United States: New Media Rating Seeks To Bring Common Sense To Gender Stereotyping

When my son was five and constantly arguing and negotiating for extra dessert or whatever it was that he wanted at any given time, people would often say, "You should be a lawyer!" His response was always: "I don't want to be a lawyer because that's a girl's job." While slightly humorous because lawyers are not stereotypically female, I would always respond that there was no such thing as girls' jobs or boys' jobs. Because I was a lawyer, he saw the world through that prism. Despite what kids see in real life–that the world is filled with men and women who do not conform to stereotypes in their careers and in division of labor at home–according to studies by Common Sense Media, movies and television have not kept up with the times; and undoubtedly, media play a huge role in how we all view the world–not just how kids do.

Common Sense Media is a nonprofit organization that runs a website providing parents and teachers with advice on media and technology for kids. It publishes independent ratings and reviews for nearly everything kids want to watch, read, play, and learn. Common Sense Media is based on the premise that images kids see early in life can have a significant long-term effect on their perception of the world. While much attention has historically been focused on the impact of violent movies, video games, and other media, one of the less discussed areas is on-screen depiction of gender.

In late June, Common Sense Media expanded its rating to include how well TV shows and movies combat traditional stereotypes. It developed the ratings based on research into gender portrayal in the media. The research found that media images have tended to suggest masculine traits are favored over female ones and that girls should focus on their looks. This, in turn, can lead to tolerance of sexual harassment and the reinforced beliefs about what men and women can do, and thus what careers they feel they should choose. A rating of "positive gender representations" will appear with a movie or TV show, which means that the reviewers judged it to prompt boys and girls to think beyond traditional gender roles.

A slew of online comments posted in response to a New York Times article about this new rating system suggest that this rating has been met with some controversy from those parents who have chosen traditional roles, anticipating that it might ultimately alienate parents as seeming judgmental.

Regardless of this controversy over whether movies that depict stereotypical roles or traits for men and women should be devalued by this new rating system, at work, basing employment decisions upon gender stereotypes is illegal. In 1989, the Supreme Court first ruled that gender-based stereotyping violates Title VII. In Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, the plaintiff claimed that she was denied partnership at her accounting firm based on her lack of conformity to stereotypes about how women should act and what they should look like. Her male co-workers described her as aggressive, foul-mouthed, demanding, and impatient with other staff members. The Supreme Court recognized that making employment decisions based on gender stereotypes is a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Additionally, although sexual orientation or gender identity are not a listed as protected categories within Title VII's list, recently, a growing number of federal circuit courts have expanded Title VII's protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under this sexual stereotyping theory. Because of this, uniform policies have been under strict scrutiny to the extent employer standards reinforce stereotypical gender roles. Historically, under federal law, differing standards based on sex or gender were permitted so long as they did not impose an undue burden, but we are beginning to see a shift in what will be permissible under Title VII as this area of the law develops.

New York City Commission on Human Rights has recently weighed in and issued broad policy guidance on impermissible uniform or grooming standards. Some examples of prohibited rules are as follows: requiring different uniforms for men and women; requiring women to wear makeup; only permitting employees who identify as women to wear jewelry; only permitting employees who identify as male to have short hair or requiring employees to always have long hair pulled back unequally based upon gender.

It remains to be seen how much this new rating will affect sales, which may, in turn, affect future media writing. My personal view as a mother and as an employment lawyer–why not praise media that fight stereotyping and force us all to see the world through the legally required prism! Isn't this the first step toward inclusion?

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