Peg and Al, Ross and Rachel, Lucy and Ricky, Homer and Marge. This may be difficult for some of you to believe, but famous television couples like these, along with other aspects of the media, have a significant impact on how we choose our mates, communicate and interact with each other, and view sex in our relationships (e.g., Buckingham & Bragg, 2003; Chernin & Fishbein, 2007; Westman, Lynch, Lewandowski, & Hunt-Carter, 2003). When in a relationship, we all use various prototypes (idealized visions of the perfect relationship) to compare to our relationship and to see if the connection with our significant other measures up. Many of the relationship prototypes we use for comparison are found in the media, which heavily rely on sex role stereotypes to determine how romantic partners will behave and what they will or will not say to one another. Sex roles can be defined as a set of behaviors and characteristics that are considered appropriate and acceptable for each sex in a given society.
Unfortunately, numerous problems can arise when we use these television and film relationships as prototypes in our lives. From men believing that women should keep up their appearances but that men don't have to (Think about it: Marge is more attractive than Homer, Louis is more attractive than Peter, and Wilma is more attractive than Fred. Okay, so those are all cartoons, but what about the couples on Married with Children, King of Queens, Fresh Prince of Bel-air, and Everybody Loves Raymond? The females are all beautiful and/or skinny and the men are all overweight and/or less-than-attractive.), to women believing that a wife is destined to nag everyone in her family every single day of her life (Think: Malcolm in the Middle, Desperate Housewives, & Roseanne), typical relationships found in the media create a skewed perception of what relationships in the real world should or should not be.
Even if you think that the media doesn't affect you, sex role stereotypes (which are abundant in the media) can influence the way you interact with your significant other. And, they can cause serious damage to your relationship (by way of lowered satisfaction and unnecessary conflict) if and when they take a turn for the worse and begin to consume your relationship. For instance, research has shown that the unequal division of both household labor and childcare, with women doing the bulk of the work, is thought to contribute to the reported lower martial satisfaction for women (Walzer, 2001). The first step to breaking free of some of these sex role stereotypes (especially the negative ones that can hurt your relationship) is to become aware of them. Below are 4 female sex role stereotypes and 4 male sex role stereotypes that are commonly relied on when in relationships.
Four Stereotypical Female Roles
- Women are supposed to nag. This has to be stopped! Bossing him around, nagging him to do things, and telling him what he should or should not be doing emasculates him and makes you look like a total bitch (sorry, but it does). He's a grown-ass adult. Roseanne is not a wife you should be emulating. Men don't need you to be their mothers. And, you will be sorry down the road when you have two kids under the age of 5 and one that's 35 going on 12. Believe me, it will suck.
- Women should (and can easily) manipulate men. Quit treating your man like he's stupid. In the media, men (especially husbands) are often portrayed in a not-so-intelligent manner (think: Al Bundy from Married with Children & Doug from King of Queens). This is quite unfortunate. And, it adds to our perceptions of how women are supposed to treat the men in their lives. Men are not stupid. Men are not simpleminded. Men are not easily tricked and manipulated. Treating your man like an idiot will not only perpetuate this terrible stereotype, but it will also negatively impact his self-esteem. You do not want to be responsible for that.
- The woman is in charge. Let go of your desire to control every aspect of the relationship and your life together. You don't need to do everything. I know, many women feel like they have to do everything, but the great news is that you don't. There's another adult in your relationship, remember? He's an adult. Like you, he's also perfectly capable of handing the bills or taking the kids to all of their after-school activities or organizing your vacation next summer or not working and staying home with the kids or even choosing the reception location for your wedding. Think about it: why would you be with him in the first place if he was incompetent? Leading the lives Marie Barone (from Everybody Loves Raymond) or June Cleaver (from Leave it to Beaver) is not the way it has to be. You can share the household duties, child-raising, and control. Really, you can.
- Women are supposed to mold a man. Accept your partner for who he is, not for you want him to be. Nobody is perfect. Hey, even you're not perfect. Acknowledging his flaws and liking him anyway is the definition of true love. You cannot change another human being. People have to change on their own. If you really don't like something about your partner and you can't seem to see past it, then maybe he is not the one for you. You have to be able to accept him for who he is. You will be miserable trying to make your relationship work because of who you think he will become one day.
Four Stereotypical Male Roles
- A man should find a super-model wife. I'm not sure how much more clear I can be when I say that contrary to what you see on television and in the movies, ALL WOMEN ARE NOT BEAUTY QUEENS. Real women in the real world do not look like Megan Fox or Angelina Jolie. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of gorgeous women in the real world. I guess I just want you to realize that the relationships you see on television (where the woman is hot and the man is, well, not) are not indicative of relationships in real life. Most people are happy with significant others who are of similar attractiveness to themselves. So, quit looking for Gabrielle Solis (Desperate Housewives), Lorelai Gilmore (Gilmore Girls), or Elena Delgado (Without a Trace).
- Men are not emotional or expressive. This is an extremely unfortunate stereotype. Men, you are not cold-hearted, dispassionate, detached individuals (think: Al Bundy from Married with Children or Tony from The Sopranos). You have feelings. You are sensitive. Sadly, there's just a lot of social pressure on you to not express yourself. It's okay. You can tell us how you feel. You even show us how you feel. It's okay, really.
- The man is in charge. Like many women, you also need to learn to let go of your desire to control every aspect of the relationship and your life together. When you committed yourself to your significant other, you two became part of the same team. Equal parts of the same team. There's no captain here. You don't need to make all of the decisions yourself, especially the big ones. The media often shows men making huge (and small) decisions without ever consulting their mates (think: Bill Henrickson on Big Love or Tony from The Sopranos). Making decisions together will empower your mate, take some of the weight off of your shoulders, and strengthen the bond that the two of you share.
- The man should be the sole provider. This male stereotype is slowly disappearing, but there is still a lot of work to do. Men, if your wife or girlfriend works more often or makes more money than you, it does not make you any less of a man. As long as you contribute to the relationship in other ways (ex- household duties, childcare, etc.), you are just as valuable to your relationship as your wife or girlfriend is. It only becomes a problem when you don't work as often as your wife and you don't contribute in other ways. Moving towards a more equal relationship with your significant other will greatly increase you and your partner's satisfaction. You don't need to be the sole provider and your wife does not need to be the primary caregiver. If you each can learn to share both worlds, both of your lives could be a lot easier. Check out this article on equal parenting for some insight on this topic.
What can you do about all of this? Well, like I mentioned previously, the first step in any 12-step program is to recognize that there is a problem. Be cognizant of your behaviors as you're enacting them. Also, be mindful of certain situations that cause you to behave in these stereotypical ways. Once you've accepted that you play one or more of these cliche sex roles, you can start developing your goals for change. What do you want your new life to look like? Begin thinking about what you can do to achieve your goals. Then, modify your behaviors. You can do this by eliminating the negative behaviors you used to enact and incorporating new positive behaviors in their place. Since it generally takes about 21 days (or 3 weeks) to break an undesirable habit or to create a desirable one, you should remove your old actions and insert new ones EVERYDAY for AT LEAST 3 full weeks (For a more detailed discussion of breaking a habit click HERE, HERE, and HERE).
Remember, "relationships are like chocolate chip cookies. In order for them to be successful, you need the correct ingredients. One wrong measurement or missed ingredient, and the cookie is not as good. Even if you have made some mistakes in the recipe, however, you still have a chocolate chip cookie, just not a very good one. So, like building relationships, making yummy cookies requires that you pay attention to the rules and give them enough of your time and effort."
Related Love Lesson Posts:
- Buckingham, D., & Bragg, S. (2003). Young people, media, and personal relationships.
- Chernin, A. R., & Fishbein, M. (2007, May). The association between adolescents' exposure to romantic-themed media and the endorsement of unrealistic beliefs about romantic relationships. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association. San Francisco, CA.
- Westman, A. S., Lynch, T. J., Lewandowski, L., & Hunt-Carter, E. (2003). Students' use of mass media for ideas about romantic relationships was influenced by by perceived realism of presentation and parental happiness. Psychological Reports, 92, 1116- 1118.