Girls Can Be Doctors And Boys Can Be Nurses:
Surfing for Solutions to Gender Stereotyping

Paul Martin Lester (E-mail and home page), California State University, Fullerton


Sexual Rhetoric & the Media

Meta Carstarphen and Susan Zavonia
Greenwood Publishing Group
Westport, CT

When my daughter, Allison, was 7-years-old, I casually asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up.

"A nurse," she answered immediately.

Her quick reply was not totally unexpected. She had been visiting many nurses and doctors for most of her young life. Suffering from ear infections for several years, she recently had recovered from an operation in which tubes were placed in her ears to stop her infections. (Now, as an active 10-year-old I can happily report that she_s the first one in the pool as her ears have totally healed).

But when she answered that she wanted to be a nurse so rapidly, a tiny alarm bell went off in my head.

"You can certainly be a nurse," I answered, and added, "but you can also be a doctor."

She immediately laughed as if that idea was the funniest joke she had ever heard.

"Girls can't be doctors," she asserted.

The alarm bell was now sounding like a buzzer at the end of a basketball game.

"Oh yes they can," I replied a little too forcefully. "And boys can be nurses."

Again, she erupted into a fit of laughter.

I definitely was getting a headache from this ringing in my head (Lester 1998).

The problem with stereotyping
The problem as a parent educating a child on to how stereotypes control thought and action is that what she sees and learns in her own life is reflected and reinforced by what she sees and learns from media messages. Trying to neutralize the stereotypes presented by the media is a daunting task. At best, there are only tiny victories to show for the effort. She might be persuaded to put down her Barbie dolls or concede that maybe being a doctor is a possibility, but given the constant stream of negative views, it is a hard mind-set to overcome. And given such popular television sitcom characters as Ally McBeal, characterized as "... a ditsy 28-year-old Ivy League Boston litigator who never seems in need of the body-concealing clothing that Northeastern weather often requires," it is little wonder that Time magazine devotes a cover to the issue of whether feminism is dead (Bellafante 1998).

Stereotypes are difficult to analyze because there is always some truth in them. If men are often characterized in commercials as insensitive, beer-drinking, sex-crazed, muscle-bound louts, that's because many men fit that description. And if women are portrayed on magazine covers as fashion-frenzied, sexually alluring airheads with few career goals other than to smile for the camera, there are many who wouldn't disagree with that characterization. And since the media are composed of members from society, stereotyping is often a part of the message.

Willard Enteman writes of the meaning of stereotyping:

"While the origin of the word "stereotype" has been almost entirely lost in the dim recesses of linguistic history, it is most closely associated with journalism as a trade. The older print people among us will remember that the original stereotype was called a flong, which was a printing plate that facilitated reproduction of the same material. Thus, a stereotype imposes a rigid mold on the subject and encourages repeated mechanical usage.

"… the purposes of the stereotype are the same as in the print history: They are grounded in laziness. In standard economics, efficiency is another term for laziness. The person who substitutes a stereotype for careful analysis simply does not want to work harder than necessary to achieve a superficially acceptable result (Enteman 1996)."

For visual communicators, whether photographers, videographers, filmmakers, cartoonists, or graphic artists, stereotypes are useful devices because they are easily understood and make a clear, if unfair and at times hurtful, point. As Everette Dennis has written (Lester 1996), "For cartoonists, such depiction is part of their job description, but for communicators charged with an accurate representation of news and information, even entertainment fare, they can be damaging and dangerous."

Because of the biases of media personnel that are based on ethnicity, economics, education, and experience, certain cultural groups receive too much and others too little attention because of preconceived stereotypical views. But responsibility for the images created must be shared between image makers and image consumers. Boycotting a product, turning a page, changing a channel, or walking out of a movie theater because of an offensive message does not absolve anyone's blame. The offending generalization still exists.

Another difficulty with negating the effects of media stereotypes is a result of how the brain processes visual information (Lester 1995). Nerve cells in the visual cortex at the back of the brain combine to reproduce four visual cues for a person--color, depth, form, and movement. When these cues are linked in our minds with pictures in our memory, images remain with us for years. Consequently, pictures are highly emotional objects. Aristotle was the first to recognize the power of emotional messages to persuade others. His logos, ethos and pathos combination of logical argument, credibility, and emotion worked to convince persons in ancient Greece and works today for political spin doctors and motion picture trailer producers. Because pictures affect a viewer emotionally more than words alone do, pictorial stereotypes often become misinformed perceptions that have the weight of established facts. These pictures can remain in a person's mind throughout a lifetime.

What are pictorial stereotypes?
The list is endless and always injurious: African Americans play sports. Latinos join gangs. Native Americans drink alcohol. Wheelchair-using individuals are helpless. Gay men are effeminate. Lesbians wear their hair short. Older adults never have sex. Anglos are racist. Homeless people are drug addicts. These and other stereotypes are perpetuated by visual messages presented in print, television, motion pictures, and computers--the media (Lester 1997).

The media typically portray members of diverse cultural groups within specific content categories--usually crime, entertainment, and sports--and almost never within general interest, business, education, health, and religious content categories. And when we only see pictures of criminals, entertainers, and sports heroes, we forget that the vast majority of people--regardless of their particular cultural heritage--have the same hopes and fears as you or me.

Although it is important to study the messages themselves, it is equally vital to study the underlying motives behind stereotypical portrayals. And more likely than not, the motive behind stereotypical coverage in the media is economic. David Shaw wrote a three-part series for the Los Angeles Times on the crumbling wall that traditionally separated the advertising and editorial departments of newspapers and other media institutions (Shaw 1998). The unfortunate trend is becoming undeniable--marketing concerns at many media organizations are more important than community concerns.

The stereotypes we see in society and in the media are a result of what is expected and what sells. Consequently, the list of stereotypical portrayals of women is endless--any cover of a women's magazine will do. A stereotype is reinforced when the image seen in life or in the media doesn't surprise. Think of women in a typical beer commercial or models in a Victoria's Secret catalog, what images come to mind? When your preconceived idea matches the reality of the media presentation, you've got yourself a stereotype--and a powerful one at that. It is one that is extremely difficult to overcome.

The Mattel toy company, for example, raises stereotypes to new, unexplored levels with its Barbie line of dolls, outfits, and accessories. Recently the toy manufacturer introduced Cool Shoppin' Barbie with an unlimited credit limit MasterCard that sings "credit approved" when run through a tiny toy scanner (Hua 1998). The blonde, blue-eyed, man-and-material-crazed, and unrealistically thin icon of male stereotypical desire now has her little smiling head filled with dreams of unlimited use of plastic. Despite a record 1.35 million people filing for bankruptcy last year largely because of credit card abuse, the doll is an obvious attempt by marketing wizards at MasterCard to enforce brand loyalty early in a child's development. Stereotypes persist by those who don't see the larger societal effects of a product or message.

Fortunately, it appears that letters to Mattel, newspapers, and on the Internet have convinced those responsible to curtail future editions of the happy shopper. And that's an important aspect to consider. Stereotypes get their life from apathy. If no one complains, there's no one to blame and commercial interests continue their business as usual.

Looking pretty--whether in commercials, magazine covers, or as anorexic plastic parts--is rewarded in our society as an end in itself. Smiling with healthy hair and thin features is enough to warrant lucrative contract deals and boys by the bushel. Far too often women are exploited as scantily dressed objectified hood ornaments without active roles, purpose, or much to do.

The world wide web--a source for positive portrayals
But there's a place that is a haven for realistic and supportive images that defy the commercially-inspired stereotypes. This place is called the World Wide Web. The Web is not a place for grazing passively. It is a medium where users learn to take an active role in the media messages they seek. The sure way to combat negative stereotypes is to change society--an almost impossible task. Until that day, however, individuals learning to be users of the media with critical opinions and discriminate tastes instead of passive readers and viewers is a more realistic goal. The Web can help teach that form of critical analysis.

Here is a small sample of sites on the Web that don't offer stereotypical views of girls and women:

With its images of jogging girls, microscopes, and electric hand tools, the "Just For Girls" site


sponsored by the Girl Scouts of America is an apropos place to start one's journey looking for positive portrayals of girls and women on the Web. Among its many features is a "Women's History Month" link that includes information about women scientists, sports heroes, and even war-time photojournalists. In the "Computers and Cyberspace" feature of the "Links for Girls!" section, you can learn about computer-related professions and such notables as Grace Hopper, the creator of the computer language named Pascal.

Billed as the first website to create content specifically for women, " Networks,"


was established in 1992. With pleasing graphics and a simple, easy-to-navigate design structure, " Networks" includes links to such special sections as "Women's Wire," "MoneyMode," "Beatrice's Web Guide," "Prevention's Healthy Ideas," "Stork Site," and "Crayola FamilyPlay." This successful commercial site that accepts advertising targets "affluent, decision-making women who seek the highest quality news, information and entertainment online."

Maxi is an aesthetically pleasing Web "zine"


with a mission statement that stresses the creators' serious approach to issues affecting women:

Maxi is a place to talk about those experiences, where we can read intelligent thoughts on the issues and objects that have meaning in our lives, whether it's lipstick or politics or sex. We believe in looking at the positive as well as the negative. Women need a friendly environment in which to empower and inspire ourselves; in response to that need, we've created Maxi (Maxi 1998).

A search engine for women is called "Femina," Latin for woman. Its site


contains alphabetized links from "Arts and Humanities" to "Society and Culture." Part of the joy of the Web is to discover sites within sites within sites.

A graphic intensive and yet content rich website, ""


offers, as the name suggests, solace, community, and hints for recovering from a love affair gone wrong with intelligence and humor. The postcard section offering email cards a user can send to a insignificant other is alone worth a trip to this site.

When "stereotype" was entered in the search window, four sites were found: "InterMountain WOMAN"


"a magazine that claims to present, Œno diet, no romance, no stereotype,'" "Packaging Horizons"


"a quarterly publication dedicated to changing the stereotype and raising the awareness and visibility of women and minorities in the packaging industry," "Women's Issues"


a site devoted to "the lives, events and cultural stereotypes that shape women's lives," and "Smash!"


a chatroom and listserv link "smashing stereotypes" with links


to information about general body images, eating disorders, and positive portrayals.

The introduction message for the "Smash!" website is worth noting:

SMASH! The Stereotypes is the organization that finally says, Be Who You Are!!!!! Forget about the expectations of society and culture and dare to follow your own mind, heart and dreams. Maybe you are a different size or shape than the world says you ought to be. Maybe you are in a profession that has long been considered for men only. Maybe you have a hobby that used to be only for "the guys." Or maybe you just look at the world in a wholly unique way and are tired of being told that you should conform to the standard image of being a woman--whether it is the image purveyed by patriarchy, or the one purveyed by a particular set of feminist theorists or another. You just want to be who you are, but doing that is a SMASH! to the stereotypes. So what? Welcome to YOUR place!!!!! (Smash 1998)
Perhaps a bit strident in its rhetoric, the "Smash!" message nonetheless conveys a proactive spirit concerning negative stereotypes of women. This attitude is reflected within websites with non-traditional spellings of the word, "girl."

One example of this new in-your-face attitude manifesting on the Web is the "Cybergrrl"


website. With links to books "by women about women," doing business in foreign countries, sexual information, and educational opportunities, the site is another in a quickly growing collection of Web resources for women that offers timely and useful services for any Web surfer.

In a reference to the Web address acronym for the uniform resource locator (URL), gURL


is a highly graphic Web magazine with the usual array of hypertext links including "shoutouts," in which members are asked to "shoutout to us and other gURLs about life, liberty and the pursuit of gURLness."

Finally, there is The Body Shop. From a small store on the south coast of England opened in 1976, Anita Roddick's The Body Shop has grown to an international corporation with 1,491 stores in 46 countries. The company is known for its innovative environmentally safe products and business philosophy that balances earnings with ethics. With a hemp-colored background, The Body Shop's website


contains company and product information and a link to "Full Voice"

* where you will meet Ruby, a digitally altered alternative to the usual visual messages of women in fashion.

Figure 1

As described on the Phoenix New Times website:

When the Body Shop's most recent ad campaign featured Ruby posters and postcards of "Ruby" (she was originally nameless, but consumers adopted the name Ruby after "Rubenesque") it started showing up around the country in magazines as part of the company's "international campaign on self-esteem and body image (Phoenix New Times1998)."

"Full Voice" is an online magazine produced by The Body Shop staff that advocates a non-stereotypical philosophy within such sections as "Ideal ... Real," "What is beautiful?," and "Self Esteem." The website is a model for merging corporate and cultural sensibilities.

Hope for the future?
Quick. Name five important or influential women--real or from fiction--in all of history. If you find that assignment difficult, you should ask yourself why women have been denied throughout recorded time a place of equal value among men. When 67 students (42 were women) from a southern California university class concentrating on the mass media were given that task, here are their top answers:

Men (Top 5 Answers)
1. Mother Theresa
2. Harriet Tubman
3. Rosa Parks
4. Joan of Arc
5. Princess Diana
Women (Top 5 Answers)
1. Hillary Clinton
2. Princess Diana
3. Their Mother
4. Rosa Parks
5. Mother Theresa

It is gratifying to note that the top choices are similar and are not celebrities in the traditional Hollywood definition. Perhaps the answers indicate the best way to overcome stereotypes in the media and throughout society--education. Nevertheless, there is much work to be done when "five times more boys than girls use computers at home" and "parents purchase twice as many technology toys and products for their sons as they do for their daughters (LA Weekly 1998)." Once again, we see stereotypes in the media because society stereotypes.

At least as indicated by surfing the Web, there is a new sensitivity to stereotyping, especially with regards to women. Does such a trend have a positive payoff for concerned parents?

Three years after I asked my daughter about her future career plans that started this piece, I asked her the same question. But this time the alarm bells didn't go off.

"A teacher, Dada, like you," she replied confidently.

"It's a good gig, Allison," I admitted. "But you know," I added, "you can also be Dean of the School or President of the University."

She smiled, looked me in the eye, and asked, "Do you think I'm nuts?"

I'm so glad I had a daughter. I know boys. I was once a boy. I can't learn from boys. Seeing a girl grow from the ground up is a challenge and a joy that constantly teaches me how we should all strive to do better.

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