Cultural Meanings & Frames of Social Groups

Parents Magazine May 2010 - textPlus Love!

How have meanings about groups in our society changed over time? Several of my projects address culture, social change and identities. In one study, I examine changes in whether women identify as a “feminist” or not, and what factors influence this, across different generations. In other research, I focus on the depiction of African-Americans in children’s picture books through the 20th Century. Recent projects include an analysis of Parents’ magazine’s framing of blame for low father involvement (over the 20th and into the 21st century), and U.S. & Canadian newspapers’ discussions of the “Mommy Wars.”

How are social groups portrayed and framed in media and how does it matter? Cultural images of social groups like girls, mothers, or African-Americans can be stereotypical and narrow and thus create social comparisons that are detrimental to health and well-being. Even when people are critical of their group’s portrayals, those images can be oppressive.

Media directly influence us, but there are also more complex effects. The theory of Presumed Media Influence (Milkie 1999; Hartley, Wight and Hunt 2014; Gunther and Storey 2003) argues that we are influenced because we believe that others are affected by pervasive, dominant frames in the mass media. My research on adolescent girls’ interpretations and critiques of beauty images contributed to this perspective, showing that images can influence us indirectly, by way of our presuming that what is “out there” in media affects others, who in turn may see us through these media-distorted lenses. Thus, even if we don’t agree with media framings, and even if we don’t think we are (directly) influenced by them, these can impact us.

At the University of Maryland, I was founding director of The Culture Lab.

  • White shirts hanging on a rod.