Troubling the Gender Binary: Middle School Students Creating and Performing “Non-Sexist” Advertisements.

Today’s post, written by Educational Leadership Professor Laurie Puchner and Sociology Professor Linda Markowitz, gives us a first look at their recent collaborative project, one in which they ask middle school students to challenge the sorts of gender binaries reflected in–and reinforced by– the media.  There’s so much to think about here: in encouraging middle school students to engage in critical conversations about gender, Laurie and Linda make us aware of how early messages about gender are transmitted.  By inviting students to disrupt these messages, they also demonstrate that students can (literally) rewrite the sorts of scripts that they encounter daily, and by extension, redefine the gender roles they embrace and reject.

The media is a powerful place where many of us learn to do gender.   Unfortunately, what the media teaches us about being female or male reinforces a belief in a false gender dichotomy. From the media, we learn that women are nurturing, gossipy and have the primary occupation of being sex objects for the male gaze and that men are active heroes who are sort of goofy but have important jobs making sure society functions smoothly.

Women’s Studies classes reveal the overt and sometimes covert messages about women and men we get in the media.   In fact, sometimes it becomes difficult to watch our favorite show or movie when we deconstruct the gender messages tucked neatly inside the program.   Learning about the constraining gender messages in the media has empowered some of us to actually begin troubling the gender binary in our own lives.

We wondered if some of what we teach and learn in Women’s Studies classes could be taught to children in secondary schools with the same effect.   So, in 2012-13 we participated in a grant-funded project to develop and test a critical media literacy curriculum unit aimed at middle school students. We had two goals in mind: to encourage students to critically examine gendered stereotypes in media, especially as they relate to occupations; and to ask students to trouble the binary by having them create their own non-gender stereotypical media representations. We taught the unit in five 8th grade classes.

The critical media literacy unit consisted of four 45-minute lessons comprising discussion and activities revolving around multiple examples of print and video ads. At the end of the third lesson students received a handout describing their final assignment. In the assignment, students were instructed to work in small groups to create a video advertisement for a product. The ad had to: “Advertise a specific product of your choice; Challenge gender stereotypes rather than reinforce them. (In other words, the ad must be counter-stereotypical); Pertain to occupations in some way.”

We ended up with 35 eighth grade videos (six to eight videos per class), ranging in length from 21 seconds to two minutes. We then analyzed the video content qualitatively.   Below we present our main finding, having submitted a more detailed draft of the paper for publication.

What we learned is that even though they learned about sexism in the media, students had a very difficult time troubling the gender binary. While we found that almost all of the video ads either put males in stereotypically female roles, females in stereotypically male roles, or both, we also found that in the majority of videos, boys and girls who troubled the binary tended to distance themselves from their new positions of masculinity or femininity. Students distanced themselves from their gender performance in three main ways: 1) by using humor and/or exaggeration in their new feminine/masculine role; 2) by reinserting the feminine (in the case of girls) and masculine (in the case of boys) into their roles; and 3) by developing video plots that focused on biologically-based differences between men and women.

Distancing via humor/exaggeration

In some of the videos, boys and girls used humor and/or exaggeration to distance themselves from the gender they do not traditionally do.  For example, one group’s video was about a product being advertised called “Mantu.” The Mantu is a tutu made for men. The video is silly and funny; its whole purpose is to appeal to our humor. The video has four boys playing various parts: 1) the little sister with a Mohawk, who denies her brother’s request to borrow her tutu saying, “No, it’s mine, you freak!;” 2) the inventor of the Mantu who dons a French accent and is wearing a paper beard, sunglasses and a hat; 3) an announcer who says, “You don’t want a tutu, you want a Mantu. Only sold where girls’ clothes are sold. Mantu is not responsible for bullying and laughing”; and 4) two boys skipping around in their Mantus. In the video the boys attempt to trouble the binary by desiring a tutu. However, at the same time, the video shows how problematic such a desire is; the sister calls the brother a freak and the announcer lets us know the company is not responsible for bullying and laughter.

The video just described portrays boys troubling the gender binary by using drag. When serious, drag can potentially threaten the foundations of the traditional gender binary. Yet in humor, dressing in drag tells a different story. By poking fun at the traditionally feminine, boys demonstrate to others that they are far from anything feminine. The boys who used humor in the videos wished to demonstrate that when boys engage in the feminine they are silly, funny, and should not be taken seriously.

Distancing via reinsertion of femininity or masculinity

Another way in which the ads of the students tended to reaffirm traditional gender rather than disrupt it is when girls reinserted the feminine and boys reinserted the masculine, even as they troubled the gender binary. For girls, reinserting the feminine involved focusing on beauty. For example, in a flashlight ad a girl works on her nails nonchalantly at the beginning of the ad, before a robber breaks in and she apprehends him with help from the amazing flashlight. In another ad a girl portraying a female professional dirt bike racer buying supplies at a store asks the male shopkeepers, “How do I look?” after she tries some goggles on. The first boy answers, “Good.” The second boy confirms, “He’s serious. It looks good.” Another example is of two girls who are thrown a football. One girl says, “Where did this come from?” The other answers, “I don’t know but it’s pretty.” At the end of the ad, one of the girl’s says, “Get your Pretty In Pink Football today!”   The football, however, is brown not pink, which shows how important it is for the girls to insert the feminine into the activity.

Whether the reinsertions of the masculine and feminine were intentional or unconscious, the consequence is that the reinsertions make very clear that students perceived troubling the binary as somehow unnatural. If shifting gender performances were simply related to social scripts, students could follow the “male” or “female” script easily.   The reinsertion of acts related to traditional gender schemas shows that the gender atypical performance was meaningful to the students. The meaning here is not only related to the way others perceived the student, as with the usage of exaggeration and humor, but also to the way students perceived themselves.

Distancing via emphasis on biologically-based differences between males and females

Most of the videos with females playing the masculine focused on stereotypical differences in physical strength and prowess between males and females. Indeed, most videos portraying only females troubling the binary involve girls demonstrating their physical prowess through sports or manipulating balls, including boxing, football, baseball, and basketball. Reaffirmation of sexism is particularly salient in an interesting subset of six of these physical videos. In the subset, females outdo men physically but only after they use the product being advertised, which somehow magically makes the females stronger.  Two of these ads begin with boys excluding a girl from a ball game after which the girl drinks a magic drink and beats up the boys. In one of these, for example, the video begins with two boys calmly throwing a football back and forth in a classroom. A girl enters the scene and says “Can I play?” The boys respond simultaneously “No.” The girl asks “why?” and a boy says “Because you are a girl.” The girl then walks over to a table with a bottle of Gatorade on it and pretends to take a swig from the bottle. Then she jogs over to one of the boys and “pushes” him out of the classroom door, after which she says: “Drinking Gatorade made me stronger. Gatorade. Sold wherever Gatorade is sold.”

The “magic product” ads are interesting because although in most of them females are acting in male roles by physically overpowering the boys, the entire premise of the plots actually strongly reinforces rather than challenges gender stereotypes because the girls only become stronger via “magic.” A possible explanation for student use of the “magic potion” plot is that some of the students didn’t really understand or believe the sociological argument, (stressed heavily in the curriculum unit), that gender is socially constructed. Rather, they saw gender as essentialized, something with which we are born and cannot change.   Those who do not believe that gender is socially constructed might assume that the only way to counter stereotypes would be through some sort of magic product.


            We developed the critical media literacy curriculum with the hopes of broadening students’ traditional gender schemas and enhancing the likelihood that boys and girls take risks both outside and inside the gender binary.  Many students in our study did trouble the gender binary though they tended to so do with some apparent gender distancing. But what we are excited about is that virtually all of the students participated in some sort of conversation about troubling the binary.  We learned, not surprisingly, that children (like adults) have a difficult time overcoming messages received by the media. But, we do believe that the goal of complicating and expanding students’ repertoire of gender performances was, to a small degree, accomplished, and that the sexism in the student attempts to be non-sexist show critical media literacy education to be important. Thus, while we should expect difficulties along the way, only when we give students the opportunity to examine traditional gender schemas can we hope to expand students’ repertoire of gender performances.


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