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What we see when we see movies

What movies tell us about the world

Which of these groups is portrayed most favorably in American movies?

a) Smokers

b) Psychiatrists

c) CEOs

d) P.E. teachers

A study published in the journal Pediatrics this month showed that exposure to sexual content in the media predicted a greater risk of adolescent pregnancy. Researchers followed teenagers over a 3-year period, finding that those who watched a great deal of sex on TV were twice as likely to get pregnant or to impregnate someone else, compared to those who watched only a little. These results could not be explained by the teenagers' family environment, performance in school, history of deviant behavior, or any other factor.

Parents have always raged against the media for bringing taboo topics and explicit material closer and closer to the mainstream, from sex and violence to unsavory role models who use drugs or embrace "alternative lifestyles". Though it's debatable how much these images affect the average person, studies like this have been confirming parents' fears -- these images can have a profound impact on behavior. We want to focus on portrayals in mainstream American movies, in part because many of these films are distributed worldwide and seen by millions of people outside the country too.

Early criticisms of film content were based on the observation that movies depicted women and minorities in ways that reinforced negative stereotypes. Since then, much research has shown that the way different groups are portrayed on-screen influences viewers' beliefs and attitudes about those groups.

Although parents may be concerned about their children believing inaccurate stereotypes, parents are far more worried about which behaviors their children will want to imitate. Keep in mind, the film industry's primary target audience is young people, who look to movies to discern norms about what is fun, what is acceptable, and what is or is not dangerous.

One group of researchers, concerned about the safe sex messages movies communicate, examined all of the sex scenes in the highest grossing films between 1983-2003. They found that in most of these sex scenes: the characters having sex were not well-acquainted with each other, they didn't use a condom or any other form of birth control (nor was it discussed), and there were no negative consequences of their behavior.

Other research, like the teen pregnancy study, has linked movie portrayals to viewers' actual behavior. For example, exposure to smoking in films leads teenagers to have more favorable attitudes toward smoking and to start smoking cigarettes at an earlier age, especially when they see their favorite movie stars smoking on screen.

Whether we like to admit it or not, we're all affected by what we've seen in the movies, probably far more than we realize. Consider the results of these other studies. How do you think the following portrayals have contributed to your own beliefs, attitudes, and stereotypes? How well do these portrayals correspond to reality?

• More than two thirds of G-rated animated movies released between 1937-1997 featured either alcohol or tobacco use by one of its characters. "Good" characters were just as likely to use these substances as bad or neutral characters, and few films depicted any negative consequences of their use.

• Most Disney animated movies have some reference to characters with mental illness, and these depictions tend to be negative. Across all other movie genres, characters with any kind of mental illness are usually portrayed negatively (e.g., as homicidal maniacs, simpletons, victims).

• People with physical disabilities are practically non-existent in movies.

• Characters who drink alcohol are more physically attractive, more romantically and sexually active, and wealthier, compared to non-drinkers.

• Older characters (over 35) -- especially older women -- are portrayed as less friendly, less intelligent, less moral, and are less likely to have positive outcomes in the story.

• Almost half of all psychiatrists/therapists in movies violate professional boundaries with their patients, such as inappropriate sexual involvement. Female psychiatrists in movies are twice as likely as male psychiatrists to have sex with patients.

• Films also project three dominant stereotypes of psychiatrists, each with their own nickname: "Dr. Evil" is refined and cultivated on the outside, but sinister, deranged, and manipulative at heart (think Hannibal Lecter and Jonathan Crane); "Dr. Dippy" is the incompetent, ineffective buffoon who can't shake his own insecurities (think Niles and Frasier Crane, Tobias Funke); and "Dr. Wonderful" is the caring, insightful, dedicated super-therapist, but gets overinvolved with patients and has a chaotic personal life (think Jennifer Melfi and Susan Lowenstein).

• Movies depict business executives as villains who don't mind hurting people in order to make money (e.g., Gordon Gekko, Obadiah Stane, corporate suits in films like Syriana). Such characters sometimes turn out to be "good", but only when they abandon their concerns about making money (Tony Stark, Edward Lewis). This anti-business bias applies to people in the upper echelons of a corporation, rather than people at lower levels or people who run small businesses.

• And yes, P.E. teachers get a raw deal as well - they're portrayed as bullies and are rarely shown teaching students anything. Their gender is also relevant: Female P.E. teachers are depicted as "butch" and male P.E. teachers are hyper-masculine skirt-chasers.

Few of these themes should surprise us. At some level, these stereotypes are already steeped in our subconscious, even if we reject them consciously. The troubling thing about these depictions is just how pervasive they are and how deep they run. In real life, for example, how do jurors regard defendants who have some form of mental illness? How many positive stereotypes of elderly people are there? How many people don't trust psychiatrists? How many men assume that their psychiatrist must be coming on to them? And how many aspiring P.E. teachers choose a different career path because of the stigma associated with the job?

Of course, there are many other groups that get shafted by the media. We're curious...what are some other groups that you've always felt get a bad rap, maybe ones that we don't hear much about?

(This post was co-authored by Josh Foster.)

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