A Mediascope Survey and Literature Review

Research by Kristin J. Anderson, Ph.D. and Donna Cavallaro
Written by Kristin J. Anderson, Ph.D., Stephanie Carbone, Heather Jue and Laurie Trotta May 2000

Role Models and Heroes in the Third Millennium

.rom Parents to Pop Stars:

sponded he most admired his grandmother, who supported his ideas and paid his film school tuition. Lee also named famous people he respected, such as Melvin Van Peebles and other black directors of the 1970s.
Like Spike Lee, most children have heroes, and they can assume a number of different forms. A child’s hero can be someone known intimately — a beloved aunt, a family friend, or a favorite teacher — or someone a child can only dream of meeting — Michael Jordan, Madonna, or the President. Many psychologists believe that heroes are important to a child’s development. They can help young people forge their own identities as they struggle to become independent of their parents. They may provide models for behavior to emulate and can inspire children to greatness.1 Young people can naturally draw their heroes and role models from the stream of media celebrities they are bombarded with daily: a character in the latest sitcom, a rapper tapping out a favorite song, or an athlete performing amazing feats on the field. Some children’s advocates are concerned that the media age may be weakening the concept of “heroism” among children. They are concerned that lines are being blurred between the concept of “celebrity,” a phenomenon of the media age where anyone can become “famous” just by being on television, and that of true heroism, which speaks of valor and noble qualities. Others worry that children may be using “celebrities” as role models, even though the act of being famous holds none of the same standards of behavior as that of a noble hero. Recent cases point to the rise in celebrities gone awry: two football heroes accused of murder after winning the Super Bowl, a noted teen heart throb arrested and sent to prison for repeated drug abuse, a rock star accused of battering his famous wife, and rappers espousing the gangsta lifestyle.


ickelodeon recently asked filmmaker Spike Lee about his childhood heroes: “Who influenced you when you were a child?” Enthusiastically, Lee re-

Young people can naturally draw on their heroes and role models from the stream of media celebrities they are bombarded with daily: a character in the latest sitcom, a rapper tapping out a favorite song, or an athlete performing amazing feats on the field.

This report looks at role models and heroes of 179 California students, and attempts to determine whether media images are indeed affecting those children’s views on how to act and whom to look up to as they develop into mature adults. Readers will also find at the end of the document a review of the research literature on the subject of heroes and role models, which is provided for background material.


Good News! Moms and Dads Overall Ranked Number One as Role Models in Survey of California Kids

Although the 179 California children surveyed listed a wide variety of media characters as their heroes, such as Stone Cold Steve Austin, Bart Simpson and Salma Hayek, the most frequently named heroes and role models were parents (34%). Actors and musicians (20%) ranked second, which included Jennifer Lopez, Julia Roberts, Neve Campbell and Jackie Chan, and fictional characters such as Dexter from Dexter’s Laboratory and Pokémon characters.

.riends (14%); professional athletes (11%); and acquaintances (8%) trailed behind, and authors and historical figures were each chosen by only 1% of the children. When gender was taken into account, both girls and boys most frequently mentioned a parent (girls 29%, boys 34%); entertainers came in second place.

Most Frequently Chosen Heroes




14% 11% 8%



0% P arent A ctor/Musi cian Friend P ro Ath lete A cquai ntance


Asian-American & Latino Kids in Survey Admired Celebrities Slightly More Than Parents
Patterns were somewhat different when children’s ethnicity was taken into account. African-American and European-American children chose parents most frequently (30% and 33%, respectively). However, Asian Americans and Latinos most frequently chose entertainers, such as musicians, actors, and TV personalities (39% for Asian Americans and 47% for Latinos), with parents ranking second place.

Role Model Choices By Ethnicity
Af rican American
4 7%

Asian American



50% 40% 30%

3 9% 3 3% 3 0%

2 0%1 9%

2 2% 1 8% 1 7% 1 1% 9% 3% 2% 1 6% 1 3%1 3% 7% 4% 6% 1 3%

20% 10% 0%




Pro Athelete


When taking both ethnicity and gender into account: 3 Asian-American (50%) and Latina (41%) girls most frequently picked entertainers, while black (33%) and white (29%) girls chose parents as their favorite hero. Boys were more divided: 3 Asian-American boys most frequently named a professional athlete (36%) as their hero 3 African-American boys most frequently picked a parent (30%) 3 Latino boys most frequently chose actors/musicians (54%) 3 European-American boys picked parents (38%)


Wanted: Heroes Who are “Nice, Helpful and Understanding”
Although the lure of the superhero who can “leap tall buildings in a single bound” certainly exists, most children said they admired their heroes Parents were because they were nice, helpful, and appreciated understanding (38%), all qualities highly valued for children in forming good self for their generosity, esteem. Because parents were the their understanding, most frequently named role models for many children, these characteristics and for “being there.” were generally attributed to parents. Parents were appreciated for their generosity, their understanding, and for “being there.”

Skills Needed to Attain Hero Status
The second most admired feature of children’s role models was skill (27%). Skills were most often attributed to athletes and entertainers. Tara Lipinski, Ken Griffey, Jr., Olan Nolen, Mia Hamm, and Whitney Houston, among others, were chosen for their skills. Studies show that by about age six, boys begin to abandon fantasy heroes and idealize reallife heroes who exhibit exceptional skill. They tend to prefer a realistic hero who has “something special to set [them] apart.”2 A 12-year-old boy said he admires Kobe Bryant because, “He’s a good basketball player and he makes a good amount of money.” A 10-year-old girl chose Tara Lipinski because “She has a lot of courage and is a great skater.” A 12-year-old boy chose Michael Jordan because “He’s very good and he is the best at A 12-year-old basketball.” A 9-year-old boy said “What I like about Captain boy said he America is his cool shield and how he fights the evil red skull.” Captain America is a superhero, but the child admires him for a admires Kobe specifically defined ability rather than for his general Bryant besuperpowers.

cause, “He’s a good basketball player and he makes a lot of money.”

Humor is a Must
The third most frequently mentioned characteristic was a sense of humor (9%), which was most often attributed to entertainers.


Role Models Can Inspire Behavior
When asked what they liked about the person they looked up to, 7% of the children said they wanted to be like that person. .or example, one 11-year-old picked her brother: “He is always nice to me and I love him very much. He is also attending Cal Poly [University] and I want to be as good as he is.” However, most explicit references to role models were made about entertainers. A 9-year-old girl told us, “I like Britney Spears because how she sings and dances. And when I have to choose my job I want to perform like her.” A 9-year-old boy chose Arnold Schwarzenegger because “He’s cool and I want to be like him.”

Most Frequently Named Attributes of Heroes


30% 20%
9% 7%

10% 0% Helpful, Nice Skilled Humorous Role Model

Percentages taken from a sample of 179 California children

Niceness, Skill and Humor as special qualities for a hero were held by all four ethnicities and both genders, with two exceptions: boys were more likely than girls to name athletes for their skill and entertainers for their humor. However, only four girls in our study chose professional athletes as role models.


Do Children Look Up To People They Know, or To .amous People and Characters?
When children were asked whom they looked up to and admired, more described someone they knew personally (65%) than a person they did not know firsthand (35%). When asked why, one girl replied, “I didn’t write down [famous] people because when nobody’s paying attention, they do something bad.” Another girl said, “Some [media figures] are just not nice. They act good on TV but they’re really horrible.” The children expressed a level of skepticism in judging who is worthy of being a role model and made clear distinctions between the television character and the actual actor.

The children expressed a level of skepticism in judging who is worthy of being a role model and made clear distinctions between the television character and the actual actor.

P e rc en tage of C hildren W ho C h os e H e re os from Me dia o r Oth er P ub lic F igure s
100% 80% 60% 40% 20% 0%
A f r ic an A me ric a n A s ia n A me ric a n L atin o W h ite
3 0% 6 5% 5 1% 3 6%

Percentages taken from a sample of 179 California children


Personal Relationships with Heroes Are More Important to Some Groups than Others
Similar to the overall sample, 70% of the African-American and 64% of the Caucasian children chose people they knew as heroes. In contrast, only 35% of the AsianAmerican children and 49% of the Latino children named people they knew. When looking at overall gender patterns, girls and boys differed. Sixty-seven percent (67%) of the girls named people they knew as their heroes, compared with 58% of the boys. Since boys and men are more frequently portrayed on television as sports stars, actors, and musicians in music videos, girls may have a smaller pool of potential media role models, as do ethnic minorities. The girls surveyed also reported watching less television than did boys, which may have influenced girls into naming role models they knew. Sixty-seven percent (67%) of the girls reported watching television every day, while 87% of the boys reported daily viewing.

Having a personal relationship with their hero was more important to black and white children who participated in the survey than to Asian-American and Latino children — and even more important for girls than for boys.

Do Children Pick Role Models Similar to Them?
A recent study by the advocacy group Children Now reported that children of every ethnicity often associate more positive characteristics with European-American media characters than with African-American, Latino, or Asian-American characters.3 How could this be? One obvious reason is that there are simply more white characters in the media, and therefore they are more readily available for emulation and admiration than any other group. Whatever the reasons, these results were partially supported in the Mediascope study: Only 35% of Asian

Americans and 28% of Latinos who participated in the survey chose media heroes of their own ethnicity.

African-American and white children were more likely to have media heroes of their own ethnicity (67% for each), while Asian-American (40%) and Latino (56%) children chose white media heroes more frequently than other ethnic categories.


Ethnicity of Media Heroes
Based on the Number of Kids W ho A ctually Have Media Heroes African-American Heroes Asian-American Heroes Latino Heroes White Heroes
10 0% 80 %
67% 67% 56%

60 %

40 %

35% 25% 13% 0% 3% 28%


20 %


0% 0%

AfricanAmerican Kids As ianAmerican Kids L atino K ids White K ids

Percentages taken from a sample of 179 California children

On television and in film, there is a large representation of white characters for children to identify with. While blackcharacters are less frequent, 16% of prime-time television characters are AfricanAmerican, and their representation on television, film, and music television is much higher than Asian-American and Latino characters. There are also fewer famous Asian-American and Latino athletes than African-American and white players. Thus, media role models available for Asian-American and Latino children are limited.

Breaking the Gender Barrier
Overall, girls tended to choose girls and women as role models, while boys tended to pick boys and men. This pattern was stronger for boys than girls. Only 6% of the boys chose a woman, while 24% of the girls named a man. This pattern was also consistent for all four ethnic groups. In fact, Asian-American boys picked male heroes exclusively. African-American girls chose fewer female role models (55%) than the other girls did.


Why do heroes tend to be like ourselves?
Many studies indicate that girls and boys tend to imitate same-gender models. However, it has also been reported that boys tend to imitate those who are powerful and that they will emulate a woman if she is high in social power. During college, women select men and women role models with the same frequency, whereas men still tend to avoid women role models. That more young women choose both genders as role models than do men may be affected by the shortage of women in powerful positions. Men as powerful role models are readily available and more widely known.4

Children W ho Ha ve Sam e -G ender Role Models
10 0% 10 0% 97 % 90 % 85 % 80 % 72 % 83 %

60 %

55 % 50 %

G ir ls B oy s

40 %

20 %

0% Afric an Am eric an As ian Am eric a n Latino W hite

Percentages taken from a sample of 179 California children

How the Survey Was Conducted
During the summer of 1999, 179 eight- to thirteen- year-olds were surveyed from six sites in central and southern California. No information about socioeconomic status was taken. Researchers looked at role model preferences between boys and girls, and between different ethnic backgrounds. Those surveyed included 25 African Americans, 31 Asian Americans, 74 Latinos, two Native Americans, 45 European Americans, and two “other.” Ninety-five (95) girls and 84 boys participated. The samples of ethnic and gender categories were then weighted so that each of these demographic groups reflects their actual contribution to the total population of children in the United States. Researchers endeavored to learn the following: § § § Are children more likely to name people they know as heroes, such as parents or teachers, or do children choose people they do not know, such as professional athletes, television personalities, or historical figures? Do children choose heroes across ethnic and gender lines? Are heroes admired based on their character, ability, or physical appearance?


Background Material

A Mediascope Review of Research On Media Heroes and Children
By Kristin J. Anderson, Ph.D.
When we think of media heroes and role models for adults, we often think of reality-based characters played by real people. In contrast, young children’s media heroes tend to be superheroes — cartoon characters or real-life actors playing fantasy roles. They are powerful, in control of their destinies, respected by the “good” people, and all their actions are justified. Some parents and teachers see a problem with many superheroes today because they are viewed as being excessively violent and often promote aggression as a way to solve problems. Others believe that superheroes are a cathartic representation of good versus evil, and that they hold an important and time-honored place in the history of storytelling. Potential Role Models in Children’s Television Women and ethnic minorities are relatively rare on children’s Saturday morning television shows: one study revealed 23% of the characters are women and 5% are people of color. This could be a reason as to why many ethnic students surveyed selected non-ethnic heroes. Since few television shows include non-white characters, gender representation in children’s television is easier to examine. While there have been significant changes in the last two decades in the way girls and boys are portrayed in cartoons, recent research has found that female and male characters continue to be stereotypical. One study found that female cartoon characters are more independent, assertive, and competent, and are less helpless, whiny and emotional than they were twenty years ago. Unfortunately, striking differences between female and male cartoon characters remain. .or instance, female characters on Saturday morning shows fail to achieve goals more often than male characters.5 Male characters are also more independent, assertive, athletic, attractive, technical, and responsible than female characters. They show more ingenuity, anger, leadership, bravery, aggression, and threats; they even laugh more than female characters. In fact, since male cartoon characters are more frequent than female characters, they do more of nearly everything than female characters by virtue of their overrepresentation. While female cartoon characters are less stereotypical than they were twenty years ago, male characters today are more stereotypical. Males are portrayed as bossier, more intelligent, and in more leadership roles.6 The inflexibility of male roles, gender-stereotyped images, and the lack of ethnic minority and female characters greatly restrict the range of role models for younger children who are most likely to watch Saturday morning television. Two recent studies comparing American, British, Japanese, and Australian children’s cartoons and television commercials found that Japanese cartoons and Australian commercials for children’s products are more gender-balanced than their American counterparts.7 When violence is rewarded or goes unpunished, imitation is more likely to occur, according to the National Television Violence Study (Mediascope, 1996). Nearly three quarters of the violence that occurs on television, including children’s series, goes unpunished. In children’s shows “bad” characters are punished 59% of the time, and good characters that engage in violence are punished only 18% of the time. Therefore, characters that might be the most appealing to children, such as heroes and protagonists, rarely feel remorse, nor are they reprimanded or impeded when they engage in violence.8 Portrayals of violence in children’s programs may be encouraging the use of violence as a problem-solving tool. Potential Role Models in Children’s Animated .ilm While there have been positive changes for ethnic minority and female characters in children’s animated films, both groups are continually represented in narrowly-defined roles. Ethnic minority heroes often have Western European appearances, while villains have distinct ethnic characteristics. .emale characters are generally portrayed as impossibly thin and beautiful women solely concerned with men’s affection. While there are occasionally strong and courageous women, the majority of roles available for girls and boys represent gender and ethnic stereotypes. Potential Role Models in Real-Life Television Characters While the representation of ethnic minorities has improved over the last few decades, in 1998, only 19% of Screen Actors Guild roles went to people of color. The roles for Latinos and Native Americans decreased from 1997 to 1998. Latinos are currently the most underrepresented group on prime-time television and films compared to their representation in the total population.9 Women comprise less than 40% of the characters in prime-time programming. They tend to be younger than male characters, sending the message that youth is valued in women. When women’s and men’s television work roles have been examined over the last thirty years, women’s occupations were found to be less stereotypical today, although men’s were still stereotyped.10 This research suggests that girls may have role models who are less gender-stereotyped, while boys’ role models are still restrictive. Comic Book Superheroes Perhaps superheroes are most classically portrayed in comic books, where the hero’s role is at the center of the medium. One study tracked the changes in the Superman comic since its release in 1939 and found that Superman and other male superheroes consistently represent goodness, power, control, confidence and success. They have become important symbols of “maleness” in American culture. By reading comic books, young boys learn that superhero qualities are attributes to emulate, but they may learn to cope negatively through action and violence. The study also found that women and people of color do not fare well in Superman comics. To the extent that women characters exist, they are presented as victims or nuisances.11 There are some female superheroes in comics (e.g., Marvel Girl, Phoenix, Shadow Cat, Psylocke), and one study found no gender differences on agility, speed, durability and intelligence; but male superheroes are portrayed as having greater strength and stamina than female superheroes.12 People of color have been marginalized in comic books as well. AfricanAmerican and Native-American characters are more likely to be seen as villains, victims, or incompetents than as powerful and intelligent characters.13 .rom Comic Book To Playground: Superhero Play At School Superhero play involves the imitation of media characters with superhuman powers. Not surprisingly, boys tend to be more interested in superhero play than girls.14 This may be due to the mostly male superhero characters in comics and on television or to girls receiving more sanctions against playing aggressively by parents and teachers. Is Superhero Play Bad for Children? Superhero play, like rough and tumble play, usually involves chasing, wrestling, kicking, and mock battles. Acting out scenes from Power Rangers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are typical themes. Some argue that superhero play may serve an important developmental function. It offers a sense of power to children in a world dominated by adults. It may help children to cope with the frustrations of limited control. Superhero play may also allow children to grapple with good and evil, encouraging them to work through their own anxieties about morality. Such play may also help children express emotions such as anger and aggression in a comfortable environment.15 Others are concerned that superhero play legitimizes aggression, may be dangerous, and encourages stereotypical male dominance.16 One researcher observed children’s superhero play at school and found that boys created more superhero stories than did girls and often excluded girls from play. When girls were included, they were given stereotypical roles such as marginal helpers or characters to be saved. Even powerful female “X-Men” characters were made powerless in the boys’ stories.17 Thus, without teacher intervention or an abundance of female superheroes, superhero play may reinforce gender stereotypes of the powerful man and the powerless woman. One way to gauge how television viewing may influence superhero play is to compare the play children engaged in before the invention of television


to the play of children after its arrival. A retrospective study was conducted in which adults between the ages of 17 and 83 were asked about their favorite childhood play themes, heroes and hero qualities. The people who grew up before television reported engaging in more reality-based play than children who grew up with television. Media provided the main source of heroes for children who grew up with television, while children before the advent of television drew their heroes from many sources such as media, direct experience, friends/siblings, and parents’ occupations.18 These findings suggest the power of television as a guide for today’s children’s aspirations and identity formation. Recent Media .orms: Video Games and Music Television Video games and music television are relatively recent forms of media available to children. In Mediascope’s study, nearly half (48%) of the children surveyed play video and computer games every day or almost every day. Boys were much more likely to play than were girls. Of those who play computer/video games every day or almost every day, 72% are boys and only 24% are girls. What roles, images, and messages are conveyed through these media? In a recent content analysis of popular video and computer games, 79% of the games included aggression or violence. Only 15% of the games showed women as heroes or action characters. Of these, many women were dressed in scanty outfits; in Mortal Kombat II, women’s faces are covered in harem masks. Indeed the most common fate of girls and women was not to be portrayed — 30% of the videos contained no female characters. The second most common portrayal of girls and women was the damsel in distress (21%), in which the mission of the games centered on rescuing the female. Other female characters are characterized as evil or serve as obstacles to the game’s goal (e.g., a female character tries to hug the main

male character and if she succeeds, he gets sent back to the beginning of the game). Thus, the message sent from many video and computer games is that girls are not welcome and females are to be saved, destroyed, or avoided. Another message is that success is a solitary endeavor achieved by destroying objects and people. One alarming trend in video and computer games is violence against human characters. Earlier generations of games consisted of blasting spaceships and aliens, but recent games contain graphic violence against realistic human characters.19 In the past two or three years, there has been a growing number of computer and video games geared toward girls. These games have adventurous content without the violence of games geared toward boys. However, two best-selling computer programs for girls have been Cosmopolitan Virtual Makeover and Barbie .ashion Designer. These games may encourage creativity but also focus on traditional stereotypes about beauty. One columnist characterizes the dilemma of creating games that appeal to girls while fostering creativity and ingenuity thusly: “A girl given a doll is being told, ‘Girls play with dolls just like mommies take care of babies.’ A boy given a computer game is being told, ‘Boys play with computers just like daddies use them for work.’”20 In a recent poll, girls and boys from various ethnic backgrounds reported that television and music were the most common forms of media they consumed. Music television is a perfect merging of these two media forms. One recent study compared the themes in music videos from the 1990s with music videos aired during the 1980s. The majority of characters were white (63%) and were men (63%). People of color, especially women of color, were less likely to hold white collar jobs in the video’s story and the occupations were more gender stereotyped than in real life. Gender roles were stereotypical overall.21


Pecora, N. (1992). Superman/superboys/ supermen: The comic book hero as socializing agent. In S. Craig (Ed.) Men, masculinity, and the media (pp. 61-77). Newbury Park, CA: Sage. 2 Bannon, L. and Hechinger, J. “Biff! Kapow! Superdudes Duel in Toyshops.” The Wall Street Journal, Wednesday, March 8, 2000. 3 A Different World: Children’s Perceptions of Race and Class in Media. (1998). Children Now. 4 Gibson, D. E., & Cordova, D. I. (1999). Women’s and men’s role models: The importance of exemplars. In A. J. Murrell, F. J. Crosby, & R. J. Ely (Eds.) Mentoring dilemmas: Developmental relationships within multicultural organizations (pp. 121141). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 5 Gerbner, G. (1993). Women and minorities on television: A study in casting and fate. A report to the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists. The Annenberg School of Communication, University of Pennsylvania. 6 Thompson, T. L., & Zerbinos, E. (1995). Gender roles in animated cartoons: Has the picture changed in 20 years? Sex Roles, 32, 651-673. 7 Browne, B. A. (1998). Gender stereotypes in advertising on children’s television in

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Newbury Park, CA: Sage. 14 Bell, R., & Crosbie, C. (1996, November 13). Superhero play of 3-5 year old children. http://labyrinth.net.au/~cccav/ sept97/superhero.html 15 Boyd, B. J. (1997). Teacher response to superhero play: To ban or not to ban. Childhood Education, 74, 23-28. 16 Bell and Crosbie (1996, November 13). Superhero play of 3-5 year old children. http:/ /labyrinth.net.au/~cccav/sept97/ superhero.html. 17 Dyson, A. H. (1994). The ninjas, the Xmen, and the ladies: Playing with power and identity in an urban primary school. Teachers College Record, 96, 219-239. 18 French, J. and Pena, F. (1991) Children’s Hero Play of the 20th Century: Changes Resulting From Television Influence: Child Study Journal, 21, 79-94. 19 Dietz, T. L. (1998). An examination of violence and gender role portrayals in video games: Implications for gender socialization. Sex Roles, 38, 425-433. 20 Ivinski, P. (1997). Game girls: Girl market in computer games and educational software. Print, 51, 24-29. 21 Seidman, S. A. (1999). Revisiting sexrole stereotyping in MTV videos. International Journal of Instructional Media, 26, 11.


Hubert D. Jessup, President Laurie Trotta, Executive Director Julie Abdul-Wahid, Program Asst., National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign Lisa Allen, Director, National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign Stephanie Carbone, Research Manager Nicole Colon, Administrative Assistant Lani Daniels, Ethics Initiative, Project Director Meg Helgerson, Information Specialist Nathalie Valdez, Research Assistant Adele B. Wilson, Manager, Special Projects

Cover Art by David Lowe
Kristin J. Anderson, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Self, Society and Culture Program at Antioch College.




Donna Cavallaro is a psychology student & research assistant at San Jose State University.




Special thanks to the staffs, parents and children of Camp Parma in San Jose, Sunshine Camp in Menlo

Park, Camp Auxilium in Santa Cruz, the Boys and Girls Club of Santa Monica, and the Center for Early Education and Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles.

Mediascope is a nonprofit organization working to promote an informed dialogue among entertainment professionals about the effects of their work on their audiences and about the important role they hold in society. To order additional copies of this report for $20, contact Mediascope at: 12711 Ventura Boulevard #440 Studio City, California 91604 (818) 508-2080 tel (818) 508 2088 fax or visit us online at www.mediascope.org and view a copy free of charge.
Suggested citation: Anderson, K.,J., Carbone, S., Cavallaro, D., Jue, H., Trotta, L. (May 2000). .rom Parents to Pop Stars: Role Modes and Heroes in the Third Millennium. Studio City, CA, Mediascope Press.