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Academic year: 2023



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Too Sexy, Too Soon? The Sexualization of Teenagers in Teen-Targeted Streaming Series: A Content Analysis

Lea Sofie Gomolzig Student ID: 13930567

Master’s Thesis

Graduate School of Communication Communication Science Supervisor: Prof. Dr. J. Peter

Word Count: 7,470 Date: July 1, 2022



Previous research investigating the sexualized portrayal of characters in the media has primarily focused on the adult and female experience of sexualization. In response to this, a content analysis was performed on 20 episodes from five popular teen series (Sex Education, Élite, Euphoria, Cruel Summer, Gossip Girl – Reboot) to investigate the prevalence of self- sexualization, interpersonal sexualization, and sexualized sexual content of teenage

characters in streaming series popular among adolescents. Specifically, sexualization between minority and majority groups within these series was compared. Results partially confirmed our hypotheses, showing that women and characters of color tend to wear more revealing clothing than male or White characters. Additionally, in contrast to non-queer characters, characters with queer identities were significantly more likely to be shown implicitly nude.

However, contrary to our hypothesis, male characters were more often shown partially and implicitly nude than female characters. Further, an analysis of sexual scenes showed that sexual interactions were more often shown explicitly rather than non-explicitly. While this study did not find consistent support for the notion that minority characters generally experience interpersonal sexualization more often than their majority counterparts, it demonstrated the persistent occurrence of self-sexualization in teen shows. The findings further underline the importance of studying vulnerable groups targeted by sexualization and contribute to our understanding of media representations of male sexualization.

Keywords: sexualization, teen series, adolescents, minorities, streaming platforms


Too Sexy, Too Soon? The Sexualization of Teenagers in Teen-Targeted Streaming Series: A Content Analysis

HBO's highly popular series, Euphoria, recently released its second season and has since sparked public controversy about the explicit portrayal of teenage sexuality in the media (Butler, 2019). Based on Euphoria's plotline, high school students are constantly engaged in sexual activities such as participating in orgies or working as erotic webcam models (Hayes, 2019; Nicholson, 2022). Critics of the series argued that while teenagers can be shown engaging in sexual behaviors, Euphoria’s explicit emphasis and exaggeration of sexual experiences in adolescence sexualizes the teenage protagonists and may negatively impact its young audience (Parents Television and Media Council, 2022).

In line with the critics, empirical evidence has consistently shown that media, such as television programs, video games, advertisements, and music videos, remain the most

common source of sexualization among young people (APA, 2007; Lamb & Koven, 2019;

Ward, 2016). Research suggests that adolescents may thus be particularly susceptible to the adverse effects of sexualization, as frequent exposure to sexualized media content has been positively related to increased risks of developing mental health issues such as depression, body shame, and eating disorders (APA, 2007; Lamb & Koven, 2019; Tiggemann & Slater, 2015). While an abundance of studies has examined how sexualization affects adolescents (see, e.g., Peter & Valkenburg, 2007; Vandenbosch & Eggermont, 2013, 2014, 2016), few have investigated the actual prevalence and form of sexualization in the media specifically targeted at adolescent viewers (Karsay et al., 2017; McDade-Montez et al., 2016). Recent research, however, has found some evidence for the significant persistence of sexualization among series aimed at younger viewers. For instance, Rousseau et al. (2018) examined TV shows popular among Flemish pre-teens and found that characters were either targets or perpetrators of sexual objectification in nearly 14% of the scenes they investigated. In


another study, McDade-Montez et al. (2016) analyzed the sexualization of Latinx characters in popular children's TV shows. Sexualized content was shown at least three times per episode, with female characters being especially likely to be sexualized (McDade-Montez et al., 2016). However, both studies primarily examined emerging adult characters (Rousseau et al., 2018) or did not specify the age of the characters they were investigating (McDade- Montez et al., 2016). Despite the importance of studying general sexualized content in shows targeted at younger audiences, there remains a paucity of evidence on the prevalence of sexualization of teenage characters in those series. Teenagers are in a state in which they are heavily influenced by the media, especially by role models of their age and gender group (Aubrey, 2004; Ortiz & Brooks, 2014). Particularly for teenagers of color or other minorities who are often underrepresented in Western media, the way they are portrayed by their

favorite series might have a particularly strong effect on their self-perception and self-esteem (Donovan, 2007; Greenberg & Mastro, 2008; Tukachinsky et al., 2015). If, for instance, popular series persistently sexualize their Black protagonists, young Black audiences might see few non-sexualized representations in Western media and, as a result, would be more likely to internalize their ethnicity's sexualization (Greenberg & Mastro, 2008; McDade- Montez et al., 2016). Examining characters aged 13 to 19 may thus be especially important for future research on the impact of sexualization in the media on young viewers, particularly when it comes to fictional characters who belong to minority groups and are frequently underrepresented (Ortiz & Brooks, 2014). Furthermore, adolescents are among the most frequent media consumers, watching at least one episode of a television show every day via streaming services like Netflix or Amazon Prime (Rideout et al., 2022). Investigating media channels that cater to adolescents could therefore offer further insight into whether younger generations are more likely exposed to sexualized content than other age groups.

The Present Study


Repeated exposure to sexualization has been related to adverse effects on young viewers' self-perception (see, e.g., Ward, 2016). It is therefore essential to understand the level of sexualization within media channels especially popular among teenagers to

determine whether interventions or policy may be needed. The current study aimed to close the critical knowledge gap outlined above by focusing specifically on teenage protagonists and examining the prevalence and forms of sexualization in media channels targeted at adolescent consumers. Furthermore, drawing and expanding on objectification theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997), we investigated whether underrepresented characters in mainstream Western media (i.e., women, people of color, and sexual minorities) are sexualized more frequently than those from majority groups. Lastly, the study examined whether sexualized sexual scenes of teenagers are more prevalent than non-sexualized sexual scenes. With this study, we hope to gain a better understanding of the prevalence of

sexualization in popular media channels, as well as to emphasize the need to study other vulnerable groups that are adversely affected by sexualization.

Objectification Theory and Defining Sexualization

By focusing on the negative impact of sexualization on women and girls,

objectification theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997) provides a framework for understanding the processes by which individuals internalize sexual messages (APA, 2007). According to the theory, in societies that treat women as objects, women learn to see their bodies from "the observer's perspective" and perceive themselves as objects to satisfy other people's desires without regard for their own needs (i.e., self-objectification; APA, 2007; Fredrickson &

Roberts, 1997; Holland & Haslam, 2013; Lamb & Koven, 2019). Furthermore, sexualized and idealized female bodies in the media reinforce the internalization of sexual

objectification by emphasizing physical attractiveness and making it impossible for women to avoid seeing sexualized representations of female bodies (Aubrey & Frisby, 2011;


Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Ward, 2016). In line with this suggestion, multiple content analyses have revealed that sexualization is prevalent in a wide variety of media such as video games (Lynch et al., 2016), social media pages (Hall et al., 2011), blockbuster movies (Heldman et al., 2016), and advertisements (Sherman et al., 2019). With the recent

development of easier online access to television shows, there has been a renewed interest in researching the portrayal of sexualization in various online media channels based on

objectification theory (see, e.g., Plieger et al., 2021; van Meer & Pollmann, 2021).

While a variety of definitions of the term sexualization have been proposed, this paper will use the definition first suggested by the American Psychological Association (APA) in their task force on the sexualization of girls (APA, 2007). Within the report, the authors defined sexualization in the media as depicting a person in ways that suggest that a) their value only stems from their physical appearance or sexual behavior, b) their physical

attractiveness is held to a strict standard and can be equated with being sexy, and c) they are a thing made to be used for the sexual pleasure of others rather than a person who has their own opinions or wishes (i.e., sexual objectification; APA, 2007). Based on the report’s definition, sexualization does not have to occur in all three components simultaneously to be identified, as the mere presence of one component is sufficient to indicate that sexualization has occurred (APA, 2007).

Although the APA's task force on the sexualization of girls (2007) is one of the most frequently accessed APA publications, several arguments against the APA's (2007) definition have been made, which are beyond the scope of this paper (see, e.g., Gill, 2012; Renold &

Ringrose, 2013). Nevertheless, in this thesis, we will continue to use the definition given by their report since it includes sexual objectification and provides a detailed description of what sexualization entails.

Gender and Sexualization


Objectification research has primarily focused on the effects of sexualized media on female individuals (Dajches et al., 2021). However, some studies have examined the frequency of sexualized images in the media by comparing the sexualization of male and female bodies (Aubrey & Frisby, 2011). In general, research into this comparison has consistently revealed that adult female characters in the media are more likely to be sexualized than male characters (see, e.g., Bleakley et al., 2012; Heldman et al., 2016;

Sherman et al., 2019). For instance, data from a study on sexualization in blockbuster movies found that between 26% and 29% of female characters wore revealing clothing or appeared naked on-screen, compared to only 7% to 9% of their male counterparts (Heldman et al., 2016). Similar trends have been found in studies on the sexualization of video game characters, which show that female characters are stereotyped and sexualized as hyper- feminine and wearing fewer clothes than male game characters (Downs & Smith, 2009;

Lynch et al., 2016; Skowronski et al., 2020).

Although most media research on male and female sexualization focuses on adult characters (see, e.g., Aubrey & Frisby, 2011; Heldman et al., 2016; Wellman et al., 2020), few content analyses have specifically examined differences in how male and female teenagers are sexualized (Lamb & Koven, 2019). Despite the lack of studies on teenagers in television shows, there is some indication that female teenage characters are more frequently sexualized than their male counterparts (van Damme & van Bauwel, 2013). According to previous studies on media stereotyping, female adolescent characters are more often

portrayed as conventionally attractive, with their appearance being the most influential aspect of their character (Signorielli, 2007; van Damme & van Bauwel, 2013). Male teenagers, on the other hand, are more likely to be defined by their abilities and talents instead of their looks (Signorielli, 2007). Similarly, another study discovered that female teenagers in


Halloween costume advertisements wore tight clothes and posed seductively more often than male adolescents (Sherman et al., 2019).

Although there has been a substantial amount of research on the prevalence of female and male sexualization across various media channels, most of these approaches have failed to consider that sexualized images may look different for female and male protagonists, with coding items primarily biased towards the female sexualized image (e.g., the character wears lingerie, examining breast or waist sizes; Downs & Smith, 2009; McDade-Montez et al., 2016; Prieler & Centeno, 2013). The generalizability of published research on this issue is problematic as it may underestimate the sexualized portrayal of male characters in the media.

Furthermore, despite the importance of studying the sexualization of teenagers, data on the subject is scarce. Researchers who focused on teenage characters examined their

stereotypical portrayal rather than explicitly exploring sexualization (Signorielli, 2007; van Damme & van Bauwel, 2013) or only examined media sources less frequently used by

teenagers (Rideout et al., 2022; Sherman et al., 2019). As a result, the current content analysis addresses the limitation of previous research on gender differences. Based on the premise of objectification theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997), we hypothesize:

H1. Female adolescent teenagers are more frequently sexualized than male adolescents in teen-targeted streaming shows.

The Sexualization of BIPOC in the Media

In the previous section, we pointed out that those affected by sexualization are often women; however, there is much less information on how sexualization varies among women of different races and ethnicities (Anderson et al., 2018). According to a study by Donovan (2007), sexualization has the most detrimental effects on Black women. Particularly, the author found that Black female survivors of sexual violence were considered more

promiscuous than White women, likely due to the historical background of hyper-sexualizing


Black women during slavery and the persistence of this stereotype (Anderson et al., 2018;

Donovan, 2007). However, objectification theory and pertinent research have mainly focused on the experiences and prevalence of White female sexualization (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; McDade-Montez et al., 2016; Turner, 2010). Thus, literature on the sexualization of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) is limited, with only some studies

comparing BPIOC and non-BIPOC representations in the media (Anderson et al., 2018;

McDade-Montez et al., 2016; Turner, 2010). For instance, research on the sexualization of Black women in music videos has found that Black women's appearance is often

overemphasized, while they are treated more like decorative items as opposed to active agents (Avery et al., 2017; Frisby & Aubrey, 2012; Turner, 2010). Furthermore, earlier research on BIPOC representation in the media suggests that Latina women tend to be more often sexualized in popular culture than non-Latina women (Guzmán & Valdivia, 2004).

However, more recently, literature has provided contradictory findings on the prevalence of sexualization based on the characters' ethnic backgrounds (McDade-Montez et al., 2016).

McDade-Montez et al. (2016) found that while Latina women were less sexualized in children's shows than White female characters, Latina characters were more frequently represented in "revealing clothing" (p.10).

The BIPOC community continues to be underrepresented in Western media, and some research suggests that this underrepresentation may exacerbate the adverse effects of

sexualization on BIPOC viewers (Greenberg & Mastro, 2008). Following objectification theory, research has found that when Latinas are commonly sexualized in the media, these portrayals are more likely to be internalized as reality due to the lack of the general

representation of Latina characters (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Greenberg & Mastro, 2008; McDade-Montez et al., 2016). Although some research has been carried out on the representation of Black and Latinx people in popular culture, there is still very little scientific


understanding of the sexualization of BIPOC characters in current popular streaming series, particularly regarding BIPOC teenagers (Lamb & Koven, 2019). Thus, it is essential to further analyze the prevalence of sexualized BIPOC in the media. Due to a lack of research on other ethnicities, we primarily based our hypothesis on previous findings indicating that Black women were more likely than White women to be sexualized in music videos (Avery et al., 2017; Frisby & Aubrey, 2012; Turner, 2010).

H2. BIPOC teenagers are proportionally more sexualized than White teenage characters in teen-targeted streaming shows.

The Sexualization of Sexual Minorities and Other Gender Identities

Despite the profound heterosexuality and heteronormativity of sexual socialization (Gansen, 2017; Kim et al., 2007), LGBTQIA+ (i.e., lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual et al.) or queer characters are more prevalent in the media today than ever before (Annati & Ramsey, 2021; Madinga et al., 2021). Even though there is a "peak" in the representation of LGBTQIA+ characters (Annati & Ramsey, 2021), research has found that especially female queer characters are often sexualized in the media (Tebbe et al., 2018).

Based on objectification theory, which primarily emphasizes the heterosexual experience of women, Annati and Ramsey (2021) studied how lesbian characters are depicted on television and found that the stereotype of "hot lesbians" is most prevalent. Further qualitative

interviews with lesbian women revealed that queer women believe shows frequently portray lesbian characters from the heterosexual male gaze by hyper-sexualizing them and implying that their same-sex sexual interest is merely temporary (Annati & Ramsey, 2021; Tebbe et al., 2018). In addition to media portrayals of lesbian characters, research has revealed that bisexual women are frequently sexualized and portrayed in hyper-feminine ways, appearing only to satisfy the male heterosexual gaze (Johnson, 2016; van Meer & Pollmann, 2021).


While some research has focused on the sexualization of women’s sexual orientations, such as homo- and bisexuality (Johnson, 2016; van Meer & Pollmann, 2021), the prevalence of sexualization of transgender individuals in the media is immensely understudied in the academic field (Anzani et al., 2021). In a study published in 2021, Anzani et al. examined transgender women's subjective experiences of fetishization. Within this context, “fetishism refers specifically to the sexual investment in transness (i.e., body, identity, status, etc.) as an overvalued sexual object, rather than the holistic individual" (Anzani et al., 2021, p. 2). Many participants reported that they experienced fetishization on social media, while others

reported also having experienced fetishization through the general media (Anzani et al., 2021). It is important to note that although the representation of transgender and diverse gender characters in the entertainment industry has increased in recent years, most television characters are still cisgender (Mocarski et al., 2019). It is thus not surprising that other forms of gender expressions and gender identities in the LGBTQIA+ community (e.g., non-binary individuals, bisexual/gay men, transgender-men) and their relationship to sexualization and objectification are largely understudied (Anzani et al., 2021; van Meer & Pollmann, 2021).

A critical evaluation of how LGBTQIA+ characters are sexualized is essential for understanding the varying targets of sexualization. Moreover, research has shown that objectification in the media can increase the stigmatization of LGBTQIA+ individuals (Annati & Ramsey, 2021; Pettigrew et al., 2011). Thus, a positive and realistic representation of minority groups is crucial to forming favorable attitudes towards the group (Pettigrew et al., 2011; Tukachinsky et al., 2015). In light of research indicating queer women are

frequently sexualized in entertainment media (Annati & Ramsey, 2021; Anzani et al., 2021;

Tebbe et al., 2018; van Meer & Pollmann, 2021), we propose the following hypothesis:

H3. LGBTQIA+ teenagers are disproportionately more often sexualized than cisgender-heterosexual teenagers in teen-targeted streaming shows.


Sexualized Sexual Content

Sexual content in teen shows has been shown to be more frequent than it used to be several years back (Aubrey et al., 2021; Malacane & Martins, 2017). Malacane and Martins (2017) found that almost all teen shows in their sample depicted at least one sexual behavior per episode, with an average of 4.92 sexual behaviors shown per hour. However, it is

essential to mention that the depiction of sexual content does not necessarily mean the depiction of sexualized sexual content (Lamb & Koven, 2019; Rousseau et al., 2018).

Sexualized sexual content can be described as sexual scenes that depict non-consensual acts or explicitly portray sexual aspects of the scene (e.g., nudity is explicitly shown; Peter &

Valkenburg, 2007; Rousseau et al., 2018). In contrast, non-sexualized sexual content can be described as scenes that depict the sexual aspects of the scene in a non-violent and non- degrading manner, such as depicting mutually consenting sex or kissing scenes—without highlighting the sexual element of the scene (Peter & Valkenburg, 2007; Rousseau et al., 2018).

Interestingly, recent findings on sexualized sexual content in adolescent television shows reported mixed findings on its prevalence. According to one study by Dajches et al.

(2021), teenage sexual behavior today is more openly displayed than it was several years ago.

Rousseau et al. (2018), on the other hand, studied popular Flemish television shows among teenagers and found that, while one in every five scenes depicted sexual behavior, only one in every ten scenes depicted sexualized sexual behavior.

Studies over the past two decades have provided important information on the sexual behaviors depicted in television (Callister et al., 2011; Dajches et al., 2021), yet less literature has focused on sexualized sexual content. The portrayal of sexuality and thus sexual acts plays an essential aspect in sexual knowledge attainment in teenagers (Dajches et al., 2021);

we thus believe it is important to differentiate between sexualized and non-sexualized sexual


depiction in teen shows. Based on the findings of Rousseau et al. (2018) on sexualized sexual content in the television media, we hypothesize:

H4. Non-sexualized sexual content is more frequently presented than sexualized sexual content between teen characters in teen-targeted streaming series.

Method Sample of Series

A three-step sampling method was used to select the series for the present content analysis. As we were particularly interested in series popular with young viewers, we investigated the most subscribed streaming services in the Netherlands: Netflix, Amazon Prime, and HBO Max (Persaud, 2021). Disney+ was excluded from this list because an examination of its series showed that the majority of its content was targeted at younger audiences.

Second, popular series on the selected streaming platforms needed to be sampled.

Shows were considered for the present sample when they a) belonged to genres labeled as

“teen”, "coming-of-age," or "high school", b) entailed real-life characters (i.e., no

animation), c) received an age rating above 12 and under 18 on kijkwizer.nl, and when d) its latest season was released between 2021 and 2022 (McDade-Montez et al., 2016). Based on those criteria, we could assume the series were aimed at teen audiences and had recently been released. To investigate the series’ popularity, we first looked at streaming platforms’

rankings of most-watched shows within the designated years and selected the top three most popular shows on those rankings (Netflix, 2021, 2022). In cases where the streaming

platform did not provide rankings, online searches of teen series available on those platforms were conducted, and online magazines' reported viewing statistics on those series were reviewed (Andreeva, 2021; Rosario, 2022; Tassi, 2021). Again, the top three most-watched series were selected for further review. Next, we also examined the Dutch audience demand


analytics, which summarizes users' online activities related to the show (e.g., tweets including the show’s name, number of downloads, reviews on rating websites; Parrot Analytics, 2021). Among the top three most-watched shows per streaming service

previously selected, the one with the lowest demand analytic score was eventually excluded from the final sample. Table 1 depicts the selection of the shows and their rank based on viewing statistics found on various websites (Andreeva, 2021; Netflix, 2021, 2022; Rosario, 2022; Solsman, 2022; Tassi, 2021) as well as audience demand analytics (Parrot Analytics, 2021).

Table 1

Shows Included in the Present Sample

Rank Show Statistics a) Audience Demand c)

Streaming Platform

Age Rating d) 1 Sex Education

(2021) 55 million 4.5x Netflix 16+

2 Élite (2022) 37 million 2.3x Netflix 16+

3 Euphoria (2022) 16.3 million b) 9.7x HBO 16+

4 Cruel Summer

(2021) 3.5 million 3.0x Amazon

Prime 12+

5 Gossip Girl –

Reboot (2021) 0.5 million 4.1x HBO 15+


a) Statistics refer to the number of households watching the season within the first 28 days.

b) Statistics are based on number of households watching per episode.

c) Based on Dutch or U.S. (Cruel Summer and Gossip Girl) audience demand.

d) Based on statistics from kijkwijzer.nl or commonsensemedia.org (Gossip Girl).

As the last step in the sampling procedure, the episodes for analysis needed to be selected. Previous content analyses on sexual messages in the media have suggested that three to seven episodes per show should be coded to receive an appropriate assessment (Manganello et al., 2008). As a result, four episodes from each of the five series from our


final sample were randomly selected, resulting in a total of 20 episodes coded. This study was ethically approved by the thesis supervisor before data collection began.

Coding System Level of Analysis

The episodes were analyzed at the scene and character levels; however, the character was the primary unit of analysis, with central adolescent characters being coded exclusively since individuals typically form parasocial relationships with frequently appearing characters (Ortiz & Brooks, 2014). Characters were defined as teenagers when they visited high school and have reached puberty. Furthermore, the centrality of teenage characters was assumed when they appeared in at least two of the four examined episodes (Ortiz & Brooks, 2014).

Additionally, these characters were only coded if they had a speaking part in the analyzed scene or were prominently filmed for at least three seconds (Ortiz & Brooks, 2014; Prieler &

Centeno, 2013).

All episodes were coded by scene, which was defined as a depiction of an action (e.g., conversation, interaction) of at least one character at the same location and time. A new scene occurred whenever the setting or time changed or when characters left or entered the setting abruptly while interrupting the flow of action. Flashbacks were considered a new scene from the original scene it interrupted (Ortiz & Brooks, 2014; Rousseau et al., 2018).

As a result, 2,019 character appearances from 1,065 scenes across all shows were coded, averaging to 53.25 scenes and 100 characters per episode. For a review of the number of different characters, scenes, and gender distribution, see Appendix A.

Coders and Reliability

Both the author and another student from the entertainment communication track were involved in the coding process. Before coding, coders discussed the items within the codebook and resolved any unclarities. The codebook's reliability was tested using two


series (Dare Me and Tiny Pretty Things) that met our selection criteria but were not as popular as the series from the current sample. One episode from each of the two series was randomly chosen, and both coders coded these episodes independently from each other.

Intercoder reliability was conducted by calculating Krippendorff’s alpha for each relevant item in the codebook (Hayes & Krippendorff, 2007; Riffe et al., 2019). Later, intracoder reliability was tested by coding one episode of the final sample twice by one coder, resulting in excellent reliability (Krippendorff's alpha of .91 - 1.00). Intercoder reliability coefficients are reported in the following section on content categories.

Content Categories

Character’s Demographics

Character demographics were coded once per individual character; however, character names were recorded for each appearance across scenes. Race and ethnicity were classified as White/Caucasian, Black, Latinx, East Asian/Pacific Islander, South Asian, Native American, mixed ethnicity, or could not be identified (α =.94; Tukachinsky et al., 2015). The gender and sex of characters were coded as cisgender-male, cisgender-female, non-binary, transgender-male, transgender-female, or could not be identified (α =.74; Anzani et al., 2021; van Meer & Pollmann, 2021). Finally, sexual orientation was coded as

heterosexual, homosexual, bi-/pansexual, asexual, other than heterosexual, or could not be identified (α = 93; van Meer & Pollmann, 2021). Coders were allowed to look up characters’

demographic information online if no sufficient information was given within the show.


According to objectification theory, a person portrays self-sexualizing behavior by, for example, wearing more revealing clothing and thus reducing themselves to their outward appearance (McKenney & Bigler, 2016; Plieger et al., 2021). Therefore, we conceptualized self-sexualization through characters' body exposure in the scene. The items were based on


previous research on sexual objectification and self-sexualization in the media (Aubrey &

Frisby, 2011; Flynn et al., 2015; Hall et al., 2011; McDade-Montez et al., 2016; Smolak et al., 2014), however, were further adapted to be more applicable towards all genders.

Clothing and body exposure was differentiated by a) form-fitting clothing: clothing that emphasizes body parts such as cleavage, b) partial exposure: clothing that reveals usually covered body parts such as the upper thigh; c) partial nudity: clothing such as underwear or bathing suit; d) implied nudity: the character’s body is only covered by, for instance,

blankets or a shower curtain; d) full nudity: the character’s genitals or naked breasts are fully visible or blurred (α = .80). A scene with more than one item applicable was coded

according to the item with the highest exposure (Flynn et al., 2015; Hennink-Kaminski &

Reichert, 2011).

Interpersonal Sexualization

Interpersonal sexualizing behavior can be defined as treating the other, rather than oneself, as an object for sexual pleasure (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Sáez et al., 2019). In the present analysis, interpersonal sexualization was differentiated between the audience's and character's gaze (Aubrey & Frisby, 2011; Flynn et al., 2015; Sommers-Flanagan et al., 1993).

Audience’s Gaze. The audience's gaze was coded as present when the character's body was the target of being evaluated by the camera by, for instance, zooming in on body parts such as breasts, buttocks, or genitals (Flynn et al., 2015; Sommers-Flanagan et al., 1993; α = .80).

Character’s Gaze: The character’s gaze was coded when the character’s body was the target of being evaluated by other characters in the show, such as being “checked out”

with sensual or lustful intentions (Aubrey & Frisby, 2011), catcalled or whistled at (Galdi &

Guizzo, 2020; McDade-Montez et al., 2016; α = 1.00).


Sexual Behaviors

Sexual behaviors were coded as present when characters engaged in implied or depicted sexual intercourse or displayed any form of intimate (self-)touching. This definition was based on previous content analyses of sexual behaviors on television and was adopted accordingly for the present research (Kunkel et al., 2005; Malacane & Martins, 2017;

Rousseau et al., 2018). Sexual behaviors were classified as consensual or non-consensual (α

=.89), with consensual sexual intimacy assumed when no aggression or force was depicted in the scene (Rousseau et al., 2018).

Based on prior research on sexualization in the media, sexual scenes’ explicitness of shown intimacy was coded (Kunkel et al., 2005; Peter & Valkenburg, 2007). Explicitness within a scene was coded as a) sexually non-explicit content: nudity, body exposure, and body parts are not the focus of the depiction of the act, and close-ups of the nude

person/body parts are not depicted at all); b) sexually semi-explicit content: nudity is the focus of attention through close-ups of, for example, naked breasts or buttocks; when sexual intercourse is depicted, intimate touching is shown, and some form of penetration can be implied but is not explicitly shown (e.g., under blankets); or c) sexually explicit content:

sexual content is shown in "unconcealed ways, e.g., oral, vaginal, or anal penetration is clearly visible," (Peter & Valkenburg, 2007, p. 383; α = .74).


A chi-square test was conducted on each type of sexualization (i.e., interpersonal sexualization and self-sexualization) and sexualized sexual content by gender, race/ethnicity, and sexual orientation to analyze the first three hypotheses. Consensual and non-consensual sexual behavior were merged into general depictions of sexual behavior to reach the

minimum expected count in the cells of the chi-square test. Sample sizes varied in some analyses as data were excluded when characters' demographic information could not be


identified. The decision to conduct a chi-square test was based on prior research

methodologies similar to our research design (see, e.g., McDade-Montez et al., 2016; Prieler

& Centeno, 2013). To review the chi-square test results, see A3 and A4 in Appendix B.

Male vs. Female Sexualization

H1 predicted that female adolescents are more often depicted in sexualizing manners than males. This hypothesis was tested by classifying gender into binary categories,

including transgender-women as female characters, but excluding non-binary characters as only two non-binary characters were identified. A chi-square test revealed a significant difference in body exposure by binary gender, X2 (5, n = 1993) = 325.87, p < .001, V = .40.

Post-hoc comparisons using Beasley and Schumacker's (1995) method revealed that generally, female characters (45.5%) were significantly less likely to wear non-revealing clothing than male characters (74.6%), suggesting that overall, female characters were more likely to wear revealing clothing within a scene. Furthermore, women were significantly more likely than men to wear form-fitting clothing and clothing that partially exposed their bodies, whereas male characters were more likely to be partially or implicitly nude. Chi- square test further revealed a significant difference between the prevalence of character's gaze by gender, X2 (1, n = 1993) = 8.32, p = .004, Φ = .07. Males were more likely to be observed by other characters than female characters. However, a chi-square test further revealed that female characters were significantly more often exposed to the audience gaze than male characters, X2 (1, n =1993) = 4.46, p =.035, Φ = .05. Lastly, no significant difference was observed in the explicitness of sexual content between genders, X2 (2, n = 103) = 1.62, p =.446.

Overall, the self-sexualization and interpersonal sexualization variables both showed statistical significance. Within a scene, women were generally more likely to be exposed than men; however, men were depicted significantly more often partially or implicitly nude,


exposing them to a greater degree. Female characters were more frequently exposed to the audience's gaze, while males were more often gazed upon by other characters. H1 was, therefore, only partially supported.

Hypothesis 2 - BIPOC vs. White Sexualization

H2 predicted that BIPOC characters are more often sexualized than White characters.

Chi-square analysis was conducted on a binary variable (BIPOC vs. White) and results revealed a significant difference in body exposure by race/ethnicity, X2 (5, n = 2019) = 13.97, p = .016, V = .08. Post-hoc comparisons showed that White characters were generally significantly more often shown in non-revealing attire than BIPOC characters. While BIPOC characters were significantly more likely to be depicted in form-fitting and partially

exposing attire than White characters, no significant difference in the nudity variables was observed. Furthermore, no significant difference in the interpersonal sexualization variables between BIPOC and White characters was found by chi-square results (audience's gaze: X2 (1, n = 2019) = 3.68, p =.055; character’s gaze: X2 (1, n = 2019) = 0.02, p = .898). However, a chi-square test showed a significant difference in the sexual explicitness of sexual content, X2 (2, n = 103) = 6.96, p = .031, V = .26. Post-hoc analysis revealed that White characters were significantly more likely than BIPOC characters to be depicted explicitly within sexual scenes. No significant difference in semi-explicit content between White and BIPOC

characters was observed. Thus, the results partially supported H2 by showing that BIPOC characters were more frequently depicted in self-sexualizing behaviors. H2 was not supported for interpersonal sexualization and sexualized sexual content.

Hypothesis 3 – LGBTQIA+ vs. Cisgender-Heterosexual Sexualization

H3 proposed that LGBTQIA+ characters are more frequently sexualized than cisgender-heterosexual characters. For this analysis, characters were classified as queer or non-queer based on their gender identity and sexual orientation. Characters whose sexual


identity could not be identified were excluded from the analysis. Chi-square tests for body exposure revealed a significant difference between queer and non-queer characters, X2 (5, n

= 2010) = 74.25, p < .001, V =.19, with post-hoc comparisons indicating that queer characters were more often shown in non-revealing clothing than non-queer characters.

However, queer characters were more likely than non-queer characters to be shown

implicitly nude. No significant difference was found between partial nudity and full nudity by queer identity. Further, LGBTQIA+ characters were more often gazed upon by other characters than non-queer characters, X2 (1, n = 2010) = 8.54, p = .003, Φ = .07. However, the chi-square test analysis found no significant difference in the audience's gaze, X2 (1, n = 2010) = 2.99, p = .084. Lastly, no significant difference between the explicitness of the sexual content could be determined, X2 (2, n = 103) = 1.46, p = .483. Therefore, H3 was only partially supported for some self-sexualization variables and the character's gaze. Sexualized sexual content and the audience's gaze did not significantly differ between queer and non- queer characters.

Hypothesis 4 – Sexualized vs. Non-Sexualized Sexual Content

We hypothesized for H4 that non-sexualized sexual content is more frequently shown than sexualized sexual content. A chi-square goodness-of-fit test was performed to

determine whether the proportion of some explicitness (i.e., semi-explicit and explicit) and no explicitness (i.e., non-explicit) depicted in sexual scenes were equally distributed. The chi-square goodness-of-fit test results showed that the distribution of the depiction of sexual explicitness was not equal between the two levels, X2 (1, n = 103) = 11.89, p < .001. Thus, the observed frequencies of explicitness (n = 69, 66.99%) and non-explicitness (n = 34, 33.01%) statistically differed from the expected frequencies (n = 51.5, 50%) when assuming that the two levels were equally presented across scenes. Overall, these results suggest that,


when sexual behavior was shown, scenes were depicted in a somewhat explicit manner more frequently than in a non-explicit manner. H4 was therefore not supported.


In the present study, a content analysis was conducted to assess the prevalence of the sexualization of teenage characters across popular streaming shows among adolescents. We predicted that characters belonging to a minority group would be more often sexualized than their majority counterparts. Generally, we found partial support for this prediction. First, minority characters tended to be portrayed in more self-sexualizing ways than other characters. Additionally, female and queer teenagers were more frequently exposed to interpersonal sexualization, such as the audience's and character's gaze, than male or non- queer characters. Contrary to our predictions, male characters were more likely to be shown partially or implicitly nude than female characters, and sexual content was more likely to be shown explicitly rather than non-explicitly.

Gender Differences

We found that women were more often shown in form-fitting and partially exposing attire, while men were more frequently depicted partially or implicitly nude. These results are consistent but also expand on prior research on objectification theory (see, e.g., Aubrey

& Frisby, 2011). According to earlier research, female characters wear less and more often revealing clothing than males in the media (Downs & Smith, 2009; Heldman et al., 2016;

Lynch et al., 2016). While our findings differed somewhat from previous research, they were generally consistent with Flynn et al. (2015). Their results found that despite women's more frequent appearance in revealing clothing on reality television, men’s bodies were exposed to a greater extent. In line with these findings, other studies investigating sexual

objectification in the media report an increase in the depiction of exposed male bodies in online and television media (Calogero & Kevin Thompson, 2011; Flynn et al., 2015;


Vandenbosch & Eggermont, 2013). Thus, the present study results add to the current research on the sexualization of men in the media.

In agreement with objectification theory’s assumption that women tend to be more often sexually objectified than men in the media (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997; Sommers- Flanagan et al., 1993), female adolescent characters were more often exposed to the

audience's gaze than their male counterparts. A more surprising finding, however, was that male characters were more often exposed to the character's gaze than female adolescents. A possible explanation for this might be that most literature on interpersonal gaze in the media assumes a heteronormative context, in which male characters tend to gaze upon female characters (Aubrey & Frisby, 2011; McDade-Montez et al., 2016). However, the current sample of shows also included multiple queer plotlines, which opens the opportunity for same-sex sexual interests. Male characters in the investigated shows may be predominantly gazed upon by other male characters, which would be consistent with prior research on the male gaze (Aubrey & Frisby, 2011). Other research has also suggested that the interpersonal gaze can be undifferentiated, i.e., female, male, hetero-, or homosexual, and that men in advertising are specifically more likely to be exposed to this undifferentiated gaze than women (Gill, 2009). Hence, we could hypothesize that female characters tend to be more exposed to the heterosexual male gaze while male characters tend to be gazed upon by various characters in the show. A more in-depth study of the gender of the gaze's perpetrator is needed to investigate this hypothesis.

The Sexualization of BIPOC and Queer Characters

The present results further support the idea that characters from minority groups, such as Latinx, Black, and LGBTQAI+, tend to be portrayed in more sexualized clothes than characters from majority groups. In accordance with the present results, previous studies have demonstrated that Black female artists tend to be dressed in more sexually provocative


clothing than White female artists; however, similar to the present findings, have found no difference in other sexual objectifying variables such as audience and interpersonal gaze (Frisby & Aubrey, 2012). Although no differences in gaze have been found between BIPOC and non-BIPOC characters, some research has suggested that the way characters are dressed may further contribute to the portrayal of BIPOC characters as purely sexual roles and not as conscious individuals (Frisby & Aubrey, 2012). Therefore, a gaze might not be needed to stimulate the image of a sexualized character of color (Frisby & Aubrey, 2012).

While prior research supports our findings on BIPOC characters, less research has been conducted on LGBTQAI+ sexualized presentation in the entertainment media; thus, the present results add to this gap in the literature. However, the present findings of LGBTQAI+

characters’ higher degree of exposure and character gaze may be associated with the

stereotype of queer women being portrayed as hyper-feminine and erotic found in past media research (Johnson, 2016; van Meer & Pollmann, 2021). Still, more research is needed to further broaden the understanding of sexualization between different queer identities.

Sexualized Sexual Content

The examination of sexualized sexual behavior across different demographics mainly yielded non-significant results. Despite male and queer characters being more likely to engage in sexual interactions, sexual explicitness was only significantly different across races and ethnicities, with White characters more frequently engaging in sexually explicit than non-explicit acts than BIPOC characters. A possible explanation for these results may be the lack of BIPOC lead characters in the investigated shows. While the general cast in the investigated series was somewhat diverse, leading characters were still disproportionately White (see Appendix A), which could account for the greater frequency of sexual

explicitness for White characters. Although White and BIPOC characters were equally likely to engage in sexual behavior, it may be that only the leads' sexual intercourses were filmed


with more focus and length since it may be of more interest to the audience (Gruber & Thau, 2003; McKinnon, 2016). More research is needed to investigate this suggestion.

When investigating the general proportion of explicitness vs. non-explicitness, somewhat explicit sexual content was displayed more often than non-explicit sexual content.

Despite the contrary findings to our hypothesis, previous research has found mixed results regarding the explicitness of teenagers' sexual depictions. This discrepancy may, however, be explained by differences in how sexualized sexual content was operationalized within each research design. Rousseau et al. (2018) conceptualized sexualized sexual content as sexual objectifying acts within these scenes and found that sexual scenes were more often depicted in non-sexualized ways. Conversely, Dajches et al. (2021) examined sexual explicitness and found, in line with the current research results, that popular teen television shows tended to depict explicit rather than non-explicit sexual content. It is therefore

important to discuss and research what constitutes sexualized sexual content in teen series to draw further conclusions.

Implications, Limitations, and Future Research

The present findings contribute to the current research on sexualization in the media by showing that minority groups are particularly likely to be depicted in sexualized clothing.

In addition, the results expand on objectification theory by highlighting the presence of male sexualization in the media, which has been discussed in a few previous studies (see, e.g., Flynn et al., 2015; Vandenbosch & Eggermont, 2013). Overall, these findings emphasize the need for a dialogue about the necessity of showing adolescent characters in highly revealing clothing or in other sexualizing ways due to its negative effect on young viewers, especially those who belong to an often underrepresented group (Doornwaard et al., 2014; Greenberg

& Mastro, 2008).


A few limitations of the current study need to be addressed. Firstly, this study investigated the sexualization in five streaming shows targeted at adolescents. Due to the selected sample size, generalizability to other teenage shows that were not included in the sample cannot be assumed. Future research needs to be carried out to validate the findings and investigate the prevalence of sexualization across other shows. Secondly, the popularity of shows included in this sample was measured based on viewing statistics found online. In contrast with Netflix, however, streaming platforms often did not provide their viewing statistics, and instead, we had to rely on articles about the popularity of certain shows.

Moreover, as Netflix shows and other streaming shows differ significantly in viewing statistics, comparing audience numbers across platforms was challenging, and some series might have been included despite their lower popularity among teenage viewers. In future investigations, it is recommended to use qualitative or quantitative measures to assess and ensure the series' popularity among this demographic (see Dajches et al., 2021; Rousseau et al., 2018).

The study's third weakness was the limited variance and degree of information provided by the investigated items of sexualization. For instance, if a character in a scene wears shorts while another wears a crop-top and a mini skirt, then both characters in this example would be categorized as partially exposed. Additionally, the conceptualization of sexualization was reduced to clothing, gaze, and sexual explicitness, yet, sexualization can also appear in other forms of objectification such as seductive dancing or sexual posing (see, e.g., Hatton & Trautner, 2011; McDade-Montez et al., 2016). A progression of this work is, therefore, to include additional items to the codebook to broaden the understanding of self- sexualization, sexualized sexual content, and interpersonal sexualization in streaming shows.

Lastly, while the prevalence of sexualized sexual content was also investigated, it is also important to note that sexual explicitness can lead to more authenticity regarding sexual


experiences rather than sexualizing characters (Dudek et al., 2021). Hence, more research is needed to gain a deeper understanding of what constitutes character sexualization in the media and how it can be prevented without avoiding showing sexual content altogether.

Notwithstanding these limitations, this study offers some critical insights into the presence of sexualization of teenage characters in popular streaming platforms shows.


Investigating the differences in the prevalence of sexualization between different types of characters, the present study found that female and BIPOC characters were more likely to be shown in revealing attire than male or White characters. While this study did not confirm that characters belonging to minority groups generally experience interpersonal sexualization more often than characters belonging to a majority group, it partially substantiated the persistent occurrence of sexualization in teen shows with a specific emphasis on revealing clothing. The findings underline the importance of interventions within the entertainment industry to prevent a negative impact on young viewers in the future.



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