In discussing the results of their findings, the authors point to three potential explanations:
- Male characters are portrayed as powerful, strong, rational, and the main character, while in contrast, female characters are portrayed as emotional, sensitive, and more likely to be a sidekick or love interest. In contrast to white characters, black male characters are more likely to be depicted as menacing or unruly, and black female characters are more likely to be shown as exotic and sexually available. As a result, young white boys have greater access to positive media representation. Social identity theory would argue that exposure to this coded messaging helps young white boys believe that anything is possible, and that they can attain, achieve, and be heroes.
- If television serves to reinforce gender and racial stereotypes, then social identity theory also predicts that the white girls, black girls, and black boys in the study used messages from the media to evaluate themselves, and that these comparisons can impact self esteem. In addition to messages kids get from family members, peers, community members, and other areas in their lives, if white and black girls and black boys also absorb messages from the media, it could impact their self esteem if they do not see themselves as successful, as main characters, or as heroes.
- If kids are watching television, this might be displacing real-life experiences that could otherwise build self esteem. (The study found that black kids watched 10 hours more of television than white kids did.) Arguably, these kids could be learning more about themselves through activities other than television, which could otherwise have raised self esteem. (The authors note that this theory does not explain why watching television hurts self esteem for girls and kids of color but raises self esteem in white boys who watch a lot of TV.)
Co-researcher Nicole Martins explained the contrast between white male, female, and black male characters on television:
“Regardless of what show you’re watching, if you’re a white male, things in life are pretty good for [people who look like] you. You tend to be in positions of power, you have prestigious occupations, high education, glamorous houses, a beautiful wife, with very little portrayals of how hard you worked to get there.
“If you are a girl or a woman, what you see is that women on television are not given a variety of roles. The roles that they see are pretty simplistic; they’re almost always one-dimensional and focused on the success they have because of how they look, not what they do or what they think or how they got there.
“Young black boys are getting the opposite message: that there is not lots of good things that you can aspire to. If we think about those kinds of messages, that’s what’s responsible for the impact.”