CoverMedia Literacy Activities for Learning Civics ConceptsDefining Critical Media LiteracyChapter 1. Foundations of the United States Political SystemTopic 1: Democracy in Social Media Policies and Community StandardsTopic 2: The Internet as a Public UtilityTopic 3: 21st Century Women STEM InnovatorsTopic 4: Media Coverage of Kings, Queens, and Royal FamiliesTopic 5: Representations of Native Americans in Films, Local History Publications, and School MascotsChapter 2. The Development of United States GovernmentTopic 1: Declarations of Independence on Social MediaTopic 2: Media Marketing and Government Regulating of Self-Driving Cars and Electric VehiclesTopic 3: Representations of and Racism Toward Black Americans in the MediaTopic 4: Political Debates Through Songs from Hamilton: An American MusicalTopic 5: Bill of Rights on TwitterChapter 3. Institutions of United States GovernmentTopic 1: Hollywood Movies About the Branches of GovernmentTopic 2: Writing an Impeachment Press ReleaseTopic 3: Members of Congress' Use of Social MediaTopic 4: Political Impacts of Public Opinion PollsTopic 5: Website Design for New Political PartiesChapter 4. The Rights and Responsibilities of CitizensTopic 1: Immigration in the NewsTopic 2: Portrayals of Immigrants in Television and FilmTopic 3: COVID-19 Information EvaluationTopic 4: Women Political Leaders in the MediaTopic 5: Online Messaging by Special Interest GroupsTopic 6: Digital Games for Civic EngagementTopic 7: Social Media and the ElectionsTopic 8: Media Spin in the Coverage of Political DebatesTopic 9: Celebrities' Influence on PoliticsTopic 10: Political Activism Through Social MediaTopic 11: Media Recruitment of Public Sector WorkersTopic 12: Images of Teachers and TeachingTopic 13: For Whom Is and Could Your School Be NamedTopic 14: Representing Trans IdentitiesTopic 15: Media Framing of the Events of January 6, 2021Topic 16: Music as Protest ArtTopic 17: PACs, Super PACs, and Unions in the MediaChapter 5. The Constitution, Amendments, and Supreme Court DecisionsTopic 1: Prohibition in the MediaTopic 2: The Equal Rights Amendment on Twitter and Other Social MediaTopic 3: Civil War News Stories and Recruitment AdvertisementsTopic 4: Representations of Gender and Race on CurrencyTopic 5: The Equality Act on TwitterTopic 6: Reading Supreme Court Dissents AloudTopic 7: Television Cameras in CourtroomsChapter 6. The Structure of State and Local GovernmentTopic 1: Native American Mascots and LogosTopic 2: A Constitution for the InternetTopic 3: Military Recruitment and the MediaTopic 4: Your Privacy on Social MediaTopic 5: Pandemic Policy Information in the MediaTopic 6: Gendered Language in Media Coverage of Women in PoliticsTopic 7: Environmental Campaigns Using Social MediaTopic 8: Trusted Messengers, the Media, and the PandemicTopic 9: Online Campaigning for Political OfficeTopic 10: Advertising the Lottery Online and In PrintTopic 11: Local Governments, Social Media and Digital DemocracyTopic 12: Protecting the CommonsChapter 7. Freedom of the Press and News/Media LiteracyTopic 1: Press Freedom in the United States and the WorldTopic 2: Objectivity and Reporting the News from All SidesTopic 3: Investigative Journalism and Social ChangeTopic 4: News Photographs & Newspaper DesignTopic 5: How Reporters Report EventsTopic 6: Recommendation Algorithms on Social Media PlatformsTopic 7: Fake News Investigation and EvaluationTopic 8: Paywalls and Access to Online NewsTopic 9: Critical Visual Analysis of Online and Print MediaTopic 10: Memes and TikToks as Political Cartoons

Topic 6: Gendered Language in Media Coverage of Women in Politics

How many times have you heard the statement “You Guys” spoken almost automatically as part of everyday conversation, as though everyone present is a member of one gender? To object or try to correct the statement seems hopeless. Few speakers take the time to use gender-inclusive or gender-neutral terms such as “folks,” “everybody,” “friends,” “y'all,” or “team.”

Words, and the meanings we assign to them, matter hugely in how people think and act not only in everyday conversations, but in how the media covers women and men in politics. Consider how the media writes and talks differently about political campaigns and job performances of women and men in government positions such as mayor, representative, senator, or judge. A commitment to equality under the law and justice for all is harder to sustain when the words used are specific to a male gender.

Women of the 116th Congress
Women of the 116th Congress | Public Domain

Does language use by the media impact people's attitudes and behaviors? Does it matter if news reports or reporters say "policemen" or "law enforcement officers" or "firemen" or firefighters" or if they describe women and men in politics differently?

A recent cross-national study established that genderless language or gender-inclusive language combats negative stereotypes toward women while promoting broader career opportunities for females in traditionally male-dominated fields, including politics (Perez & Tavits, 2019).

You can explore more about gender-inclusive, non-binary, and anti-racist language in state constitutions, laws and materials in Topic 6.6 of our Building Democracy for All eBook.

In the following activities, you will examine the use of gendered language in media coverage of women in politics while envisioning how people's views might develop if more genderless language were used instead in politics and in everyday interactions in schools and society.

Bonus Media Literacy Activity 1: Examine the Use of Gendered Language on Television Shows and YouTube Channel Streams

Choose a particular woman in politics, a specific election, or a specific political job where women’s presence is still minimal/rare (e.g., Hillary Clinton and the 2008 or 2016 election; Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, or Amy Klobuchar and the 2020 election; or the women justices on the Supreme Court, past and present - Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonya Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Amy Coney Barrett).

Bonus Media Literacy Activity 1: Examine the use of Gendered Language on Television Shows and YouTube Channel Streams

Gendered Language and Gender-Based Toy Marketing

In October, 2021, California passed a Gender Neutral Retail Departments law requiring all large scale department stores (500 or more employees) to maintain a "reasonable" number of toys and other items for children in a gender-neutral area of the store. The law does not ban traditional boys and girls sections, but does force changes in how and where items are marketed in stores.

Consumer advocates supported this first-in-the-nation law as a response to how traditional marketing to children has reinforced gender-stereotypes and reinforced some skill and mindset over others (boys' toys for example emphasize construction, movement, and building). Critics claim this law is a form of government interference on the rights of parents to raise children as they see fit.

Also in 2021, the toymaker LEGO announced it would no longer label its products by gender (LEGO to Remove Gender Bias from its Toys after Findings of Child Survey, October 10, 2021). LEGO took action following a study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media that found 71% of boys feared they would be made fun of if they played with what are considered to be "girls" toys.

Gendered language in marketing has a huge impact on how items are perceived by both children and adults. To see this dynamic in action try the Gendered Advertising Remixer at Put an ad targeting boys in box 1 and an ad targeting girls in box two and press mashup and watch what happens. 

Suggested Learning Activities

1) Begin this activity by visiting one or more of the large department stores in your community (like Target or Walmart) and record where toys and related children's items (e.g., clothing to toothbrushes) are displayed.

    • What marketing patterns do you notice?
    • Are toys and other items divided by gender?
    • Is there a gender-neutral section for children's items?

2) Look at the packaging and advertising of the items you find in the children's section(s) of the store.

    • What type of gendered language is used on the packaging of the items and store displays? 
    • How is art and design used to suggest that certain items are directed to boys or to girls?

3) Next consider the gendered messages and meanings that children are receiving from the media they encounter in the children's section(s) of the store.

    • How might gendered toys and gendered sections influence girls' future careers in politics or government?
    • Are there any toys or other items that might be considered "presidential" or "CEO-related," or reflect women as leaders and change-makers

4) Write a response to your experience.

  • Write a PRAISE or PROTEST letter to the store about its gender-based marketing of items for children.
  • Write a persuasive letter or design a social media campaign to urge other states to adopt legislation similar to the law in California for gender-neutral retail departments.

Additional Resources

Connecting to the Standards

  • Massachusetts Civics & Government Standards
    • Identify additional protections provided by the Massachusetts Constitution that are not provided by the U.S. Constitution. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T6.6]
  • ISTE Standards
    • Knowledge Constructor
      • 3a: Students plan and employ effective research strategies to locate information and other resources for their intellectual or creative pursuits.
      • 3b: Students evaluate the accuracy, perspective, credibility and relevance of information, media, data or other resources.
      • 3d: Students build knowledge by actively exploring real-world issues and problems, developing ideas and theories and pursuing answers and solutions.
    • Creative Communicator
      • 6a: Students choose the appropriate platforms and tools for meeting the desired objectives of their creation or communication.
  • DLCS Standards
    • Interpersonal and Societal Impact (CAS.c)
    • Collaboration and Communication (DTC.b)
    • Research (DTC.c)
  • English Language Arts > History/Social Studies Common Core Standards
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.6
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.7