Megan Griffith took advantage of every opportunity to do research during her career as a psychology major at Penn State Brandywine. In her final year, her go-getting approach paid off, granting her an amazing journey. She, alongside assistant professor of psychology Dana Martin, completed a cross-cultural research study that delves into the representation of women in the media in the United States and Italy.
Griffith, a December 2014 graduate, started with a few research questions: “What kinds of images are typically used to represent femininity? How do these representations compare between American and Italian cultures?”
“By going outside of our own culture, we can pose a mirror to the norms that normally go unquestioned,” said Martin, Griffith’s research supervisor.
How did this journey start for Griffith?
“My research started as a class project when I went to Italy on a Global Programs trip,” she explained. “I took it to the next level by doing independent research on the topic after the trip.”
Since 1995, Penn State Brandywine’s Global Programs experience has delivered distant education courses with short-term travel destinations worldwide. Each course includes pre-travel and post-travel coursework to be completed on an independent study basis, working with the instructor through distance education technologies. Griffith’s Global Programs course was cross-cultural psychology, taught by Martin.
Griffith explained that she started with eight fashion and entertainment magazines, four of which she brought from Italy and the other four, serving as a comparison, published in the United States. She focused on the first 25 advertisements in each magazine and “coded” each image on seven different characteristics: eye gaze, makeup, disposition, clothing, body position, hand positioning and sex appeal. A stereotypical woman is portrayed with an indirect eye gaze, her hands caressing her body, revealing clothing and lots of makeup.
“You always hear how women are seen differently, compared to men, within the media,” she said. “But I think through the research I did you can see how women are portrayed differently through simple mannerisms used within advertising.”
The aim of studies documenting the often stereotypical and super-sexualized ways in which the media portrays women is to introduce a broader range of options, especially when it comes to young girls.
“There’s research that shows that the way women are represented in the media reflects on how they act. We’re trying to break these gender norms,” Griffith said.
Even though literature suggests that gender roles tend to be more traditional in Italy than in the U.S., Griffith did not find a lot of evidence supporting this. The representation of women in the media in both the U.S. and Italy was very similar. This is a striking finding given that the majority of modern American women hold professional degrees and participate fully in the workforce.
“The pull of the media may hold women back from being seen as equal to men in their capacity to contribute meaningfully to our society,” said Martin.
Griffith, who also served as the vice president of Brandywine’s Psychology Club, recently presented her research at a two-day national undergraduate conference on body image at Cabrini College. She is also set to present at the Eastern Psychological Association’s annual meeting this March in Philadelphia.
“This project gave me a bigger perspective of what goes into research and gave me a hands-on experience,” she said.
“Research inspires students and gives them the tools to not just think, but to also test their thinking with something very concrete,” Martin added. “Megan is very determined and extremely persistent. Those are the traits of a great researcher. She really sees the big picture.”
Griffith plans to continue to work on her research and has been invited back to next year’s Body Image Conference. She is currently applying to graduate schools and hopes to study educational or organizational psychology.