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This paper focuses on several mass communication theory concepts and their application to sexuality in television programs. More specifically, the review of literature will be centered around the following research questions: (1) What is the nature of sexual content in television programs, and how often is it included in television programming? (2) How does the sexuality in television programming influence the sexual behavior of adolescents who view the programs? (3) What sexual content does Gossip Girl, a popular teen television series, specifically depict? (4) How can the portrayal of adolescent sexual behavior in television shows like Gossip Girl relate to mass communication concepts such as social cognitive (learning) theory, priming effects, superpeer theory, parasocial relationship, and wishful identification? This topic is important because mass communication theory can provide more insight into the concept of sexual television content’s influence on adolescents. In this paper I will analyze the above mass communication theories as reasons why a relationship exists between television content and viewer behavior, also applying the theories to themes and depictions in Gossip Girl.
In 2006, a 3% increase in US television viewing among teenagers aged 12 to 17, the target age group for Gossip Girl, was reported by Nielsen Media Research (Peirce, 2011, p. 1-2). Young people of this age group are “situated in a crucial phase” of a self-identity construction process. At the core of this process includes developing a healthy, value-based understanding of their sexual behavior, for which media products like television serve as “virtual toolkits of many different possible identities,” providing a key source for information about both scripts and social norms for sexual, romantic, and gender-related behavior (Van Damme, 2010, p. 80). According to media theorist David Buckingham (2003), the media (namely television) “are embedded in the textures and routines of everyday life, and they provide many of the ‘symbolic resources’ we use to conduct and interpret our relationships and to define our identities” (p. 5). According to recent systematic content analyses, the popular television programming among adolescent audiences frequently features sexual content (Ortiz & Brooks, 2014, p. 41). Cope-Farrar and Kunkel’s definition of sexual content, cited by Van Damme, will be used for this paper. They define it to include depictions of talk or behavior that involve sexuality in any way, as well as sexual behavior, which must at least “imply potential or likely sexual intimacy between the participants,” and depending on the context, passionate kissing and physical flirting are included (Van Damme, 2010, p. 80).
The sexual content on television is becoming more and more explicit. Teenagers, like the characters in Gossip Girl, are depicted as engaging in sexual contact at earlier ages (Ortiz & Brooks, 2014, p. 41). Additionally, at the same time, portrayals of the risk and responsibility concerning sex are extremely rare, and if they are ever referenced, they are depicted as “transient and emotionally insignificant” (Ortiz & Brooks, 2014, p. 41). In a study of five popular television teen dramas in the United States (Glee, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill, and 90210) conducted by Rebecca Ortiz and Mary Brooks, the researchers found that teenaged characters central to the television shows sexually expressed themselves on average ten times across the seven episodes studied from each program (Ortiz & Brooks, 2014, p. 49). In their study, an extremely notable finding was that one in eight programs aired during prime time (12%) depict sexual intercourse between characters, a frequency showing how challenging it would be to avoid viewing these depictions regularly (p. 34). Again, not only is the content displayed frequently, but it also exaggerated. A term used to describe the sensationalized representations of sexuality in media, “hypersexuality,” encompasses an array of extreme depictions, regarding anything from the way a character acts, dresses, or speaks, to the sexual act itself (Bindig, 2015, p. 87).
Clearly, television is saturated with sexual content. It is especially of interest to examine the effect sexual content in television programming has on adolescent viewers; according to Nielsen as cited in Ortiz and Brooks (2014), as of the year 2009 when Gossip Girl was in the middle of its run, television was the medium most engaged with by teenagers (p. 42). According to Strasburger, Jordan, & Donnerstein (2010), shows directed at adolescents contain more sexual content than those direct at adults, however, again, depictions of responsibility and the need for contraception are rare (p. 760). For example, in the study by Ortiz and Brooks (2014), none of the 35 episodes (26 hours of content) coded included any exhibition or concern of sexually transmitted infections (p. 42). Simultaneously, a greater risk of unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease have accompanied a faster progression of sexual activity and “earlier coital behavior” among adolescent viewers in direct association with heavy exposure to sexual content in widespread media, particularly television (Strasburger, Jordan, & Donnerstein, 2010, p. 760). In large part this is congruent to the fact that adolescents use television as a major source for sexual health information, with substantial influence on their understanding of sexual relationships and the social “norms” surrounding sexuality (Ortiz & Brooks, 2014, p. 42).
As stated by Farrar, Kunkel, Biely, Eyal, Fandrich, and Donnerstein (2003), research verifies this influence on young people’s attitudes and beliefs about sexuality. In one such study, teenagers who had just viewed television dramas full of sexual content “rated descriptions of casual sexual encounters less negatively than teens who had not viewed such programming” (p. 8). It is not difficult to imagine that adolescents easily pick up scripts from television programming that ascertain the appropriate time to engage in sex with someone as well as the outcomes of sexual acts (p. 8-9). In Farrar, Kunkel, Biely, Eyal, Fandrich, and Donnerstein’s study, 797 half-hour programs were analyzed from 1997 to 2002. In the 2001-2002 sample (258 programs), sexual patience did not occur in any of the scenes. Only 2% of all shows studied in the research portrayed both sexual precaution and risks/negative consequences, typically involving condom use (p. 26-27). Overall, only 9% of shows with sexual content in the 2001-2002 sample had at least one scene that depicted sexual risk or responsibility at some point during its duration (p. 29). Therefore, while adolescents easily learn sexual scripts through television programs, a vast minority depict any sort of responsibility or consequences, indicating a large deficit of positive sexual education for teenagers.
One such program filled with sexual content and severely lacking in the portrayal of risks and consequences of sex is the CW’s Gossip Girl. As Peirce (2011) cites Fitzgerald, in 2007 the television show averaged a 2.5 rating for teenagers aged 12-17, marking it as the top-rated program for the age group (p. 2). The show’s main characters include Blair Waldorf, Serena van der Woodsen, Nate Archibald, Chuck Bass, Dan Humphrey, and Jenny Humphrey, all teenagers in New York City attending private high school. A major part of Gossip Girl’s plot is centered around the characters’ sexual relations with each other. In every episode there are elements of hypersexualization as well as frequent objectification of women. One notable occasion occurs in the seventh episode of the first season when Blair performs a striptease on the stage of a burlesque club Chuck owns. At one point, Blair takes her headband off and throws it to Chuck, “as if it is an invitation for the male gaze” (Bindig, 2015, p. 90). Though this scene initially can be seen as empowering, as Blair took the stage for herself, objectification in the scene is evident. Once Blair throws him her headband and Chuck stands up to watch her more closely, the camera zooms in on her body and focuses on certain body parts, meant to be from Chuck’s vantage point. Her “reward” for this objectification is sexual intimacy with Chuck, which takes place in the back of a limo shortly after; the direct connection demonstrating that sex is her reward occurs when Chuck whispers “you were amazing up there” right before they begin to kiss (Bindig, 2015, p. 91). In the first episode of Gossip Girl, in fact, Blair is established as being an object that a man can possess, which is evident when Chuck tells Nate to “seal the deal with Blair because you’re also entitled to tap that ass” (Ziegesar and Buckly, 2007).
Past the objectification rampant throughout its six seasons, Gossip Girl is also hypersexualized in its reinforcement of “pornified culture.” Bindig (2015) discusses this, explaining how Gossip Girl regularly incorporates themes of pornography, portraying “strip clubs, prostitutes, threesomes, sexual fetishes, and sex parties” (p. 92). The characters on Gossip Girl consistently engage in these, which portrays pornified culture as the norm to the viewers. In the second season, Nate continually sleeps with a married woman named Catherine over the summer, which is portrayed in a very hypersexualized manner. When their relationship is first introduced to the viewers, they are shown intimately engaging before falling onto Catherine’s bed. After having sexual intercourse, Catherine hears the noise of a car and it is revealed to the viewers that her husband came home early, meaning Nate had to (dramatically) jump out of the window to leave unnoticed. Their affair eventually continues into the fall, and when Nate is struggling financially, Catherine offers him money in return for the continuation of their relationship.
Bindig cites the commodification of sex, as in Nate’s instance, and the eroticization of inequality, as the inherent issues with pornography; the focus is not to demonize sexual expression (p. 92). Also worthy of noting is the fact that Nate’s situation is rare, in that it is the only major example of the commodification of sex where the woman pays the man. In every other episode of the many where it is featured, men are the ones paying off women. This occurs in a glamorous fashion; the women being paid for sex are typically of the upper-class, a depiction that “diminishes the real world class differential between the financially unstable women forced to sell their bodies and the financially secure men who can afford to pay for sex” (Bindig, 2015, p. 93). Throughout Gossip Girl, massive sex parties, or gentlemen’s clubs, are thrown in ornate mansions with women employed to be sexually available to the men. The women are shown roaming around serving them food or drinks while wearing elaborate and clearly expensive lingerie, which further glamorizes sex work. Another example of the pornification of culture in Gossip Girl are the threesomes that occur, all between one man and two women. One example happens between Dan, his girlfriend Olivia, and Olivia’s roommate/Dan’s best friend, Vanessa, in season three. As Bindig (2015) describes, the fact that it and all other references to threesomes occur between one man and two women use the situation to exploit female sexuality. Rather than two men focusing their sexual attention on women, which would greatly alter the roles, two women serve the man simultaneously, while he gets to use the male gaze for his own “voyeuristic pleasure” (p. 94).
Perhaps the most basic, yet most infiltrating idea portrayed in the sexual content in Gossip Girl is the casual nature of nearly every sexual depiction. Sexual activity with strangers, friends, or acquaintances is all regarded as recreational and portrays sex as “a fun, carefree activity, of little consequence,” done without the involvement of feelings (Peirce, 2011, p. 3). Peirce (2011) also notes that the past episode storyline recaps that play before a new episode begins include frequent scenes of sexual activity. These “hooks” are used to persuade viewers to continue watching, and in efforts to keep ratings up among the adolescent viewership, the sexual content in popular programs like Gossip Girl will remain (p. 4-5). This gives teenaged viewers of Gossip Girl the idea that it is normal and expected in society to be very sexually active at their age, especially due to the frequently depicted casual sex (Van Damme, 2010, p. 88). To further assess Gossip Girl’s effects on adolescents, several mass communication theories will be used as ways to connect the content to the audience. It has already been established that both the amount and nature of sexual content portrayed on television programming affects adolescent viewer behavior, but an analysis of these communication theories will provide better insight into why the effectual relationship between the content and the viewer exists and how it applies to Gossip Girl.
Social cognitive theory is defined by Baran and Davis (2015) as a “theory of learning through interaction with the environment that involves reciprocal causation of behavior, personal factors, and environmental events” (p. 166). Baran and Davis also explain that it developed out of psychological attention on the impact of mass media on people, or more specifically children. Communication theorists then began to study the rise in real-world violence, which can be likened to the sexual behavior discussed in this paper, and television’s possible influence on the increase, according to Baran and Davis (p. 166). When certain behaviors are depicted on television, social cognitive theory suggests that the behavior will then be followed by viewers, unless there are negative sanctions on the behavior depicted along with it. Contemporary social cognitive theory is now known as social learning theory, which explains that media characters are able to affect behavior “simply by being depicted on the screen. The audience member need not be reinforced or rewarded for exhibiting the modeled behavior” (Baran & Davis, 2015, p. 171). So, even without incentive to engage in the sexual behavior that television depicts, teenagers can still be affected simply through consistent exposure to it.
In applying this theory to Gossip Girl, an adolescent viewer is exposed to the characters’ engagement in continuous casual sex with no consequences. Along with casual sex, objectification, hypersexuality, and a pornified view of sexuality will be taken in as a social norm for teenaged viewers, influencing their future behavior. Social learning theory, as applied to sexuality in television, is supported by a study done by Collins, Elliott, Berry, Kanouse, Kunkel, Hunter, and Miu (2004) which found that substantial exposure to televised sexual depictions “related strongly to teens’ initiation of intercourse or their progression to more advanced sexual activities (such as ‘making out’ or oral sex) apart from intercourse in the following year,” and that teens who were exposed to the most sexual content were twice as likely to engage in intercourse within a year after the study than those exposed to the smallest amount (p. 2). As can be deduced, the consistent exposure to sexual depictions in Gossip Girl can easily influence the sexual behavior of adolescent viewers, a relationship that can be viewed through social learning theory.
Another communication theory that can be applied to the sexual content of Gossip Girl and its effects on adolescent viewers is the idea of priming effects. According to Baran and Davis (2015), priming effects is “the idea that presentations in the media heighten the likelihood that people will develop similar thoughts about those things in the real world” (p. 175). This notion is similar to that of social learning theory, nevertheless, it accounts for televised content’s influence on viewers’ perspectives on both their own sexuality and society’s sexuality in general. Perspectives, in turn, can influence behavior. In this train of thought, the notion of priming effects essentially provides further detail than social learning behavior. Rather than simply theorizing that a high level of exposure will cause behavior, it connects the exposure with this idea of developing similar thoughts about what is portrayed in the real world, which has the ability to influence behavior. If a female adolescent viewer, for example, watches the episode of Gossip Girl mentioned previously where Blair performed a striptease for Chuck, she may think that it is normal, expected, and encouraged in the real world to invite the male gaze in such an objectifying way, and then have to engage in sex. If a male adolescent viewer were to watch this episode, he could think that it is normal, expected, and encouraged in the real world to use his male gaze in an objectifying manner and later expect sex. Subsequently, both viewers could end up acting according to these thoughts, and as discovered in the studies mentioned before, they typically do.
According to Strasburger, Jordan, and Donnerstein (2010), “media present youth with common ‘scripts’ for how to behave in unfamiliar situations such as romantic relationships” (p. 758). As explained previously, adolescents are situated in an identity construction phase of their lives, meanwhile media plays a significant role in that by providing “symbolic resources” to do so. Thus, in accordance with the theories discussed thus far, the behavior and ways of thought that adolescents pick up from the sexual content in television are tools they use in the construction of their identities. Another theory to explain this relationship further is superpeer theory, which theorizes that “the media are like powerful best friends in sometimes making risky behaviors seem like normative behavior” to adolescent viewers (Strasburger, Jordan, and Donnerstein, 2010, p. 758). Discussed earlier, the consistent exposure to hypersexualization, objectification, pornography, and casual sex in Gossip Girl make it seem like these themes are normal and expected in society. Meanwhile, there is little to no mention of any risks or consequences involved, an issue in television noted prior. Superpeer theory is a powerful way to connect the relationship between television content and its effects on teenaged viewers. According to superpeer theory, this relationship happens because the media serves as just as much of a powerful influence on an adolescent viewer’s thoughts that a best friend or peer group does, meaning the risky and over-exaggerated sexual behaviors Gossip Girl portrays seem like social norms and expected behaviors that adolescent viewers will want to mimic. It is relevant to also apply social learning theory here; if viewers are exposed to these behaviors on television, they will likely follow the behaviors. Superpeer theory supports this notion, providing more of a detailed explanation of why exactly effects on viewer behavior can occur, specifically among adolescents.
The notion of media’s ability to serve as “friends” that are influential on viewer behavior is more deeply theorized through the concept of a parasocial relationship. Parasocial relationship, originally detailed by Horton and Wohl in 1956, involves a viewer forming an association with a character that lasts longer than one episode and does not require direct viewer address, or parasocial interaction; in these relationships, the viewer seeks guidance from characters they admire or identify with, imagining themselves as friends with the characters and as being involved in the social world of the program (Dibble, Hartmann, & Rosaen, 2015, p. 5). Explained by Cohen and Hoffner, cited by Ortiz and Brooks (2014), developing parasocial relationships with media characters can ultimately cause viewers to follow the behaviors of their pseudo friends (p. 41). Thus, when adolescent viewers form parasocial relationships with characters from television shows, they easily internalize the characters’ attitudes and follow their behaviors. In using Blair’s striptease scene from Gossip Girl as an example again, a female teenaged viewer that forms a parasocial relationship with Blair might view her behavior in front of Chuck as something she should mimic when with a teen male, heightening the likelihood that she engages in sexual intercourse earlier than she would have otherwise. This is parallel to the concept of wanting to do something that a friend has done. The same can be said for a male teenaged viewer that forms a parasocial relationship with Chuck. However, it should be noted that parasocial relationships can occur between both genders as well.
In an article by Hoffner and Buchanan (2009), they define the concept of wishful identification as a long-term “desire to be like or act like the character” depicted on a television program (p. 325). This theory directly associates the relationship between content on television and viewer behavior. When an adolescent viewer wishfully identifies with a character on television that is shown engaging in frequent sexual behaviors, without any regard for consequence, the teenager will subsequently have a desire to be and act like the character, regardless of gender. As cited in Hoffner and Buchanan (2009), Caughey, Boone, and Lomore “reported that audience members made changes in their appearance, attitudes, values, activities, and other characteristics” as a result of wishful identification with media characters (p. 327). An adolescent who wishfully identifies with Blair in Gossip Girl would likely adopt her attitude and values, conceivably engaging in sexual behavior earlier on than they would have otherwise, like Strasburger, Jordan, and Donnerstein (2010) suggested. It is clear, then, that wishful identification serves as a powerful example of how content on television can affect viewer behavior.
In this paper I suggest that certain mass communication theories, including social cognitive (learning) theory, priming effects, superpeer theory, parasocial relationship, and wishful identification, explain how and why the relationship between television and viewer behavior exists. As described, the sexual content on television shows like Gossip Girl portrays negative, false, and unrealistic representations of sexuality, which lack depictions of risks and consequences. Collins, Elliott, Berry, Kanouse, Kunkel, Hunter, and Miu (2004) suggest a solution to the negative viewer effects of televised sexual content. A past RAND research study, taken along with theirs, suggests “the need to reduce teens’ exposure to sexual content on television and to explore greater use of entertainment shows to inform teens about risk” (p. 3). The past study suggested that portrayal of risks and consequences of sexual behavior in television can positively impact adolescent viewer knowledge and subsequent behavior in two ways: by teaching accurate, rather than false, information about repercussions of sexual behavior to the viewer, and by prompting discussion about those messages with adults that can emphasize them. Television is a major source of knowledge and behavioral role models for adolescents in particular; it can and should be used as a tool to properly instruct them about sexuality, rather than support negative and risky behaviors like most popular teenager-oriented television programs, such as Gossip Girl, currently do.
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