This study started as an exploration of young girls' advertising experiences: I was curious to see how pre-adolescent girls relate to the many images of girlhood promoted through advertising. Particularly, as most images in the adverts are fairly stereotypical, I was interested to see whether girls' way of expressing their femininity was influenced by their own interpretation of these images and messages.
The exploration turned out to be so much more: I realised pretty early in my field work that I would have to know more about them in order to understand their way to perceive, interpret and respond to representations of femininity in adverts.
As I started to delve more deeply into the context in which the girls lived, the research becomes more and more a real insight into these girls' world, their media preferences, their relationships in the family and in the school, their different attitudes and tastes and their way to conceive and enact femininity in their every day world were all elements of a giant puzzle which I needed to put together.
The fieldwork with the girls was able to energise me to the point that I was almost addicted to it: it is difficult to know when to stop collecting material, but at one point I had so much that I knew it: I was never going to be able to analyse all that stuff in one year! It was time to stop!
Similarly, with the analysis I had trouble resuming my search for more ways to look at the data: the work in itself completely fascinated me. I became perhaps too zealous in double-checking results: I wanted to be sure I was getting things right and this is why I decided to look at my data in different ways: to see whether a different insight would come through.
I guess one of the main underlying curiosities behind the study was to see whether girls who watch more stereotypical and sexualised representations of femininity media in the whole were more susceptible to behave in a stereotypical fashion (acting "girly") and to see themselves in a sexualised way (i.e. greater attention to own appearance, feeling the urge of using make-up every day, behaviours such posing in front of the mirror or trying many different clothes, abstaining from sport activities and strictly avoiding boyish games or activities).
The results from the analysis seems to indicate that there is definitely a link between the amount of sexualised content accessed by a girl and her way to embody and conceive femininity, BUT this link is influenced by other mediating factors in her life and personality so that NOT ALL girls watching/accessing a great amount of sexualised content will be affected in the same way. The fact that most girls self-select or actively look for their own favourites media content (TV programs, videogames and so on) makes difficult to establish the direction of causality: for example, are some girls more stereotypical or sexualised in their behaviours and preferences because they watch more stereotypical/sexualised content or is their attitude (either natural or coming from family/peer socialisation) that make them select and look for more of this type of material?
Calculating indicators such as the SFI (Stereotyped Femininity Index) and SMUG (Stereotyped Media Content Group) for each girl in the study was helpful in order to gather an idea on the relationship between the two. Showing the 2 indicators through a cross-tabulating chart can perhaps shade some light over the complex relationship between media habits and overall embodiment of stereotyped femininity:
Looking at the bar chart, there is visibly a trend where higher SMUG is linked to higher SFI, but there are exceptions. The negative case analysis (analysis of cases which behave against the more usual trend) show that there are factors which greatly influence how the girl is perceiving, responding and interacting with stereotypical representations of femininity in media content.
This means that while MOST girls accessing a greater amount of stereotypical and sexualised content (higher SMUG) would show greater embodiment of (and aspiration for) stereotyped femininity (higher SFI, which means expressing behaviour and preferences geared towards the "girly" girl), some girls with similar SMUG would have a lower or a medium level of SFI because some contextual factor in their life is mediating the effect of their media habits.
Actually only one girl in the total sample showed a high SMUG paired with a low SFI, so this could suggest a strong link between SMUG and SFI, but the results cannot be definitive in establishing that "watching/accessing more stereotypical and sexualised content cause girls to have an higher SFI", as one should consider the self-selective aspect of modern media consumption: it is only normal to assume that girls with an higher SFI would look for more stereotypical content as this content best suits their tastes and fantasies. So, like in the popular conundrum "what comes first? the chicken or the egg?" we are left at least with a definitive link between the two, without being able to say whether the first cause the latter, or viceversa.
Similarly, there was the exception of 2 girls in the study with very low SMUG (little access to sexualised/stereotypical content) and still behaving in a markedly stereotypical (or, as they call it, "girly") way and expressing fascination with sexualised representations of femininity coming from adverts, toys and playing practice. But when one looks at the factors in these two exceptional cases, it is clear that the low media consumption is compensated by other salient aspects in their life, such as family gender role orientations and habitual playing practices (example quoting one of the girls: "no, my dad never plays with me; if I was a boy he would play more as with my brother is different. But I play a lot with my mum: make-up and dolls") which encourage or push the girls towards a stereotypically-oriented self.
To summarise the two main findings coming from the analysis:
Girls’ response to (femininity portrayals in) adverts is highly reflective of their actual or aspirational embodiment of femininity.
Grouping the girls in LOW- MEDIUM- HIGH SFI (according to their lower /higher embodiment of stereotyped femininity) means that it was possible to study the relationship between their response to femininity’s portrayals in adverts and their actual or aspirational embodiment of femininity, to see whether there are similarities in the reception and negotiation of these femininity portrayals in particular subgroups of girls.
To express the findings in terms of Stuart Hall's Reception Theory (1980)
Girls with higher embodiment of stereotyped femininity (“girly girls”) consistently displayed less or no critical skills in their response to stereotypical portrayals of femininity in adverts (DOMINANT reading), while girls with lower embodiment of stereotyped femininity (“tomboys”) often expressed rejection or a firm critical stance towards stereotypical femininity in adverts (OPPOSITIONAL reading). Girls with a more fluid embodiment of femininity (“in-betweeners”) often personalised or lightly criticised stereotypical portrayals in adverts (NEGOTIATED reading).
The influence of media appear to operate through a nexus of mediating factors, just like J.T. Kappler's "reinforcement" or "phenomenistic" theory postulated in the 1960.
This means that the same amount or type of stereotyped media content will influence girls very differently depending on the other variables in their life.
This is why any simplistic explanation of media influence without a close attention to the context in which the girls are immersed would never be adequate.
While there appear also to be at play an innate temperamental/personality component which makes some girl more "receptive" to stereotypical portrayals/messages about femininity, certain "protective" factors emerged from the context of a group of girls displaying higher critical skills, satisfied body image and a more fluid and diverse embodiment of femininity:
In most cases in this study, parental mediation was represented by a proactive mother. These mothers would make regular comments about sexualised adverts (i.e. reminding their daughter that “real beauty is inside” or advising against the danger of obsessing over one’s appearance).
It must be added though that there were cases of high parental control and mediation in the consumption of media which did not lead to girls' higher critical stance towards stereotypical or sexualised femininity in adverts. In these particular cases, girls seemed to be greatly influenced by the actual behaviour/life style of their mother or other female role models in their family (i.e. an older sister devoting lot of attention to make-up and very immersed in celebrity's culture).
It is clear how the complexity of the interplaying of factors which intermediate media consumption can make incredibly difficult to establish definite causal links between variables: it is like a huge puzzle!
The contribution made by this research is in the direction of pushing towards more phenomenistic (to use Kappler's term) in-depth and context-rich studies of girls' media experiences.
From a scholarly perspective this approach should help to locate important factors at play in the "media effects puzzle", thus working towards building new theories or confirming and refining old ones.
Relating girls' way of experiencing a particular media content to their life and context is important because we need to understand their experiences within their own frame of reference and their own life world if we really want to "get to the meaning" of their experience.
From a social impact perspective the approach is more empowering because it put girls from the start in the role of "expert of their own world" and it can subsequently allow more empowerment through activities of reflection, validation and dissemination so that the participants become co-researchers in the process.
I am now planning a follow-up study with the same girls, which will allow me to add a long-term perspective to these first insights. I am really curious to see how their femininity, media habits and life have changed through adolescence... ;-)