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Do media portrayals of drinking and sexual/romantic relationships shape teenagers' constructions of gendered identities?

Hartley, Jane Elizabeth Katherine (2011) Do media portrayals of drinking and sexual/romantic relationships shape teenagers' constructions of gendered identities? PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Abstract

This study explores the possible influence of the media on teenagers’ constructions of gendered identities, with a specific focus on drinking alcohol and engaging in sexual/romantic relationships. Understanding the factors underlying alcohol consumption and sexual activity in this age group is an important public health priority. Teenagers in ‘western’ countries are drinking more alcohol than ever before and these drinking habits may be associated with risky behaviour, such as unprotected sex, and with morbidity and mortality. In comparison to other west European nations, the UK demonstrates a poor history of sexual health in teenagers, with the highest levels of teenage pregnancy and the second-highest level of abortions in women under the age of 20. Approximately half of all sexually transmitted infections diagnosed in the UK in 2009 were seen in the under-25s. Research also suggests that the mass media influence teenagers’ behaviours, including drinking alcohol and sexual practices. The question about the influence of the media is complex. There are two opposing theoretical positions which purport to explain the influence of the media: the 'media as powerful' versus the 'media audience as powerful'. This study adopts a theoretical approach which accommodates both of these: the 'influence of presumed media influence' theory (Milkie, 1999). A contentious issue is how the media is understood by teenagers to influence their alcohol consumption and their sexual/romantic relationships. This thesis has sought to address these issues by answering the following research questions: 1: Is the media integrated into the lives of teenage boys and girls? 2: How do teenagers’ understandings of gender-appropriate alcohol-use relate to media portrayals of alcohol use? 3: How do teenagers’ understandings of gender-appropriate engagement in sexual/romantic relationships relate to media portrayals of sexual/romantic relationships? 4: Is Milkie’s (1999) ‘influence of presumed media influence’ theory a useful way to understand the media’s position in teenagers’ lives, and specifically their understandings of gender-appropriate alcohol use, and of romantic and sexual relationships? 5: How are teenagers’ understandings of gender-appropriate behaviours with regards to drinking alcohol and sexual/romantic relationships used in the construction of their gendered identities? Fieldwork was conducted with teenagers aged 13-16 years, specifically in Edinburgh and in Ayrshire. The main sample comprised 25 semi-structured group discussions with 11 follow-up individual interviews, during which participants were asked to reflect on, and interpret, images from popular British television programmes that portrayed instances of alcohol use and sexual/romantic relationships. This method was intended both to prompt discussion on the process of media influence and to allow the participants to reflect on similar situations in their own lives. The research found that the mass media does shape teenagers’ perceptions and expectations of drinking alcohol and engaging in sexual/romantic relationships; and in doing so shapes their gendered identities. Importantly, the research confirmed Milkie’s ‘influence of presumed media influence’ theory that resolved the apparently incompatible ‘powerful media’ versus ‘powerful audience’ approaches to media influence. This suggests that media influence might be all the stronger for not being readily recognised or acknowledged as being influential. Media were more influential for teenagers’ understandings of gender-appropriate engagement in sexual/romantic relationships than they were for teenagers’ understandings of gender-appropriate drinking. The reason that media portrayals of drinking were considered to be only a minor influence among other stronger influences such as peers and family may be that these activities are more public. Sexual behaviour is less public therefore teenagers rely more on media to shape their images of what is considered to be appropriate behaviour. Sexual behaviour and drinking alcohol were intertwined. Many participants talked of how sexual negotiation and activities were often accompanied by drinking. Being drunk, or, importantly, pretending to be drunk, may be understood as a process that is useful for teenagers when trying out perceived gender-appropriate identities as they engage in their relationships. As with alcohol, romantic and sexual relationships are acted out in a particular way which is informed by discourses which specify gender-appropriate behaviour, attitudes and roles (and with the help of alcohol itself, which acts as a social ‘lubricant’) and in doing so is a component of the project of identity construction. The implication of this research is that existing concern about the influence of the media should be concentrated on the media portrayals of behaviours that are less public, such as sexual/romantic relationships, rather than media portrayals of behaviours that are more public, such as drinking alcohol.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: media, television, media influence, sex, sexual romantic relationships, alcohol, drinking, gender, identity, gendered identities, teenagers
Subjects: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GV Recreation Leisure
G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GN Anthropology
H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
Colleges/Schools: College of Medical Veterinary and Life Sciences > Institute of Health and Wellbeing
Supervisor's Name: Wight, Professor Daniel
Date of Award: 2011
Depositing User: Dr Jane E.K. Hartley
Unique ID: glathesis:2011-2855
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 19 Oct 2011
Last Modified: 10 Dec 2012 14:01
URI: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/2855

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