girls are more likely to listen to music and to read. Boys prefer the genres of action/adventure and sports, while girls prefer human relationships and romance. Boys tend to hang out with groups of friends outdoors or at their computers, while girls spend more time with a best friend in the intimacy of their own rooms. Boys' culture is game dominated. Girls' culture is all about relationships and talk. Parents reinforce these trends by their own gendered behaviour: boys and fathers share similar interests in sports and computers, girls and mothers share similar interests in human relationships. In short, the study does confirm traditional gender differences.

At the same time, we can easily arrive at a very different conclusion, for many of the differences we have noted are rather small, even if nevertheless statistically significant. Many girls as well as boys play outdoors and many boys as well as girls read books. Some girls show a strong interest in computer technologies, including the Internet. Some like sport and electronic games, which feature action and adventure. Although fewer girls than boys have such tastes, girls are beginning to explore and engage in the new-media environment. Boys, for their part, are now retreating more into their bedrooms, once a female territory, to play electronic games with friends and siblings. The equalising role television may be playing in this process provides us with insights into these changes. Boys and girls watch television, both intensively and extensively, in similar amounts.

The difference lies in content

However, boys and girls continue to have very different content interests. Genre preferences cross generational gaps--girls watch the same programs as their sisters and mothers, creating a feminine commonality of interests, while boys watch the same programs as their brothers and fathers, guarding their own masculine space at home. It may be that it is not so much the media technologies themselves that create the gender segregation, as it is the contents and meanings these technologies offer, as well as the context of their consumption. When girls are offered attractive options, they too play the computer, visit Internet chat rooms and play outdoors.

Interestingly, we were not able to find cultural differences associated with different social and political contexts (e.g. in the status of women) between countries or groups of countries. For example, we expected to find that children growing up in the Nordic countries in our study, where women are much more visible in positions of power in the public sphere, would exhibit less gendered media uses. This was not found to be the case. Neither were we successful in creating subsets of countries along gender-related criteria.

By way of a tentative conclusion, I would like to speculate about our findings and ask whether there is a new story to tell. On one hand, the new-media environment seems to reinforce a traditionally gendered youth culture as well as gendered domestic lifestyles. At the same time however, many girls in our study seem compelled to stretch traditional gender boundaries and to step into the so-called male territory of new technologies and related genre interests. The development, then, is asymmetrical: girls are increasingly showing an interest in traditionally 'masculine' genres whereas boys continue to show little interest in 'feminine' genres. The possibility of such a change may be a genuine indication of the shrinking of the gender gap and the incorporation of girls in a seemingly 'unisex,' but rather masculine, world of mediated popular culture. Media consumption, I would like to suggest, is both a means and end to the process of gender construction: media contribute to the cultivation of values, social norms and expectations, which in their turn help to shape children's self-evaluation and aspirations.

Simultaneously, self-perception and socialisation pressures shape the construction of gender-appropriate interests and behaviours related to media consumption. Either way, girls and boys are probably adapting their media behaviours to the changing perception of their position in society and to their own interests and needs. Only the future will show whether the picture presented in this feature is indeed one of a moment, in a process of transition towards a less gender-segregated youth culture.

This feature has been adapted from chapter 7 in the book Children and their changing media environment, edited by Sonia Livingstone and Moira Bovill, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001.