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Regardless of whether I’m in a good mood, I always turn to my favorite movies and tv shows for comfort. Gilmore Girls got me through my first round of midterms, Under the Tuscan Sun comforted me after a member of my family passed, and The Little Mermaid still gives me that light hearted feeling I had as a little girl.

Being the only daughter and youngest of four, it was clear that while my brothers and I sometimes watched the same movies we enjoyed them for different reasons. To this day we love watching superhero movies, but I tend to feel neutral about the scenes that they gravitate towards. Although I wasn’t raised to be a girly girl, I can’t be bothered to pay attention to the action scenes that they enjoy watching. But where do these preferences come from? Why do we have them?

I looked at the influence of three major players in everyone’s life to determine how gender differences and interests come about. Evolution, genetics, and the environment in which we grow up shape our preferences, personality, and interests in each stage of our life.

Biology’s Explanation As To How Preferences Came To Be

Who tends to be taller, men or women? You might be thinking that the answer is men and it’s no coincidence that you’d be right. Height allows people to run faster and reach higher, both of which were advantageous thousands of years ago when every choice meant life or death. Women wanted to mate with men that were physically fit because they had a better chance of defending their family and acquiring resources. These preferences allowed parents to provide nourishment and security for their child, giving them a better chance of surviving and continuing this mating pattern.

Like physical traits, sex specific characteristics are passed down genetically. A study testing the toy preferences of Rhesus monkeys provided them with wheeled and plush toys to explore. Male and female interactions with the wheeled toys didn’t differ greatly but males spent far less time with the plush toys. A study performed on Vervet monkeys revealed similar findings; female Vervets spent more time with feminine toys while male Vervets preferred masculine toys.

A third study on Barbary Macaque monkeys showing the exact same toy preferences as the Vervet and Rhesus class.

Biology plays a role in non-gender related preferences, like why we like some foods and not others. Breast milk and amniotic fluid are filled with nutrients from what the mother eats and drinks. A study concluded that babies that were prenatally exposed to carrots preferred cereal prepared with carrot juice more than with water but babies whose mother only drank water during pregnancy did not show a distinguishable preference. If what our mothers eat influences what we like to eat, food preferences can be traced back generations. People like the foods commonly associated with their culture because those foods have been eaten by each generation of women. In a time when travel wasn’t common and people tended to live close to where they were born, people didn’t have access to a large variety of food options. Because they would eat the same things for years and years, the food patterns born out of convenience turned into the preferences of future generations.

The results of these studies suggest that our behavior is determined early on in evolutionary history rather than the current environment. But as big as the human genome is, variations in personality and preferences are too diverse to argue that the environment in which children are raised has no influence. In addition to friends, family, and geography, the environment of today’s children is filled with more technology than ever. Because adolescence is the most important time in someone’s life to gain knowledge and understanding, technology’s content overload has the greatest impact on the developing brain.

Brain Development in Early Stages of Life

The early years of a child’s life are extremely important for language acquisition, understanding the world around them, and creating a foundation for future learning. In the first two years of life, a child’s brain triples in size from 333 grams as a newborn to 999 grams. This rapid growth is a result of the connections that neurons make in this critical period of experiencing the world. These connections are later pruned to disregard anything that isn’t exercised in day-to-day life. Donald Hebb, a psychologist whose work was influential in the neuroscience field, coined the phrase “neurons that fire together, wire together.”  This saying illustrates the strength of neural connections when associations are continuously made between two actions or thought processes.

Hebb’s phrase was put to action in Dr. Eric Kandel’s research on memory and classic conditioning. His research lead him to the neural structure of the Aplysia sea slug. In his trials, Kandel’s assistants poked the animal while giving it an electric shock, which alone would normally cause Aplysia to pull in their siphons. The repetitive poke and shock treatment caused the slug’s neurons to create associations between stimuli and reaction so a simple poke with no electricity caused its siphons to retract. The repeated actions and neural connections shaped the slug’s physical response for the rest of its life.

While genes provide the foundation for learning, reinforced neural connections strengthen associations between ideas and actions. The majority of these reinforcements occur when people are young because they are constantly exercising the knowledge they gain from observing the world around them.

Brain Plasticity
The brain has an easier time gaining new knowledge and making neural connections at a young age.

Early years of adolescence are an influential time when children begin to understand and learn from the world around them. Each 2-3 year chunk of time has its specialty in terms of forming connections based off of what children see.

  • Ages 2-6 is when children begin to play games based off of what they’ve seen (girls play house and boys play cops and robbers).
  • Ages 7-10 is when children attribute certain qualities to men and women (women are more emotional and men are more aggressive) and fields of study to each gender (there are more women in humanities than STEM and more men in STEM than humanities). A stricter sense of segregated play begins as children become more comfortable being around and playing with the same sex.
  • Ages 11-13 is when they feel self-conscious about physical change, caused by puberty, and pressure to conform. Peers become more interesting than parents and dating becomes a possibility.
  • Ages 14-17 is when the self-segregation becomes more relaxed as serious relationships and decisions about the future become relevant.

Where are kids getting these ideas of playing house and assigning qualities that best fit each gender? Children rely on what they see to gain an understanding about how they should act and their place in society. On average, kids spend a minimum of thirty-five hours a week in front of the tv. This constant exposure allows them to draw conclusions about the world around them based off of what they see on their tv or online.

Because we live in a time where everything is so accessible through technology, children are able to watch things from almost any time period. The problem with this is that a lot of what they’re watching reflects the social climate from when those programs were made.

What Are Kids Watching?

It’s problematic that the Disney franchise is such a huge part of a child’s life because the majority of their content reflects attitudes of the early to mid 1900s. Looking at the release dates of Disney princess movies, most of which are displayed below, we can see that the majority of their most popular movies came out before the 2000s. Because of the access to technology that children have, they are able to watch Disney content from decades ago which teaches them lessons about men and women that aren’t necessarily true or respected today.

Image result for disney princess timeline

What Boys Are Learning

As time progresses, the tv male lead characters’ personalities and interests don’t change dramatically. Male characters are still curious about princesses, wanting to explore, and focus on physical strength more than expressing emotion. All of Disney’s leading men find themselves in an action scene at one point or another: Aladdin has his run in with the guards, Prince Eric battles a giant Ursula in The Little Mermaid… the list goes on and on.

Because Disney creates fairytale worlds meant for people to escape to, their characters don’t have access to the modern technologies of whatever time period in which they were written. Boys in these worlds don’t have to go to school or work, instead they play in the town square or explore the outdoors. But when a twist in the story demands that these activities become more physically involved, say when a dragon needs slaying, then violence becomes the solution. The violent behavior of leading male characters becomes justified when good and evil are paired against each other. In fact, the average child will see 200,000 violent acts and 16,000 murders on tv by age eighteen.Constant exposure to anything desensitizes people to the action’s meaning; therefore, when children are exposed to so much violence, they understand it to be a normal reaction when facing conflict.

What Girls Are Learning

In addition to their fantastical plots, Disney is well known for their songs, and what’s sung can be just as influential as what’s seen. Snow White’s Some Day My Prince Will Come explicitly lays out the attractive qualities in her dream man: “Was he strong and handsome? Was he big and tall?” and Ursula’s Poor Unfortunate Souls communicates that men care more about what women look like than what they have to say. A girl’s perception of her body and self-worth is distorted and emphasized by tv, movies, and advertisements. With the popularization of photoshop, airbrushing, and professional styling, what is considered to be conventionally beautiful is becoming increasingly unattainable. A content analysis of TV sitcoms found that 76% of female characters were below average weight. Depending on the amount of exposure, impractical images of men and women can influence people for their entire life.

The distinction between what makes a good woman and a bad woman have been laid out by story tellers and practiced for hundreds of years. Female villains are either, extremely old, fat, vain, or ugly while the objects of their obsession are young, unrealistically thin, sweet, and beautiful. The Little Mermaid displays these physical differences perfectly in Ariel, the adventurous protagonist, and Ursula, the exiled sea witch. Ursula’s sharply angled, dramatic facial features and octopus-like body contrasts with Ariel’s small waist, big hips, long hair, and big eyes. Ursula is further separated from the merpeople’s norm because she is the only character that is half octopus rather than half fish like everyone else. In the movie’s final action scene, Ursula grows into a giant version of herself to add to the intimidation and extent of her evilness. These exaggerated differences between bad guy and good guy preserve the idea that certain appearances equate to specific personalities and social standings.

Image result for ariel vs ursula appearance
Dramatic differences in appearance between Ariel (right) and Ursula (left).

Girls learn that in order to be a good woman they have to emulate the traits of lead women on tv. Female protagonists are typically pretty, kind, smart but not too smart, and have problems that are usually solved by men. In today’s age of fighting for advocacy and equality, the range of televised content is becoming more progressive and diverse. Shows like The CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend tackle the realities of mental illness and being a woman but still features topics heavily revolving around men and relationships. Just because Hollywood is making strides to practice inclusivity and diversity doesn’t mean that children ten years from now won’t be able to watch the Disney movies or shows that their parents watched.

Love At First Sight And Other Myths

While what we see in our childhood shapes how we think we should look and act, our experiences later in life have the same affect. When a group of college women were interviewed about the influence that princesses had on their romantic lives, most argued that the love stories that movies produce are so distorted because of the limited time frame they have to create and build upon a relationship. In reality it takes months or years to establish the feelings that are so quickly manufactured on screen. Princess movies communicate the message that happiness can only be acquired when the princess finds love, which so far has always depended on a man. One woman said that “a lot of what I have seen in movies and shows on tv or in magazines lead to a lot of disappointment… I have probably been disappointed when I had high expectations of romance that no guy had yet to fulfill.” Adulthood brings the realization that Prince Charming isn’t going to sweep anyone off of their feet because he doesn’t exist.

This Saturday Night Live sketch perfectly encapsulates a few issues regarding the plausibility of romantic comedies that influence romantic expectations.

Programs that interest adults mirror qualities of stories that interested them as children. Fairytale kingdoms with princes and princesses turn into fairytale romances with meet cutes and quirky best friends. These depictions of romantic relationships remain stereotypical and one dimensional. Women being used as sexual objects and potential conquests are more commonly seen in manlier shows because content geared towards women is meant to feel romantic and whimsical. This causes men and women to receive conflicting ideas about relationship dynamics. Life isn’t always a fairytale, there are hardships and personal obstacles, but we dismiss those realities because the character traits we accept as children turn into expectations for future romances. It’s unlikely for the entire entertainment industry to stop perpetuating the same narrative that has been proven to work for decades so future generations will most likely continue to be influenced by what’s on tv.

The End… Finally

The gender gap in my brothers’ and my movie preferences can be explained by evolutionary patterns, biology, and our social environment. Evolution attributes differences in interests to the behaviors and pass times of our ancestors. On the other side of the spectrum, some believe that gender differences result from the way that boys and girls are trained to think and behave. While cases can be made for each of these perspectives, I believe it’s an accumulation of all three that influence aspects of our lives.


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