Portraying Power Dynamics: Gender and Violence on Primetime Network Television

This paper used data collected as part of Dr. Nancy Signorelli’s ongoing Cultural Indicators research at the University of Delaware.

Abstract

Communication scholars have long examined how mass communication messages affect viewers’ real-world attitudes and behaviors. One aspect to this critical scholarly inquiry involves the role of television in communicating messages about violence between men and women in U.S. society. Does TV portray men or women as getting hurt or hurting others, and in either case, in what contexts is violence acceptable? This study employs a quantitative content analysis to analyze primetime network television programs in the fall of 2012 (n = 106). It investigates several social and contextual variables to describe distinctions between men and women in portrayals of violence. Television distorts the natural parity between genders. Compared with men, women are often portrayed as more justified in committing violent actions, and frequently do not commit acts of immoral violence. This research has implications for cultivation studies of heavy television consumption, and social cognitive research into early gender socialization.

Introduction

The study of violence is an important first step in dissecting our collective cultural expectations of others. Media portrayals of violence transform immensely complicated sociocultural power dynamics into simplified messages. In particular, “Violence shows who’s on top and who’s on the bottom, who gets hurt and who does the hurting” (Signorielli, 2003, p. 42). In American popular culture, these messages are prominently communicated by television. Next to sleep and work, Americans, on average, spend more time watching TV than any other activity (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012). With so many messages proffered in the public sphere, scholars naturally ask two questions regarding its content: what do these messages say, and how do those messages affect real behaviors and attitudes (Potter et al., 1995; Gerbner & Gross, 1976)?

A function of its unrelenting and ubiquitous mass consumption, TV plays an integral and early role in gender socialization (Witt, 2000). In the mid-1990s, concern over television’s gratuitous violent content culminated in the passage of the Television Violence Act, which asked network executives to collaboratively reduce violent content on primetime network television. Subsequent policy impelled networks to create a rating system that would advise parents of programming suitable for children and adolescents (Signorielli, 2003). Much discursive research has supported public policies aimed at curbing media consumption among young and impressionable minds. But, more generally, what does TV violence say about us? How does television portray the complicated sociocultural context of gender and power in U.S. society?

This study applies a set of analytical research tools to television programming presented in the fall of 2012. Much of the data discussed in this paper builds from the Cultural Indicators Project (Gerbner, Gross, Signorielli & Morgan, 1980a; Gerbner, Gross, Signorielli & Morgan, 1980b) and the National Television Violence Study (NTVS) (Wilson et al., 1998). These data allow us to understand the segmented and gendered characteristics of television violence that are either antiseptic to the viewer (Wilson et al., 1998), or entirely context-less (Potter et al., 1995). Content analyses, in particular, bridge the gap between reality and fiction by analyzing television’s symbolic environment. Without a priori assumption, content analyses reveal, “what exists […] what is important […] what is right […] [and] what is related” [emphasis added] (Gerbner, 1969, p. 149).

The definition of violence will comport with Gerbner et al. (1980a): “The overt expression of physical force (with or without a weapon) against self or other, compelling action against one’s will on pain of being hurt or killed, or actually hurting or killing” (p. 11). The extent to which television violence is “real” may depend on whether or not it is replicated or contextualized. Potter et al. (1995) compare “replicated reality” against “contextualized reality” in patterns of television violence. The authors define replication as the process of matching real world aggression with aggression presented on television. Contextualized reality refers to the actual portrayal, in context, which Potter et al. operationalize by intention of violence, motive, reward, consequences, humor and realism. A content analysis will investigate whether or not televised portrayals of women and minorities reflect a different contextual reality than White males. Contextualized reality is going to refer to whether or not the violence is presented as justified or immoral, if consequences to violence are presented on-screen, and if perpetrators are portrayed as expressing remorse. This will first involve a study of proportion of women and minorities involved in violence compared to White males, and then an analysis of the contexts of those actions. This paper closes by discussing the important implications of this research, and future directions in content analyses.

Literature Review
Perpetrators and Victims

In the longest running study of violence on primetime network television, Gerbner et al. (1980a) found that female characters were more likely than male characters to be the victims of violence. Of all the groups Gerbner and his colleagues studied, only one male group, young boys, posed any risk of victimization. In another report, Gerbner et al. (1980b) used risk ratios to evaluate victimization by gender on primetime television. The report found that, “Among males […] during [primetime broadcasts between 1967 and 1979], more males kill than are killed, usually at a rate of two to one” (Gerbner et al., 1980b, p. 26). The risk ratios in the same study for females were much more variable by broadcast year. Wilson et al.’s (1998) study of primetime television content over three years analyzed violence by perpetrator and victim. Analogous to the results from the Cultural Indicators Project, Wilson and colleagues found that 78% of violent perpetrators were male, compared with 9% who were female (Wilson et al., 1998).

This broad profile of victims and victimizers illustrates stark contrasts by gender in the commission of violence on primetime network television. In that vein, this study seeks to explore the gendered demography of violent perpetrators and their victims during one year on television.

 

RQ1: In the fall of 2012, were women more or less likely to be perpetrators or victims of violent actions on the five network television stations (ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and CW) during primetime?

H1: More men will be perpetrators of violent actions than women.

H2: More women will be victims of violent actions than men on primetime network television.

 

The frequency at which groups appear in the media symbolizes “relevance” by society at large (Mastro & Stern, 2003). These images not only constitute simple frequencies, but also the recognition and respect of character portrayals (Signorielli & Bacue, 1999; Signorielli, 1981; Clark, 1972). When evaluating frequencies, parity between men and women is a significant concern. Potter et al. (1995) state: “The television world is not portraying males as more aggressive in general; instead the television world is telling us that there are far more males than females and males commit aggressive acts proportionally less than females” (Potter et al., 1995). Current and prior research studies similarly reveal that, proportionally, males account for a larger number of characters on primetime network television than females (Wilson et al., 1998; Gerbner et al, 1980a, 1980b). In their longitudinal study of women on television over three decades, Signorielli and Bacue (1999) further confirm that female roles are both underrepresented and are often unrecognized. The authors note that despite the fact that females represent over half the U.S. population, women are consigned to minority status both in reality and fiction. The parity issue between men and women is thus reflective of the continued “symbolic annihilation” of women on TV (Signorielli & Bacue, 1999, p. 541).

This concern may be extended to a discussion of Blacks and Whites on primetime television. Ward (2004) notes that the presence of Blacks on television has been increasing over the past several decades. However, Blacks continue to represent a minority of characters on specific television genres, such as soap operas and children’s programming (Ward, 2004). Signorielli (2003) found that, in the 1990s, “more Whites than minorities committed violence or were victimized” (p. 36). She also found significant within-gender disparities. Given the breadth of scholarship in this area, this article cannot tackle the frequencies of Black portrayals on primetime television. Rather, in looking at gender and violence, cross-racial comparisons may illuminate gender distinctions.

 

RQ2: In the fall of 2012, what were the differences between Black men and White men with regard the perpetration of violence and victimization on the five network television stations? Are there differences in the perpetration of violence and victimization between Black women and White women?

H3: White men will represent the largest proportion of perpetrators and victims.

H4: Black women will represent the smallest proportion of perpetrators and victims.

 

Context of Violence

Not all television violence can be evaluated by who is doing the hurting or being hurt. As stated previously, it is the context of the hurting. Albert Bandura’s (1965) early laboratory studies reveal the learning processes that accompany rewards and punishments. Berkowitz and Powers (1979) later show that these learning processes often involve judgments about whether or not exposure to violent stimuli are justified or unjustified. Ultimately, there is some discussion in the literature about the context and role of women and violence. In her study of primetime network television between 1993 and 2001, Signorielli (2003) found that 64.2% of justified violent actions were attributed to male portrayals compared to 35.8% of female portrayals. Similarly, 71.9% of male violent actions were not justified, compared with 28.1% of female violent actions.

These results may be surprising because historically female roles on television suggest that, despite the changing portrayal of women and families (Olsen & Douglas, 1997), there is some stability in the conventional “sexist” portrayal of women (Signorelli, 1989). In their analysis of television advertising studies, Bretl and Cantor (1988) found that women were portrayed in lower-status occupations, were seen as less authoritative and credible, and were more frequently shown using products inside the home. More recently, Paek, Nelson and Vilela’s (2011) multinational content analysis of television advertisements found that women continue to be portrayed in stereotypical roles.

Where women may be expected to assume more family-centered roles on television, common cultural expectations of men revolve around an archetype of masculinity, often associated with portrayals of aggressive actions. Portrayals of aggression, and its real world effects, have been documented by a number of research studies (Eron, Huesmann, Lefkowitz, & Walder, 1972; Eron, 1982; Potter et al., 1995; Potter & Vaughan, 1997). Glascock (2008) focuses on the types of aggression found on television. He identifies three types of aggressive actions: verbal aggression (insults, yelling, arguing, sarcasm and name calling), indirect aggression (gossiping, spreading rumors, ignoring or destroying someone’s property behind their back), and physical aggression. Surprisingly, Glascock found no statistical difference among either sex with regard to verbal aggression. However, he did find that females were more likely than males to engage in indirectly aggressive behaviors, and found males to be more likely than females to engage in overt physical aggression. Consistent with the findings of both the Cultural Indicators Project and the NTVS, men are more likely to be the victims of physical aggression, even after controlling for their overrepresentation on television.

This framework helps explain why female violent actions would be contextually different than male violent actions. As Gunter (1983) describes, perceptions of violent portrayals often rely on the context of realism, legitimacy, type of act, and consequences. Similar to portrayed violence, real violence may be engendered or dissuaded by systems of punishment, rewards, justifications and consequences (Comstock & Strasburger, 1990). Portrayed violence may or may not have consequences, and too, may or may not be moral. Since women are more likely to be portrayed in lower-status occupations, with less authority and credibility, and with less aggression, female portrayals of violence may not only be justified, but also portrayed as less immoral.

 

RQ3: In the fall of 2012, was violence on the five network television stations contextually different for women than men?

H5: Women will be portrayed in roles where violent actions are seen as more justified and less immoral.

H6: Where violent actions occur, women will show more remorse than men, and will depict fewer consequences.

 

Contextual analysis concerns the “respect” that is afforded to characters. Respect is defined as the “types and breadth of roles in which […] groups are portrayed” (Signorielli & Bacue, 1999, p. 529). This article seeks to use gender as a social context to describe violent actions. Similar to Potter and Ware (1987), it implements a justification and immorality measure to operationalize context. It also considers whether or not characters expressed remorse for their violent action. The null hypothesis, that there may not be a statistical difference with regard to gender or race, is supported by Lichter, Lichter and Amundson’s (1999) finding that most violence occurs in a “moral vacuum” (p. 25). In their study, Lichter, Lichter and Amundson find that serious violence on television often occurs without a moral judgment of right or wrong. More commonly, violent actions are adjudicated morally acceptable when portraying legal processes, such as law enforcement, or in depicting acts of heroism.

There is a need for more content analytic research with respect to violence and women and minorities in the “moral vacuum.” Signorielli (2003) found that male characters committed more immoral violent actions and were more likely to be punished for them. Female characters committed only 26.3% of immoral actions, in her study. In addition, 25.8% of female characters were rewarded for their violent actions, which is higher than the percent of females who were punished for their violent actions (18.8%). Among male characters, the trend is reversed, with a higher percentage of males (81.2%) punished for violent actions, and 74.2% of males rewarded for violent actions. In the same study, Signorielli found a negligible percentage of characters expressed remorse for violence (3.8% of men, 3.3% of women). Since Signorielli’s (2003) research was part of the Cultural Indicators Project and follows the same research design, the expectation is to replicate and corroborate many of her earlier findings here.

Cultural perspectives provide some elaboration on this contextual discussion of gender and race portrayals on primetime TV. Reviewing the literature, Ward (2004) notes that in the 1970s, Blacks were often stereotyped as “poor, jobless, lazy, unintelligent and incompetent” (p. 285). Into the 1990s, some of these stereotypes persisted (Bristor, Lee & Hunt, 1995). Moreover, Black concepts of femininity and masculinity deserve special and differential scrutiny, because culturally, Black femininity and masculinity is contextually different than other archetypes (Collins, 1991; Messineo, 2008). In short, these differences provide historical and cultural context to distinctions in racial and gender roles that may interplay in current portrayals on television.

Methodology

This study is an extension of the Cultural Indicators Project, and was conducted as part of a class research project at an East Coast university (Signorielli, 2003; Gerbner et al., 1980a, 1980b).1 A constructed week sample for each of the intervening days between September 25, 2012 and October 12, 2012 recorded 106 primetime network television programs between the hours of 7:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. EST. This period neither represented a television sweeps week, nor coincided with major news events (i.e., 2012 presidential debates). Broadcast channels included major network television stations, including ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, WB, UPN, PAX, CW, TNT, USA, FX and Bravo. As part of a separate, but related analysis, BET was also recorded. Local television news programs and game shows were omitted from the sample. The recording instrument included a program-specific coding scheme and character-specific coding scheme (Appendix). All characters that were identified by pairs of coders to be the main characters were included in the sample.2

Data were conceptualized and operationalized using the coding instrument applied by the Cultural Indicators Project. This instrument of analysis has undergone significant testing, and is made up of category schemes designed to isolate specific aspects of programs and characterizations (Signorielli & Gerbner, 1995). The variable for race asked coders to identify if the character was White, Black, Asian, Native American, other, or cannot code. For the purpose of this analysis, race was collapsed into White, Black, and other. Gender was coded as male, female, and cannot code.

Variables that assess characters’ involvement in violence will address research questions 1 and 2. This includes a variable that asked coders to identify whether the characters hurt others, killed, or were neither hurt nor killed. Reciprocally, coders were asked to identify if characters got hurt, were killed, or were neither hurt nor killed.

RQ 3 asks about the contextual nature of the characters’ violence. Contextual violence refers to immorally violent actions, justified violent actions, consequences for violence, and the characters’ reaction to violence. Signorielli (2003) defines immoral violence as that which is, “clearly and explicitly intended, within the story, to be seen as destructive, negative, or evil” (p. 45). Justified violence is that which is “clearly and explicitly intended” (Signorielli, 2003, p. 45). Both immoral and justified violence were coded dichotomously, as either the condition being present, not present, or not applicable. Coders were also asked to indicate whether the characters did or did not feel remorseful, and if each character’s violence was met with punishment, reward, both, or with no consequences. In order to further contextualize and control for violence, a categorical variable for program genre was also compared to the number of violent actions by program. Program genres were indicated by a mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive coding scheme. These programs included crime, western/action adventure, drama, science fiction, situation comedy, comedy (not sitcom), children’s programming, variety/award, other, and cannot code.

A class of 28 student coders applied a recording instrument to each of the sampled programs. The coders were 25 undergraduate communication majors, two graduate students in an urban affairs and public policy program, and one in a graduate communication program. All of the coders received an extensive, one month long training in the application of the recording instrument. Coders were then anonymously provided with pairs of television programs to evaluate content. If coders were not certain how to evaluate the content against items on the recording instrument, they were asked to either make a best estimate or mark the category for cannot code. At the conclusion of the data collection process, inter-coder reliability was determined to assure non-chance agreement across pairs.

This paper uses Krippendorff’s alpha (1970) to account for non-chance agreements. Alpha coefficients that were determined to be conditionally reliable (≥ .60) were included in these analyses. All ten variables used in this study met these inter-coder reliability standards (Table 1). Since this study compares mostly categorical data, chi-square test is the primary measure of statistical significance employed by this paper.3

Table 1.

Inter-coder reliability results

Variable

α

Gender/Sex

.97

Race

.91

Number of Violent Actions

.91

Program type / genre

.81

Violence by

.76

Immoral violence

.76

Consequences of violence

.76

Justified violence

.74

Reaction to violence

.73

Victimization

.63

Results

A one-way analysis of variance indicated a significant difference in the number of violent actions by program genre (F = 10.29, df = 92, p < .000**). A Duncan Multiple Range Test shows that the average number of violent actions in primetime action/adventure programming was statistically different from all other genres. Dramas were statistically different from reality television shows and situation comedies. There were no other statistical differences among sample means for other genres. These findings indicate that the action/adventure programming tended to be more violent (N = 29, M = 8.58, SD = 5.91) than dramas (N = 34, M = 5.97, SD = 8.81), sitcoms (N = 22, M = .63, SD = .95), or reality TV shows (N = 11, M = .36, SD = .67). If the character appeared on an action/adventure show, regardless of race or gender, he or she was more likely to be involved in an act of violence.

 

Perpetrators and Victims: Results

RQ 1 asks about the proportions of male and female characters involved in television violence. Table 2 presents the proportion of characters that either perpetrated a violent action, or were victimized by a violent action during primetime network television in the fall of 2012. In general, male characters were more frequently portrayed as the perpetrators and victims of violence, χ² (2, N = 360) = 4.22, p = .120. A higher proportion of males were hurt or killed than females, χ² (2, N = 360) = 5.00, p = .081*.

Table 2

Violence and Victimization by Gender

Perpetrators

Gender

Did not commit

Hurts Others

Kills

      Male

146 (57%)

39 (60%)

29 (74%)

  Female

110 (43%)

26 (40%)

10 (25.6%)

Victims

Gender

Did not commit

Gets Hurt

Is Killed

      Male

146 (57%)

54 (68.4%)

7 (77.8%)

  Female

110 (43%)

25 (31.6%)

2 (22.2%)

Perpetrators: χ² (2, N = 360) = 4.22, p = .120.
Victims: χ² (2, N = 360) = 5.00, p = .081*.

 

RQ 2 examines the demographic profile of violence by race and gender. Table 3 presents the proportions of male and female characters that perpetrated violent actions, or were victims of violent actions by race. On its face, White and Black men were equally likely to kill: 73% of White men killed χ² (2, N = 305) = 3.941, p = .139, compared with 75% of Black men, χ² (2, N = 30) = 5.594, p = .060*.

Proportionally, Black women hurt others more often than White women; however, the cross-tabulation presented below reveals a parity issue. More White women on television hurt others or are killed than Black women. Overall, there were few Black women actually involved in violence on primetime network television. Among Black perpetrators, women were more likely to hurt others, while men were more likely to kill, χ² (2, N = 30) = 5.594, p = .060*. Results for White men and women were not statistically significant, but it was generally observed that in the fall of 2012, more White males perpetrated and were victimized more than females.

Table 3

Violence and Victimization by Race and Gender

Perpetrators

Race

Whites

Blacks

Did not commit

Hurts Others

Kills

Did not commit

Hurts Others

Kills

      Male

121 (56.0%)

34 (61.8%)

25 (73.5%)

18 (81.8%)

1 (25.0%)

3 (75.0%)

 Female

95 (44.0%)

21 (38.2%)

9 (26.5%)

4 (18.2%)

3 (75.0%)

1 (25.0%)

Victims

Race

Whites

Blacks

Not Hurt

Gets Hurt

Is Killed

Not Hurt

Gets Hurt

Is Killed

      Male

128 (55.9%)

46 (67.6%)

6 (75.0%)

19 (73.1%)

3 (75.0%)

0 (0%)

 Female

101 (44.1%)

22 (32.4%)

2 (25.0%)

7 (26.9%)

1 (25.0%)

0 (0%)

Perpetrators (White): χ² (2, N = 305) = 3.941, p = .139. Perpetrators (Black): χ² (2, N = 30) = 5.594, p = .060*.
Victims (White): χ² (2, N = 305) = 3.861, p = .145. Victims (Black): χ² (2, N = 25) = 3.722, p = .155.

An examination of violence and victimization by gender and race failed to produce statistically different results (Table 4). Generally, it was observed that most of the perpetrators of violence were White, regardless of gender. Not one Black man or woman was killed during our sample of primetime network television in the fall of 2012.

Table 4

Violence and Victimization by Gender and Race

Perpetrators

Race

Males

Females

Did not commit

Hurts Others

Kills

Did not commit

Hurts Others

Kills

   White

121 (82.9%)

34 (87.2%)

25 (86.2%)

95 (86.4%)

21 (80.8%)

9 (90.0%)

   Black

18 (12.3%)

1 (2.6%)

3 (10.3%)

4 (3.6%)

3 (11.5%)

1 (10.0%)

   Other

7 (4.8%)

4 (10.3%)

1 (3.4%)

11 (10.0%)

2 (7.7%)

0 (0%)

Victims

Race

Males

Females

Not Hurt

Gets Hurt

Is Killed

Not Hurt

Gets Hurt

Is Killed

   White

128 (83.7%)

46 (85.2%)

6 (85.7%)

101 (84.9%)

22 (88.0%)

2 (100%)

   Black

19 (12.4%)

3 (5.6%)

0 (0%)

7 (5.9%)

1 (4.0%)

0 (0%)

   Other

6 (3.9%)

5 (9.3%)

1 (14.3%)

11 (9.2%)

2 (8.0%)

0 (0%)

Perpetrators (Men): χ² (4, N = 214) = 4.856, p = .302; Perpetrators (Women) χ² (4, N = 146) = 3.979, p = .408.
Victims (Men): χ² (4, N = 214) = 5.585, p = .232; Victims (Women): χ² (4, N = 146) = .533, p = .970.

 

Context of Violence: Results

Tables 5, 6 and 7 provide data on the context of violence, as prescribed by RQ 3. Table 5 shows the distribution of justified and immoral violence by gender. More male characters committed acts of justified violence than female characters. Additionally, male characters constituted the largest group of perpetrators whose violence was not justified, committing 72.4% of not justified violent actions; women committed 27.6% of not justified violent actions, χ² (2, N = 360) = 4.85, p = .088*. Table 5 also demonstrates that male characters perpetrated the vast majority of immorally violence actions. Men committed 80.5% of immorally violent portrayals compared to 19.5% of females, χ² (2, N = 360) = 8.49, p = .014**.

Table 5

Justified Violence & Immoral Violence by Gender

Justified Violence

Gender

Did not commit

Not Justified

Justified

      Male

143 (56.7%)

42 (72.4%)

29 (58%)

  Female

109 (43.3%)

16 (27.6%)

21 (42%)

Immoral Violence

Gender

Did not commit

Not Immoral

Immoral

      Male

143 (56.7%)

38 (56.7%)

33 (80.5%)

  Female

109 (43.3%)

29 (43.3%)

8 (19.5%)

Justified Violence: χ² (2, N = 360) = 4.85, p = .088*.
Immoral Violence: χ² (2, N = 360) = 8.49, p = .014**.

 

Table 6 shows that most violence is free of consequences. In the fall of 2012, almost an even proportion of male and female characters were rewarded for violence, 58.8% to 41.2%, χ² (2, N = 360) = 5.03, p = .283.

Table 6

Consequences of Violence by Gender

Gender

Did not commit

No Consequences

Rewarded

Punished

Both

      Male

141 (56.4%)

52 (68.4%)

6 (54.5%)

10 (58.8%)

5 (83.3%)

  Female

109 (43.6%)

24 (31.6%)

5 (45.5%)

7 (41.2%)

1 (16.7%)

Consequences: χ² (4, N = 360) = 5.03, p = .283.Further, Table 7 shows that most characters express no remorse for violent actions. A slight majority of those characters who do are women (58.3%, χ² (2, N = 360) = 5.78, p = .055*.

Table 7

Reaction to Violence by Gender

Gender

None

No Remorse

Shows Remorse

  Male

143 (56.7%)

66 (68.8%)

5 (41.7%)

  Female

109 (43.3%)

30 (31.3%)

7 (58.3%)

Remorse: χ² (2, N = 360) = 5.78, p = .055*.

Discussion

Television is the preeminent medium of American entertainment (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012). Whether programs are viewed online, in real time, or through a video podcast, consumers are subject to a wide mosaic of messages on everything from advertising to politics, culture, society and beyond. Violent content that is more justified, more immoral and portrayed as having fewer consequences may affect viewers’ real world behaviors and attitudes. These attitudes may extend to conventional, often stereotypical, roles for women (Signorielli, 1989). This content analysis attempted to dissect those messages to investigate whether or not women were portrayed differently than men when committing acts of violence on primetime television.

The perpetrators and victims of violent actions were mostly male in the fall of 2012. Parity between genders continues to be a significant issue in violence perpetration and victimization. This result corroborates earlier findings that more men are involved in television violence primarily because of their numerical overrepresentation (Signorielli, 2003; Signorielli & Bacue, 1999). Simply as a function of quantity, men represent not only the greatest proportion of violent perpetrators, but also victims. The parity issue between men and women is exacerbated when race is considered. The number of Black characters involved in television violence is infinitesimal. White men perpetrate and are victimized at levels that far exceed their White female, Black male and Black female counterparts. Therefore, it appears that the stereotypical portrayal of women does not make them more likely to be victims of violence.

Several contextual variables confirmed that female violence is often portrayed differently than male violence. Compared to men, female violence is portrayed as more justified and not immoral. There is a large, statistically significant disparity between men and women in the commission of immoral violence, where male characters commit most immorally violent portrayals on primetime network television. Men still make up the majority of not immoral violent actions; however, the natural parity between genders disrupts the result. Although most violence on television is portrayed with little consequence for the perpetrator, women are less likely than men to be punished or rewarded for violent actions. When women do commit an act of violence, they are more likely to show remorse.

This study of primetime television violence reveals several important theoretical and practical implications. First, the television world is not actually a replicated reality. Television producers often have an incentive to portray violence as part of a fanciful fictional narrative where story lines are exaggerated. As Potter et al. (1995) claim, if producers want to make television violence more realistic, they do not need to adjust the proportion of men committing violent actions. Rather, they need to increase the proportion of women on television overall. Several content analyses of television violence support the fact that White men are overrepresented on television in general, which skews the proportion of characters involved in violence (Glascock, 2008; Signorielli, 2003; Signorielli & Bacue, 1999; Potter et al., 1995).

Even with the proportion of women on television adjusted, the types of violent actions may vary by conventional attitudes regarding gender roles, specifically related to types of aggression. Under Glascock’s (2008) framework, this may involve differentiation of violence by verbal aggression, physical aggression and indirect aggression by gender. Some of the earliest media effects studies were concerned with how aggressive portrayals affected young boys, and not young girls (Eron, 1963). In U.S. society and popular culture, physical aggressiveness is often associated with an archetype of masculinity, while indirect aggression is often associated with femininity; television is merely a medium to communicate these social attitudes and structures.

Violence is an important component in the television viewing experience because it symbolically outlines power dynamics. Cultivation research suggests that individuals who watch television more than one-fifth or one-sixth of the day experience a different conceptual reality than individuals who consume less television (Gerbner & Signorielli, 1990). From the viewers’ perspective, White men are predominately seen perpetrating acts of violence when they occur. Cultivation analyses suggest that heavy television viewers see and interpret power relationships between men and women and the context of women in violence differently than individuals who watch less television. Does the viewer who watches a significant amount of television believe that a woman can commit acts of immoral violence? Such attitudes may emanate from the portrayals of gender roles on the television screen to the application of those beliefs to the real world.

These portrayals are particularly impactful on the early socialization of children (Witt, 2000). Social learning/social cognitive theory suggests that gender roles are learned from an early age and are based on patterns of modeling and emulating through socially appropriate, albeit gendered behaviors (Bussey & Bandura, 1984). Television and electronic media facilitate this learning. In an era where young boys and girls spend hours on multiple media platforms, cultivation analysis and social learning theory may intersect in describing early gender role and gender identity development.

 

Limitations and Future Research

This paper’s treatment of violence was limited by its omission of several important contextual variables. Several scholars have conceptualized and operationalized context differently.4 A non-exhaustive list of contextual variables from the Cultural Indicators Project operationalized the context of violence. Each of these variables was appropriately determined to be significant by the literature; further inclusion would have expanded the scope of this analysis. The effect of program genre was also accounted for by testing the significance of action/adventure programs against other genres, but this examination did not use genre as the primary focus through which violence was studied. This study was also limited in that it only scrutinized one season of programming. In order to test the true effects of television programming, trends should be examined across multiple years. Such analyses have been implemented by Signorielli (2003).

Finally, there is some debate about whether or not primetime television is becoming an outmoded medium for communication. Where some scholars and market analysts view the emergence of online video-sharing sites such as YouTube and Hulu as a threat to network television, others see them as complementary (Greenblatt, 2007). Television content, such as that which was examined in this study, must still be produced, even if consumers have many new platforms to access information (such as tablets, MP3 players, smartphones, TiVO, DVR, etc.). The content remains the same, even if the audience is fractured. This study is nevertheless limited because the sample includes television content exclusively broadcast during primetime hours. With the growth of new online aggregators and media platforms, the time of day that a broadcast airs may become increasingly irrelevant as consumers are empowered with more choices. According to a 2006 CBS entertainment panel, 42% of the network’s television shows were viewed on the CBS website, compared with 13% on YouTube (Greenblatt, 2007). These new conveyors of entertainment enable consumers to access programming that they may have missed during regularly scheduled broadcast times. Future content analyses should be aware of these industry-wide changes. In fact, there may be a time to reconsider the use of a constructed week sampling frame.

If online television content becomes an avenue for further research, another direction may involve how messages appeal to consumers on the Internet. Pariser (2011) argues that intense Internet personalization based on histories of Web surfing create “filter bubbles” wherein consumers are only shown content that they have the highest probability of liking. Pariser notes that if Gerbner feared television’s “mean world syndrome”, then we should fear the nice world syndrome. In the “nice world” we are only shown content that we want to see, but miss content that is often challenging, difficult, or unpleasant. The study of how television shows are tailored toward consumer preferences may further new directions in communication research. As pertinent here, such research may focus on how messages appeal to particular subsets of consumers, perhaps based on gender, and how consumers cultivate attitudes and behaviors that interpret their world.

Impending changes in the platforms through which messages are conveyed should redouble the efforts of communication scholars to interpret the symbolic environment of television. Social attitudes and structures regarding gender roles are often reinforced through televised portrayals of violence. Although this study found little meaningful evidence that women are involved in violence “differently” than men, further longitudinal studies may reveal more certain trends. The proliferation of access to multiple platforms creates niches for consumers to discover content they prefer. Through the evolution of these platforms in the Internet era, continued studies of gender and violence are critical to understanding the evolving power dynamics between men and women in society at large.

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APPENDIX

Recording Instrument

Program Variable

Program type             0 = cannot code

1 = crime

2 = western/action adventure

3 = drama

4 = science fiction/ horror

5 = situation comedy

6 = comedy, not sitcom or variety skits

7 = other children’s program

8 = variety/award

9 = other

# of Violent Actions [ __ ]

Character Variables

Gender/Sex               0 = cannot code

1 = male

2 = female

 

Race of character      0 = cannot code

1 = white

2 = black

3 = Asian

4 = Native American

5 = other

 

Violence committed by character (Does the character commit any violence? (Code highest degree).

0 = does not commit violence

1 = commits non-fatal violence; hurts but does not appear to kill anyone

2 = commits fatal violence; kills or appears to kill; fatal consequence indicated

 

Violence suffered by character: Victimization (Is the character subjected to any violence? (Code highest degree).

       0 = not subjected to violence

1 = suffers non-fatal violence; hurts but recovers or recovery indicated

2 = suffers fatal violence; dies violent death, or fatal result is indicated

 

Consequences of violent behavior             

0 = character does not engage in violent behavior

1 = character’s violent behavior is neither rewarded nor punished

2 = character’s violent behavior is mostly rewarded (character uses violence for reward)

3 = character’s violent behavior is mostly punished (violence gets the character in trouble)

4 = character’s violent behavior is both rewarded and punished

 

Reaction to violence (Character exhibits remorse)

0 = character did not engage in violent behavior

1 = character did not show remorse

2 = character exhibited remorse

 

Justified violence (Character commits violence that is portrayed by the writers as being just or as a means to an end)

                                    0 = character did not engage in violent behavior

1 = character’s violent behavior was not portrayed as being justified

2 = character was portrayed as committing justified violence

 

Immoral violence (Character commits violence that is portrayed by the writers as being immoral, destructive, negative, or “bad”).

                                    0 = character did not engage in violent behavior

1 = character’s violent behavior was not portrayed as being immoral

2 = character was portrayed as committing immoral violence

 



1 Morgan and Shanahan (2010) provide some background and context to this work: “The Cultural Indicators project started conducting annual message system analyses of prime-time broadcast programming in 1967. The goal was to track the most stable, pervasive, and recurrent images in network television content, in terms of the portrayal of violence, gender roles, race and ethnicity, occupations, and many other topics and aspects of life, over long periods of time” (p. 339).

2 Main characters are those that are considered to be integral to the plot line, as defined by agreement across pairs of coders.

3 Significance at the .05 level is denoted with two asterisks (**) and at the .10 level with a single asterisk (*).

4 Signorielli (2003) examined the portrayal of violence as humorous, significant, graphic, immoral, intentional, justified, and as related to having consequences. Potter et al. (1995) operationalize context as intention of violence, motive, reward, consequences, humor and realism. Smith et al. (2002) looked at context through reasoning, whether or not a weapon was used, the graphic nature of violence, the reinforcement of violence, its consequences, humor and realism.