Reality TV viewing linked to women’s acceptance of sexualized aggression through support for traditional gender roles

New research provides evidence that young women’s consumption of reality television is indirectly associated with increased acceptance of sexualized aggression such as groping and coercive tactics. The findings have been published in Psychology of Women Quarterly.

“Mainstream television programs tend to emphasize traditional, gendered courtship values and roles; for example, programs may communicate that women’s value is in their appearance or that men always want sex. Young people are among the heaviest media consumers, and it is important that we understand how media use influences their attitudes around gender and sex,” said study author Leanna Papp (@leannapapp), a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan.

For their research, Papp and her colleagues asked 466 undergraduate women how frequently they watched 50 popular reality programs, sitcoms, and dramas. To measure support for traditional gender roles, the researchers also asked the participants the extent to which they agreed with 22 statements such as “Guys are always ready for sex” and “Girls should be more concerned about their appearance than guys.”

The researchers found that greater reality TV consumption was associated with greater support for traditional heterosexual gender roles. Greater sitcom consumption, in contrast, was associated with weaker support. This was true even after controlling for variables such as age, sexual orientation, and relationship status.

To better understand the potential consequences of these relationships, Papp and her colleagues conducted a three-wave longitudinal study of 244 undergraduate women. The participants completed assessments of reality TV consumption, support for traditional heterosexual gender roles, and acceptance of sexualized aggression.

In line with their previous study, the researchers found that participants who consumed more reality TV at the start of college tended to show greater support for traditional heterosexual gender roles one year later. Those who supported traditional heterosexual gender roles, in turn, tended to be more accepting of sexualized aggression. (Participants who were more accepting of sexualized aggression agreed with statements such as “It’s not a big deal when a guy becomes visibly offended or upset when a girl turns him down” and “It’s not a big deal when a guy grinds on a girl when she’s not into it.”)

“Reality television is highly entertaining, but it’s not real life,” Papp told PsyPost. “Characters are cast, scenes are scripted, and conflict is central to maintaining viewership. We all know the script and could understudy any character: the woman who wants commitment or the man who wants sex, the woman who is denigrated for being sexual or the man who is celebrated, or the woman who gets what she wants through passivity or a man who uses aggression.”

“It’s easy to see how these roles generate drama, while their familiarity may make them appear natural and unquestionable. Being aware of and rejecting harmful messages in television programming does not have to be at odds with enjoying it, and it may protect us from ultimately normalizing ‘mild’ sexual assault and aggression.”

The research provides new insight into the ways in which women come to normalize their own sexual mistreatment. But the study, like all research, includes some caveats.

“Given that our studies involve college women from a large, primarily white university in the Midwest U.S., we would like to see research conducted among non-student emerging adults, adolescents, and adults over the age of 22,” Papp said.

“Further, it is necessary to examine these relations among participants who are diverse in racial/ethnic, gender, and sexual identities. Traditional courtship roles in the U.S. center white, cisgender, heterosexual individuals, and members of marginalized communities have developed their own courtship values and expectations. Media literacy and other interventions will depend on understanding the nuances of these issues within and between groups.

“Finally, although we focused on programming high in sexual content, reality television is not monolithic,” Papp said. “We encourage scholars interested in building on this research to include a higher number and larger variety of reality television shows to better understand these relations.”

“Our outcome in this study is acceptance of ‘mild’ sexual assault and aggression, but traditional courtship values and roles can impede healthy sexual and relationship practices in a multitude of ways,” Papp added. “Believing that there is one, very narrow way for people to attract and demonstrate interest can limit our access to beneficial human emotions and experiences, such as sexual assertiveness for women and emotional intimacy for men.”

The study, “Contributions of Reality TV Consumption to College Women’s Endorsement of the Heterosexual Script and Acceptance of Sexualized Aggression“, was authored by Leanna J. Papp, L. Monique Ward, and Riley A. Marshall.

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