Effects of Media Portrayals

Claudia A. Claudio

Portland State University



How are minorities and/or gender portrayed in contemporary (modern) TV entertainment programs? How have portrayals of minorities and gender changed over time?

Since the creation and development of the communication medium known as television, the portrayals of minorities and/or gender have long lived within. Historically ethnic minorities were viewed in more degrading roles than ethnic majorities (Mastro.D.E. & Greenberg.B.S, 2000). A viewer’s stereotyping and beliefs of a minority group and/or gender have greatly been influenced by entertainment programming, given television viewing has remained the main source of media for decades (Tukachinsky.R, Mastro.D & Yarchi.M, 2015). Television entertainment programming leads to forms of portrayals of minorities and/or gender to be rooted through the outlets of all genres produced and has the longest reach of any other medium in the western hemisphere with  the ability to influence and frame viewers’ beliefs and values (Rubie-Davies C.M., Liu.S., & Lee.K.K, 2013). This common medium that was once only available to be viewed in the colors of black and white has since progressed throughout present-time television programs. This progression is evident in the portrayal of minorities and/or gender which this literature review explores.

Past Portrayals on TV

The portrayal of minorities in television has been criticized for many decades as studies have shown. Cultivation theory attempts to explain the way individuals organize social reality and create social judgements globally. Perceptions of reality become cultivated by what is viewed on television (Punyanunt-Carter.N.M., 2008).  Mastro and Greenberg discuss how a concern about minorities on television began to arise in response to issues that emerged during the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. The absence of minorities on television and the allegations of discrimination behind hiring occurred at major network companies, which lead investigations into the perceptions of minorities (Mastro.D.E, Greenberg B.S, 2000). In 1996, Mastro and Greenberg conducted a study that collected a one-week sample of viewing between the hours of 5pm to 10pm; a total of 64 shows served as data in order identify the widespread representation of minorities on television networks and determined the changes that have occurred in the last two decades since the 1960’s among the lowest represented groups.

Using the data collected, which used coded variables by length and genre to reflect the frequency, importance of portrayals and the nature of interactions of minority and majority groups. They found that 80% of main and minor characters were white, 16% were African American, 3% were Latino and 1% were Asian American which suggests the exclusion of minorities. It was also found that over the decades, Latino characters were no longer restricted to stereotypical roles as a result of the steady growth of Spanish language television in the U.S. (Mastro.D.E, Greenberg B.S, 2000). Previous research has shown that Latinos and African Americans have a greater chance of being portrayed as sexual objects, lawbreakers, and having lower status and power (Rivadeneyra.R, 2011). The stereotypical frequency of portrayal of minorities and/or gender have continuously grown in modern TV entertainment programming with the help of earlier portrayals. While race and gender are inseparable gender does have its way of pulling apart from minority portrayals.

The stereotypical portrayal of gender in television roughly began alongside of the portrayal of minorities. Rivadeneyra (2011) suggests the theory of social role gives insight into the portrayals of gender and is described as, “the roles that members of a group hold in society that are used to make inferences about the characteristics attributed to members of that group,” (p.209). From the perspective of social role theory, “It is no surprise that many of the gender stereotypes that dominate media are based on the social roles of men and women in larger societies” (p.209).

The historical perspectives of gender roles in societies have given rise to the portrayals of minorities and/or gender that have been produced in television. The traditional roles seen on tv programs present the man as powerful and in control and the woman as weak and submissive. The portrayals continue to shed light on previous research of the portrayals of minorities and/ or gender that is broadcasted on television (Parrott.S & Parrott.C.T., 2015).  Extensive studies have documented the changes of fictional and nonfictional roles that have occurred over time in the TV entertainment industry. The stereotypical portrayals that are viewed on television have research that backs the power of TV to perpetrate stereotypical gender and minority beliefs.                                      

Negative and Positive Portrayals

This work explores the overrepresentation and underrepresentation concerning how minorities and/or gender issues are treated in television programming. African Americans specifically have been found to be underrepresented in fictional and nonfictional roles. The media has generally portrayed African Americans in occupational roles acting as a domestic servant, criminal, kitchen worker, entertainer, athlete, and the list continues. The frequency results in stereotypical negative portrayals of personality characteristics of African Americans in television (Punyanunt-Carter.N.M., 2008). Similar to the portrayals of African Americans, Latinos have experienced the same comparable treatment of portrayals. Indications of previous research state that Latinos are heavily underrepresented on television, and when they are presented they are characterized in a fairly limited range of stereotypical acting roles (Mastro.D., Behm-Morawitz.E., & Kopacz.M.A., 2008). In many television entertainment programs, Latinos are portrayed the role of maids, landscape workers, criminals, and sexual objects along with other related theme roles. Thus research suggests that minority portrayals on television are embedded into viewers’ real life mental representation of minorities (Tukachinsky.R., Mastro.D., & Yarchi.M., 2015).

There is one major role African Americans and Latinos have significantly portrayed in entertainment programming, that of criminal. A study conducted on random samples of television crime news stories from 2002 and 2003 measured the dependent and independent variable characterizations of ethnic and racial representations. The findings show that the larger percent of minorities on TV specifically African American Americans and Latinos are more likely portrayed as criminals (Bjornstrom.E.S.E., Kaufmann.L.R,Peterson.D.R. & Slater.D.M., 2010). Over representation in television led to the stereotyping of minorities as criminals, drug dealers, and gang members; as research argued that deviance witnessed within minority communities is a main component of the portrayals of African Americans and Latinos seen on television (Bjornstrom.E.S.E.,et.al., 2010).

Like the negative portrayals of minorities, gender highlights the incongruity that is portrayed in entertainment programming. A recent study examining the specific portrayal of men and women in Spanish-language television sheds light on the portrayals viewed on Spanish television in the U.S and Latin America. Telenovelas, which is the Spanish term for soap operas, have been shown to impact viewers’ perspectives with the portrayals of men and women with its superior and subordinate roles in fictional drama. This is connected to the overrepresentation of women, who are generally seen as sexual objects. This is evidenced by female characters being dressed more explicitly than male characters and overrepresented as “sexual objects” (Rivadeneyra.R.,2011).  As for portrayals of men, TV entertainment programs display the concept of machismo or the encouragement to be in control, strong, and virile (Rivadeneyra.R., 2011). In gender the relations cause a negative portrayal of male characters on television, who have a greater likelihood of committing crimes and acts of violence against women (Punyanunt-Carter.N.M., 2008). The portrayals of minorities and/or gender is no doubt rooted in society and perpetrated in television entertainment programming. However, there is evidence of the positive portrayals that are exercised in television.

The positive portrayals of minorities and/or gender have progressed over the years and have shown to make an enlightened impact on viewers. As minorities in more recent decades have been portrayed with having higher status occupations, African American men were found to be portrayed as giving and helping individuals in administrative and higher-status roles such as law enforcement officers (Punyanunt-Carter.N.M., 2008). Tukachinsky,R.et.al.,2015). The positive representations of minorities overtime has a prosocial effect of equality and equity beliefs and fosters positive intergroup perspectives. For example, television figures such as Oprah Winfrey who have historically achieved success in the media industry can enhance viewers’ racial attitudes, at least momentarily (Tukachinsky.R.et.al, 2015). Both findings demonstrate that positive portrayals of minorities and/or gender in occupational and higher-status roles on television can alter viewers’ beliefs and perspectives.




Effects of Portrayals

The exposure to portrayals of minorities and/or gender on television has been shown to leave long-term and short-term effects on viewers. The emotional and mental long-term effects of the portrayals behind gender have been shown to have an impact on women’s viewpoints of personal physical appearance and their physical attractiveness. Consequently, these self-perceptions cause harm to the self-esteem of young female minorities (Rivadeneyra.R., 2011). In his research Rivadeneyra explains that women’s role such as sexual objects, reinforce the messages received through television that women should focus on their appearance. Similar to the finding of gender effects, Punyant-Carter examined the perceptions of African Americans to specific themes on television by conducting a questionnaire response which analyzed the perceived realism perceptions from 412 students who watched 30 minutes to an hour of entertainment television for a certain length of time, Punyant-Carter (2008) findings suggest that “viewers perceived occupational roles and negative personality characteristics that African Americans portray on TV as real and true to life” (p.251). Viewers have realistically seen African Americans in similar occupational roles as those shown on television. However, Punyant-Carter suggest there is still several negative portrayals in entertainment television which can influence viewers’ perceptions and the continuation of stereotyping African Americans.

“Viewers come to what they see, and interpret what they see, both in the light of their own preconceptions and also as reinforcement of such notions. It is in this sense that television apparently influences certain beliefs.” (Punyant-Carter.,2008., p.252)



Research on minorities and/or gender in television has shown that portrayal of these groups undoubtedly can have long and short-term effects of these groups and their viewers. In relation to entertainment programming, advertisement also plays a major role in the way in which minorities and/or gender groups are portrayed. Shedding light on the relations of advertisement and entertainment programming portrayal effects is important because research explains how the proportions of minorities groups and/or gender in advertising do equate with the representations in the populations (Rubie-Davies.et.al., 2013).  Rubie-Davies’ research of 3,000 advertisements on four major television channels for one month in the year of 2008 and then again in 2009 argues that providing positive portrayals for viewers can help to reduce and overcome the stereotyping that is seen on television currently. With these suggestions it is noticeable that portrayals can shape every area of a viewer’s perspective and effect how they view these groups on and off the television screen.

Summary and Conclusion

Minorities and/or gender have been shown to be portrayed in various ways throughout television programming; research explains how a series of stereotyping of these groups can lead to negative and positive outcomes from viewers and the television industry. Television exposure has been argued to impact an individual’s beliefs, values, assumptions and perceptions of these groups. Studies show that certain portrayal of minorities and/or gender that occurred over time have evolved into inspiring portrayals of these groups in Black television shows such as Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and The Bernie Mac Show (Punyant-Carter., 2008). Positive outcomes are suggested to change an individual’s attitude towards minorities and/or gender by demonstrating likeable and esteemed out-groups which have influenced the changes seen on television programs in regards to minorities and/or gender (Tukachinsky,R.et.al., 2015).

In this paper the portrayals of minorities and/or gender have been carefully reviewed by the previous research that has been provided. The portrayal of minorities and/or gender on television entertainment of all genres is an endless growing topic to research as minority populations continue to grow. Television is a gateway for all viewers and the findings of portrayal of minorities and/or gender highlight the need for social policies that promote educational media for viewers about stereotypical representations of these groups and any additional studies should examine the effectiveness in lowering the portrayal seen on television (Tukachinsky,R.et.al., 2015). The under and over representations of minorities and/or gender have shown to leave short and long-term positive and negative effects on viewers and individuals of these groups and media images become part of the continuous negotiation of identity which give support to enhancing important aspects of self-image (Mastro,D.et.al., 2008). Portrayal of minorities and/or gender will continue to raise questions on how they have changed over time and future research should continue to find the answers needed to better understand the struggles of these groups that are widely seen throughout television programming and the responsibility that entertainment has in depicting more honest authentic portrayals.







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