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Betty Barrett and Dana LevinBetty Barrett and Dana Levin analyzed hundreds of hours of World Wrestling Entertainment programming. Their findings are significant given the number of young people who form their ideas about relationships based on the media they consume.

'PG era' wrestling narratives still portray women negatively, researchers find

Despite marketing itself as ‘PG Era’ programming, World Wrestling Entertainment still portrays romantic relationships in which women are weak, incapable, and manipulative, and a world where men are better served by focusing on their own success rather than cultivating their emotional lives through romantic connections with women.

Those are just a few observations made by a pair of social work professors who spent hundreds of hours watching and analyzing the romantic story lines evolve in Monday Night Raw and Friday Night Smackdown, two of WWE’s highest rated programs.

“They’re creating a culture they define as family friendly, but the story lines present complex, often contradictory ideas about the nature of heterosexual romance, and kids don’t have the same cognitive abilities as adults to critically deconstruct the information they’re receiving,” Betty Barrett, a professor in social work and women’s studies, said of the WWE’s programming and marketing.

Along with colleague Dana Levin, Dr. Barrett watched 52 episodes over a six-month period and then transcribed all of the dialogue. Besides making their own observations, the researchers fed the transcripts into a computer program called NVivo, data management software that looks for reoccurring concepts and words – like ‘manhood’ for instance – and then correlates them by common themes.

That analysis revealed six central romance narratives: Prince Charming, Dark Romance, Femme Fatale, Gold Digger, Cougar and Woman Scorned, according to a paper on the subject the two researchers recently published in the academic journal Sexuality & Culture.

Those narratives construct ideas about the roles of men in women in relationships ranging from women who use their sexuality to manipulate unsuspecting males to those in which women are portrayed as shallow and materialistic. Others meanwhile, reinforce double standards where attraction to younger women by older men is normalized while attraction to younger men by older women is derided, or suggest that any relinquishment of power in a relationship by a man to a female is suspect and justifies his ridicule.

The portrayal of these narratives is particularly troubling when put into the context of ‘cultivation theory,’ which suggests that media is a critical transmitter of cultural knowledge and that frequent viewers of those stories are more likely to adapt them, even if they represent distortions about the reality of relationships, Dr. Levin said.

“There are so many implicit messages,” said Levin, who studies socialization and how young people learn about sexuality. “I think there’s something to the fact that it’s not always conscious that makes it all the more powerful. And kids are more likely to go to media for information about sex and relationships because as adults we’re less likely to talk to them about it.”

In fact, a 1996 study found that 94 percent of teens relied on television as a source of information on love and romance. Of those who did go to other sources, 33 percent sought information from their mothers, while 17 percent went to their fathers.

Barrett will appear today on Research Matters, a weekly talk show that focuses on the work of University of Windsor researchers and airs every Thursday at 4:30 p.m. on CJAM 99.1 FM.