The development of the media industry in the 20th century and the emergence of advanced cinematic techniques in the 21st century have become the aspects of the formation of popular mass culture with its well-known characters. In the world of cinema, superhero films and cartoons occupy a large niche and are appreciated not only by children but also by adults. Superheroes have traditionally become role models, and one of the aspects that deserve attention when discussing this topic is gender stereotyping. As favorite characters for children from an early age, superheroes with unique abilities and powers convey specific ideas and societal norms, including gender issues. According to Eick, male characters in this genre have always occupied dominant roles, thereby popularizing the idea of masculinity (1). The weakness of women in need of salvation and protection is contrasted with the heroism of men who are not inclined to show emotions and have more strength. As a result, the ideas of masculinity affect children from an early age and shape distinctive perceptions of gender inequality, thereby making the realm of superhero cinematograph and literature subject to criticism.
From an early age, children develop appropriate gender perceptions that are taught in different caregiving environments, including family and kindergarten. As Halim states, for many boys and girls, these differences play a key role in communication with peers and explain various behavioral characteristics of development (3). Popular culture promoted through cinematograph and other media, such as themed comics, complements these views and serves as a tool for shaping strong opinions and interests. As a result, the gender factor, shown through the prism of the superhero topic, resonates with the target audience and acts as an incentive to influence the public’s perception of female and male roles.
Since cartoons and other media products aimed primarily at children are not only a means of entertainment but also learning, modern youth spends much time watching such content. The situation is complicated by the fact that parents cannot always control what their child is watching. Therefore, the responsibility for the quality of digital content rests entirely with its producers and distributors, who, under the influence of trends and the current tastes of the target audience, promote products loved by children in popular culture. One of the factors that a child cannot always adequately assess is gender differentiation, and the stereotyping characteristic of many cartoons and movies can become a negative stimulus for influencing education. According to Halim, “between 3% and 7% of children report very negative feelings about being a girl or boy,” and these statistics confirm the existing problem of gender education (4). Dinella et al., in turn, note that specific gender-typed manners reflect classical social attitudes that often border on gender bias (278). Thus, stereotyping in children’s digital products and, in particular, superhero content affects the issues of gender discrimination.
Animated content is a powerful method for influencing children’s mental development. Studies show that the age of the target audience of such programs starts from 18-24 months, which indicates an early interest in such products by the child (Baker and Raney 25). As mentioned earlier, this digital content can have not only an entertaining background but also an educational one, which increases the impact on viewers. For instance, in her research, Aiken explores the possibility of using comics based on stories known to children to study the history of a country (45). As an example, she uses the story of Captain America to study World War II (Aiken 45). As a result, the author concludes that such materials can be incorporated into the curriculum to increase the academic capacity of students to memorize the material passed (Aiken 45). Being able to grab pupils’ attention through such a fun approach is real proof that comics can play an educational role and influence children’s mental development. Therefore, stories about Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, and other characters from popular culture are more powerful than mere entertainment.
Consequently, from the perspective of studying social topics, such as gender distribution of roles, children’s comics, cartoons, and superhero movies can also influence boys’ and girls’ perceptions. In their study, Baker and Raney analyze the possibility of gender stereotypes in children’s books and argue that the superhero context is directly related to gender bias (26). The situation is aggravated by the fact that today, children’s access to television and other means of digital broadcasting is often unlimited. Therefore, the child adopts the relevant messages and perceives them as the norm due to spending much time watching such products. The key problem such a probability is associated with is distorted or imposed views. Children can misunderstand how emotional states differ in males and females, what methods of communication both sexes support, and how their strength manifests itself. In comics and superhero films and cartoons, women tend to be vulnerable creatures with a low emotional threshold and often pronounced sexual connotations, while men’s qualities are opposed to these features (Baker and Raney 28). Thus, images presented through the media are directly associated with gender stereotyping and are products that shape narrow thinking.
Children’s perception of gender stereotypes has been the subject of different studies. For instance, Dinella et al. analyze the responses of 126 children from 3 to 11 to find out whether they are aware of the differences between the characters of both sexes in children’s stories (262). According to the research results, the target group of participants knows the differences between the proposed characters, and the mention of superheroes is the most frequent (Dinella et al. 262). Another study by Fitzpatrick and McPherson demonstrates characteristic differences between male and female characters in children’s books (127). Its findings support the original idea of stereotypes that children adhere to: male characters are more energetic and strong in children’s portrayal while women demonstrate calmer behaviors and nursing qualities (Fitzpatrick and McPherson 131). As a result, the key opposition is based on the idea of male dominance and female submissiveness, when males spend much time outside the home, unlike females.
Particularly noteworthy are children’s perceptions of TV show characters in the context of their gender-based decision-making abilities. In one of such studies, Eick shows the views of the target audience: men, in their opinion, are more decisive, while women are more prone to panic and not inclined to heroism (4). In terms of appearance, males, in turn, dress more modestly, while women, according to children, should have more revealing outfits and pronounced secondary sexual characteristics (Eick 4). This view of differences reflects the sexual context and emphasizes the idea that the concept of physiological differences between the two genders originates from childhood and largely due to popular culture. Lavinge confirms that women as sexual objects are pervasive in video games, while men’s pronounced masculinity is a characteristic feature of this genre of entertainment (139). The author provides the example of Catwoman whose image is strongly associated with open sexuality (Lavinge 139). Thus, in addition to basic stereotypes regarding behavioral characteristics, gender differences in children’s content shaper the ideas about sexuality and physiological distinctions among the target audience.
The problem of the formation of gender stereotypes in children is acute due to the fact that distributors of entertainment content encourage such perceptions. Being responsible for the impact on the target audience, media resources broadcast not only interesting but also beneficial products for them. As a result, the manipulation of children’s consciousness is a simple form of influencing a vulnerable psyche, and the use of gender stereotyping in media products is a mechanism of pressure on opinions. Therefore, this is incorrect to evaluate media as resources that broadcast only useful content because the accumulation of profits for them is above educational goals.
At the same time, the fault of the media in that they show insufficient quality content to the public in terms of gender impartiality is indirect since the main responsibility lies with the creators of cartoons, comics, and children’s movies. Broadcasting platforms are forced to show the target audience those projects that are in greatest demand. However, the creators of such content take the initiative, consciously and voluntarily, and produce programs in which female superheroes are more vulnerable and less independent than male ones. While taking such images as natural, children learn that gender division of roles and responsibilities is a social norm, and inadequate perception takes root in the thinking of the younger generation. As a result, the clothes, behavior, and personality traits of characters in children’s entertainment content convey the stereotypical ideas of content creators, which is a biased and approach to reflect social norms and values.
Despite the potential bias and possible manifestations of stereotyping in children’s entertainment content, superhero cartoons and comics can serve as valuable tools for influencing the social development of the target audience. For instance, according to Aiken, who compares the characters of Captain America and Wonder Woman, “despite their gender differences, the two represent a similar tradition of patriotic crime fighting” (41). This approach suggests that, although there are differences between such characters, many creators do not set themselves the goal of deliberately demonstrating these distinctions. Conversely, the emergence of female superheroes is a testament to the movement towards gender equality and the ability of children to independently choose their favorite heroes. Female characters, who protect the world and have superpowers, are a valuable addition to the existing male characters, who have been the only superheroes for a long period due to the prevailing stereotypes. Therefore, in such a context, stereotyping is conditional and not critical.
Regarding the issues related to gender inequality, not all superhero media content made for children can be described as stereotypical and biased. Banet-Weiser reviews the TV show The Powerpuff Girls and notes that this digital product is a version of the program with feminist ideas (152). The characters of this show have a number of superpowers, fight crimes on their own without men’s participation, and constantly prove their strength. They are not ready to accept the fact that someone might consider them weak. In addition, from the perspective of sexualization, their images have no obvious sexual characteristics. Therefore, one can conclude that not all children’s superhero projects follow the principle of explicit gender separation and stereotyping.
Refutation of the Alternative Argument
Despite the idea that, in some contexts, children’s superhero programs do not carry obvious gender stereotyping, in general, the problem continues to exist. As Fitzpatrick and McPherson argue, this issue was particularly acute in the second half of the 20th century, when the number of male characters outnumbered female characters by about twice (128). When taking into account the fact that creators set the goal of accumulating profit higher than education and instilling social values in the youth, the perception of gender stereotypes is a characteristic phenomenon of children’s entertainment content. Impartiality needs to be promoted as an essential aspect of the relationship between characters in comics, cartoons, and TV shows to form the basic concepts of mutual respect and equality in children.
The criticism of children’s entertainment content, in particular, superhero cartoons, comics, and films, is largely based on the fact that gender stereotypes are an integral component of these projects. The analysis of the existing findings and research proves that, in both digital and literary sources, masculinity is a major trend, and the role of women is downplayed and demonstrated from obsolete social perspectives. Individual counterarguments relate to the fact that, regardless of the specifics of the content, these projects carry educational messages, and some programs have a feminist orientation. However, in general, this content carries a gender bias, and bridging this gap is an important aspect of building impartiality and the understanding of gender equality in children.
Aiken, Katherine G. “Superhero History: Using Comic Books to Teach U.S History.” OAH Magazine of History, vol. 24, no. 2, 2010, pp. 41-47.
Baker, Kaysee, and Arthur A. Raney. “Equally Super? Gender-Role Stereotyping of Superheroes in Children’s Animated Programs.” Mass Communication & Society, vol. 10, no.1, 2007, pp. 25-41.
Banet-Weiser, Sarah. “Postfeminism and Popular Feminism.” Feminist Media Histories, vol. 4, no. 2, 2018, pp. 152-156.
Dinella, Lisa M, et al. “Princess, Princes, and Superheroes: Children’s Gender Cognitions and Frictional Characters.” The Journal of Genetic Psychology, vol. 178, no. 5, 2017, pp. 262-280.
Eick, Kelly. “Gender Stereotypes in Children’s Television Cartoons.” California Polytechnic College of Liberal Arts, 1998, pp. 1-3.
Fitzpatrick, Maureen J., and Barbara J. McPherson. “Coloring Within the Lines: Gender Stereotypes in Contemporary Coloring Books.” Sex Roles, vol. 62, no. 1, 2010, pp. 127-137.
Halim, May Ling D. “Princesses and Superheroes: Social-Cognitive Influences on Early Gender Rigidity.” Child Development Perspectives, vol. 10, no. 3, 2016, pp. 155-160.
Lavinge, Carlen. “I’m Batman’ (and You Can Be Too); ‘Gender’ and Constrictive Play in the ‘Arkham’ Game Series.” Cinema Journal, vol. 55, no. 1, 2015, pp. 133-141.