A Boy/Girl Thing

Dyson Associate Professor Emilie Zaslow and recent graduate Brian Rentas ’13 examine the media’s portrayal of gender variance and LGBTQ children.

“Most of the morning shows end with a question posed to the viewers as part of digital engagement. They ask things like ‘Would you allow your child to dress like this? What would you do if your child dressed like this? Is it ok for children to dress like this?’” explains Dyson Associate Professor of Communication Studies Emilie Zaslow, PhD. “On one hand, it doesn’t close the media frame—it doesn’t give you the answer to the narrative. On the other hand, it leaves the viewer with the sense that ‘supporting a child who is gender variant is open for debate.’”

When Zaslow and student Brian Rentas ’13 teamed up as part of the Student-Faculty Undergraduate Research Initiative, it was an opportunity for both of them to explore media and communications from a new perspective.

“For me,” says Zaslow, “my work has typically been about what it means to be a girl and how the media depicts girls. I’ve worked with a lot of students on their honors theses and I’ve had students help me on my own research, but I’ve never worked so collaboratively with a student. It was an interesting thing to develop ideas together.”

Rentas and Zaslow focused mainly on the media’s portrayal of six stories including those of Bobby Montoya, a 7-year-old transgender child looking to join the Girl Scouts; J. Crew creative director Jenna Lyons posing with her son and commenting on his pink toenails; and McKenna Pope, who petitioned toymaker Hasbro to create an Easy Bake Oven in gender neutral colors so that her brother could play with it.

Their research also focused on gender neutrality stories, specifically the baby named Storm, whose parents would not share the baby’s sex with friends and family and were raising the child as gender neutral. They found that the story about Storm was typically presented in a very negative light, where as the story of McKenna Pope crusading for an Easy Bake Oven in more gender neutral colors was perceived and represented more positively. Partly, Zaslow and Rentas believe, because the latter story was an attempt to prevent a boy from playing with girls’ toys.

“Americans spend nearly 40 hours a week watching television; and children generally spend much more time with media than do adults. Media is ubiquitous. We learn about who we are, who our children are, what gender is, what it means to be a boy or girl—and we learn a lot of this from our viewing and the relationship we have with television,” explains Zaslow.

The pair, who used videos and transcripts from news reports, reviewed the footage independently and would identify the lead, the pull-out quotations, catalog the guests they had, and identify the various frames within the story.

“They [the shows] bring on a psychiatrist or a mother of one of these children and say we should love and accept the child for who they are, but then they ask viewers, ‘would you love and accept your child under these circumstances?’” says Zaslow. “It basically nullifies the frame of acceptance.”

“I was surprised by what I was learning and I was coming from the perspective of wanting to research this!” Rentas says. “I knew what framing is, what a frame could do to public perception in the long scheme, and I could really only imagine what it would mean to people who don’t know anything about communication studies, who don’t have a definitive idea of what they’re being told and what the presentation means to them.”

As for the future of their research, Zaslow and Rentas plan to publish their findings and hope that the work they’re doing will add to discourse on the topic.

For more information about their work into LGBTQ media framing and the Undergraduate Student/Faculty Research initiative, click here.