While propaganda in the form of unintentional influence and the language of sexism has been independently researched, a review of literature reveals no such studies that link these two topics.   In this paper, I link these two subjects to study the hypothesis that the language of sexism, embedded within media, unintentionally influences individuals and small groups.  Through participatory action research methodology, participants will take part in a series of focus groups analyzing sexist language within media contexts. Findings will indicate how media sexism influences individuals and small groups, what that influence means to the health of their local community, and what action should be taken to alleviate negative consequences.


Unintentional Sexism:  The influence of language upon media propaganda, individuals and small groups


The use of sexist language is pervasive, omnipresent, and almost unnoticeable within our written and oral communications.  A grand examination would be almost impossible due to the male domination inherent and implicit within our verbs, nouns, and grammar reflected in the nationalism, capitalism, and cultural values that devalue women, girls, and people of color that is also taught to foreign nationals learning English for the first time (Piercey, 2009).

Sexism may be obvious and apparent in media propaganda such as television programming, advertising, and movies, but the sexism embedded in those texts also employs language that is inherently sexist.  Their affects can be overt or embedded so deep in the language that is employed that it becomes difficult to recognize and challenging to change.  In this context, intentional propaganda is propaganda that is used by media companies with a deliberate agenda to sell ideas or products utilizing language or socially constructed visual symbols that are already present and used instinctually and subconsciously by a majority of society.  Sexist propaganda is that language, by common usage, that places women in an inferior role to men rather than an equal.  Sometimes this language can be blatant, and sometimes it can be subtle, but it is commonly overt and socially accepted (Chew & Kelley-Chew, 2007).

To what extent are individuals influenced by the language of sexist propaganda embedded in media advertising and programming and perpetuated by small in-group conversations that reinforce sexist media texts? How aware are individuals of their use of sexist language that perpetuate themes and ideas from sexist media propaganda?  The implications of these questions lie in the definition of propaganda as much as in the definition of sexist language.

There is a sizeable body of literature examining sexism, language, and propaganda, but there are no specific studies linking language and sexism to propaganda. Such an intersection of research subjects would allow for a better understanding of propaganda in sexist media embedded in everyday speech.  For this study, I am not interested in specific research questions that result in comparisons, statistical correlations or cause and effect relationships, nor would they be effective.  Most of the research studies I found were either overviews of sexist language or comparison data.  Numerical results would only benefit academic research and would not empower individuals to face the sexism that affects them directly.  Comparisons would not inspire any social activism to confront sexist language or media.  Participatory action research (PAR) would assist in understanding the very real and personal link between the language of sexism and media propaganda, it would contribute to the current literature, and it would improve the understanding of these subjects in the academic community and the general public.  PAR is a method that would be used to understand the extent of sexism in media, its influence upon attitudes and speech, and it would inspire the social activism of participating co-researchers.

The goal of this study design is to address the sexist propaganda within media texts as co-researchers view them, generate further knowledge of sexist media texts embedded in the language, help co-researchers enact change in the way they view the media that they watch and read, and develop goals with the participants to further change the local environments that are directly influenced by the sexist media propaganda in question.

For the purposes of this study, propaganda is defined as the use of communication to achieve behavior and attitude changes amongst one group of people by another individual or group.  Further, intentional propaganda is defined as that which is practiced and performed by media companies with a deliberate agenda to promote ideas or products utilizing sexist media texts already present in our language or visual symbols that are used.

By contrast, unintentional propaganda is not delivered with the deliberate intent to promote anything.  Rather, it is used subconsciously in conversations where last night’s television programming, movie, or restaurant names are mentioned.  It is discussing media and media symbols that act as common bonds between individuals in small groups. It is the result of a schoolteacher teaching history from a textbook written from a dominant majority’s viewpoint.  It is promoting the “status quo” that does not include any minority viewpoints, and it is not something that would be questioned as inaccurate by anyone except a historical scholar or a radical political activist (Black, 2001).

Literature Review

Penelope (1988) explains the phenomenon without offering an alternative to the sexism that is embedded in the everyday language of so-called “generic” uses of –man, -men, and mankind as a popular political misconception. Rather, these are not generics, but they are subclasses of gendered language where the majority is given to men and men’s doings. Based on traditional social position and prestige, many words carry +male, and only a few carry +female characteristics.  The male-gendered forms are traditionally positive (doctor, lawyer, chairman), whereas the female-gendered forms are considered inferior to the male (nurse, spider, prostitute, housewife, teacher).  When a woman takes on a traditional male social position, a descriptive has to be added (woman lawyer, lady doctor, poetess).  Similar correctives also exist for nontraditional male social roles.

Word definitions are included from the Random House Dictionary where male-gendered words are described semantically positive and female-gendered words are described semantically negative.  Penelope cites examples from literature and media where male-gendered generics clearly imply men as the dominant generic and women clearly indicated and described in a subservient and negative role.  Elsewhere, the generic man that is supposed to imply people of all sexes does not appear in literature intended for women, and the pervasiveness of male-dominated generics is referred to in period literature as something that would be difficult to eliminate completely so it makes more sense to adjust to this male domination of the language (Penelope, 1988).

Piercey (2009) approaches sexism in the English language from the perspective of an English-as-a-Second-Language instructor and analyzes the sexist social structures that are influencing new English speakers entering Canada, how English language culture discriminates against and marginalizes women and girls and what one can do to “stop contributing to it and. support nonsexist language.”  S/he admits that English is the language of domination, of nation building, of assertive men and where women speak the language but they do not speak the dominant language of men.  As an example, s/he quotes an example of a father and son in a fatal car accident.  The father is killed and the son is taken to a hospital for surgery, but when the surgeon arrives, the surgeon exclaims, “Oh my God, I can’t operate; it’s my son!”  (Piercey, 2009) Reflexively, the surgeon is assumed to be a man rather than a woman.

Piercey cites a definition of sexist language as one that perpetuates an interpretation of the world where women are inferior and subservient to males.  S/he quotes 220 words for a “sexually promiscuous” woman but only 20 for a “sexually promiscuous” man, thus perpetuating a culturally ingrained double standard that is programmed into new immigrants as culturally dominant propaganda (Piercey citing Kramarae & Treichler, 1985).  S/he cites the delicate balance of gender that is determined by meaning rather than form with adjectives that signify stereotypical male traits and stereotypical female traits.  Such language sexism eliminates women from the everyday reality of existence, from importance as a human being, because “generic” terms such as he and man make women and girls disappear from the language structure taught to recent immigrants (Piercey, 2009).

Gastil (1990) analyzes these assumptions as a hypothesis, testing the “propensity of the generic he to evoke images of males relative to he/she and the plural they.”  They argue that “the generic he elicits more images of males than he/she and they.”  For this study, Gastil recruited 45 men and 48 women from a midwestern undergraduate university to read out loud and interpret a series of twelve sentences that included “six target and six filler sentences [the filler sentences included no information referencing a person]” with “one of three generic pronouns that referred to neutral subjects such as ‘person’ and ‘pedestrian.’”  Following the reading of the last sentence, subjects were asked four “increasingly specific questions” to determine if the visualized subjects in twelve sentences were “male, female, mixed, or neither.”  Afterwards, the subjects completed questionnaires “assessing imaging ability” and a checklist assessing masculine and feminine ratings. (Gastil, 1990)

Gastil’s study hypothesis poses an interesting challenge for further study related to sexism-embedded language and media to determine if there is a current prevalence for he/she or they versus an alternative form of gender-neutral language such as what is used in this proposal:  s/he, herm, they, or one or if some gender-neutral language has grown out of fashion in favor of other gender-neutral language and how that relates to current sexist language embedded within media propaganda.  What is particularly applicable to a study of sexist language in media propaganda is that this study accessed the subjects’ mental images directly rather than asking them to create their own imagery or answer questions as if they had imagery in mind, thus avoiding any forced questions or suggestions that would have invalidated the study.

Gastil’s dependent variables were the images evoked in the minds of the study participants.  Independent variables of interest included “pronoun condition, gender, imaging ability, and masculinity/femininity.”  The results were varied, somewhat indicating that the gender of the observer may determine the gender of the perceived imagery.  He produced mostly male imagery.  He/she produced mixed images for both men and women, however, women visualized more mixed group images and more women, and men visualized more mixed group images with more men.  The general results indicate what has been clarified in several other academic articles:  He is generally not perceived as a generic pronoun indicating female gender. He/she is perceived as more generic, but it is more generic for women than men.  They, on the other hand, is perceived as a generic pronoun more than any of the above.

McConnell-Ginet (2003) addresses the usage of language in relational power dynamics between individuals and between individuals and groups.  What are surveyed here are not necessarily negative pronouns reserved for women and the female gender in the English language but a whole array of familiar terms of endearment, the taking back of negative-meaning terms as titles of empowerment, and terms intended for insult.  Social labelling is divided into categorizing labels, social practice in local communities (and their global connections), what are termed “empty” labels that are not used to characterize but to address someone or a group as a familiar or as an insulting descriptive phrase, hierarchical titles that separate individuals into social classes (Mister, Misses, Doctor, etc.) as equals, as superiors, and as inferiors (McConnell-Ginet, 2003).

This latter category is where sexist language appears, in men’s locker room conversation and in what the author labels, “‘anti-male’ bonding” among women.  What is noticeable in the sexist language in all-male gatherings is the overtly sexual and obscene nature of the conversations that men would allegedly not use in mixed-gendered gatherings. The all-female gatherings, on the other hand, focus upon alleged sexual mistreatment or general inconsiderateness.  Some of the terms historically used by men (bitch, slut, bastard), however, are becoming neutralized by common usage, and they are being used by both sexes (enabling women to reclaim the insulting phrases in much the same way that racial epithets in black community have been reclaimed as terms of empowerment?) (McConnell-Ginet, 2003).

Lakoff (2003) places language and gender squarely in the field of power, analyzing the views of the relationship between women and power within the fields of art, academia, and politics. S/he limits this study to more accessible print media, but future studies assessing television and radio would be a worthy extension to determine the extent of the attitudes that already prevail in print.  Previous studies where power is viewed as a positive attribute of men, including folklore that is rife with examples of aggressive and persevering men and quiet subservient women as cultural norms.  When women adhere to these norms they are invariably referred to as manipulative or fuzzy-minded for being hesitant and unclear, but when they don’t they are referred to as a shrew or bitch (among the more polite epithets) or worse (Lakoff, 2003)

When women began to assert their right to exhibit anger and use “bad language,” media discourse on the political right and left became concerned at the “growing ‘incivility’ of the public discourse.” In the political arena, women are sexualized, objectified or vilified and treated as parodies of male politicians.  They may even be “recast as a lesbian” instead of being taken seriously because their ideas are not as important as the objectification of their appearance, as in the case of Janet Reno and later Hillary Rodham Clinton.  However, as women increasingly achieve political office and their value speaking truth to the media and the dominant political majority is increasingly recognized, the derisive responses to that political power are likely to rendered innocuous sooner than later. (Lakoff, 2003).

Heldman (2009) still focuses on print media but also includes new media as unfiltered public opinion in the form of blogs since the expansion of political campaigns into the virtual sphere in recent national elections but s/he looks at sexism in the presidential campaigns of the United States from 1984 to 2008 (including the Clinton election of 2008), whereas Lakoff looked at Clinton as a senatorial candidate and the wife of a president.  While Heldman admits that gender role stereotypes have decreased in the last fifty years, female politicians and candidates are held to a higher and stringent double standard where they have to be perceived as more decisive and less weak than their male counterparts but when they are perceived as tough, they are judged as not being human enough (as in the case of the Clinton candidacy in 2008) (Heldmnan, 2009)

Heldman surveys the print media coverage and finds that journalists and reporters bias the results of major senatorial and gubernatorial elections by asking male candidates the more serious campaign questions and giving them more coverage even if they are less qualified (and frequently are), while treating female candidates less serious, focusing less on issue-related coverage, and focusing more on personality traits, as trailblazers.  Heldman postulates that the deliberate campaign manipulation by reporters, journalists, and mainstream news media in general acts as an “anti-democratic conduit” (Heldman, 2009)

S/he hypothesizes that since previous major election coverage of female candidates focus on topics other than issues as stated above, the media coverage of female presidential and vice presidential candidates will result in similar coverage.  Results of the study indicate that most of the challenges that female candidates face for other offices are present for the vice presidential candidates here.  Reporters and journalists mentioned the appearance of the candidate twice as often and the coverage, while greater than the male candidates, was four times to receive sexist coverage. And that sexist coverage “increased dramatically” from Ferraro’s 1984 campaign to Palin’s campaign in 2008 (Heldman, 2009). In a further study, I would want to add two other independent variables that include the gender of the reporter or journalist and possibly their political affiliation in relation to the candidate.

Halliwell, Malson, & Tischner (2011) analysed the impact of contemporary images of women in advertising to determine if what is viewed as agentic imagery (objectifying in their own way) was empowering to young women or if the imagery increased the weight dissatisfaction and state self-objectification. Utilizing Objectification Theory, the authors recruited 122 female psychology students to take part in a study, “Attitudes in Advertising” averaging 19.98 years old and ranging from 18 to 40 years old.  Participants were shown a series of images that included agentic depictions where the women in the images appeared to be in control, passive objectifications of women, and product only control images (Halliwell et al., 2011).

The study hypotheses speculated that after viewing the agentic and objectifying imagery the participants’ weight dissatisfaction and state self-objectification would increase. Based upon previous studies of exposure to negative imagery of women that influenced negative body image, the current study results were consistent with previous research.  However, the addition of agentic sexually empowering imagery with objectification imagery actually increases women’s body dissatisfaction (Halliwell et al., 2011)


Unintentional propaganda embedded within the implicit language of media texts negatively influences the behavior of individuals and small groups.  Through negative stereotypes of women as sexual objects, sexually agentic, passive and subservient, unqualified politicians, and otherwise inferior to men, (Halliwell, Malson, & Tischner, 2011; Lakoff, 2003; Gastil, 1990; Penelope, 1988; Heldman, 2009) individuals and small groups are negatively influenced by various media.  This media influences their groupthink that influences individuals within the group, other individuals, and other small groups (O’Shaughnessy & Baines, 2009; Black, 2001).

Based upon previous research into the influence of media on actions and self-esteem (Halliwell et al, 2011; Lakoff, 2003; Gastil, 1990; Penelope, 1988; Heldman, 2009), I predict that the media used will reinforce the negative stereotypes that individual men and women have about women and that negative stereotype will be transferred to others through the influence of unintentional propaganda embedded in conversations between individuals and small groups.

This will be tested through exposure of real world local media within focus groups and individual discussions that follow to determine the extent of influence the local media has upon study participants individually.  If necessary, additional focus groups will be formed and individual interviews will follow to clarify and determine the extent of unintentional propaganda.  In this case, research does not begin or end with raw comparisons, statistical correlations, or demonstrable relationships of cause and effect to determine numerical results of sexism embedded within language and media texts.  Research does not end here.  It begins here, and it is more.  It is focus groups, discussions, and individual interviews as preliminary data collection for a Participatory Action Research study.  The goal is social transformation through a process of analysis with co-researchers as participants that strengthen a peripheral group in society.  In this case, the peripheral group is one that is adversely affected by sexism.



Even though previous literature assesses sexism embedded in the English language as well as sexism embedded in media texts, I was not able to find any studies addressing or referencing the unintentional propaganda of sexist language within media texts and its influence upon individuals and small groups.   The current study will investigate the intersection of these subjects employing Participatory Action Research (PAR), a self-reflexive method that includes “multiple sequences of reflecting, planning, acting, and observing.” The process of PAR is the method, where, as part of a research study, the researcher is very much a part of the lives of the people taking part in the study (Kidd & Kral, 2005).  Why PAR? I am interested in research that treats research subjects as partner-participants rather than as objects. Given the nature of the research questions, research that looks specifically at sexism embedded within the English language, media propaganda and its influence upon individuals and small groups, it would be extremely presumptuous as a white-appearing male researcher to make assumptions about very personal experiences that I am unable to relate to given my ethnicity and gender.  Specifically, PAR will help me and co-research participants identify examples for this study, collect data for a more detailed analysis followed by a collective decision regarding several possible solutions that inform a single plan of action and analyze and interpret data results to determine how successful the action has been.  Normally, the problem is reassessed and the process cycle begins again.  However, due to the nature of such a research subject, research will be ongoing.

After obtaining approval from the Institutional Review Board for research involving human subjects, participants will be selected from a medium-sized southeastern public university via a campus-wide statistical random sample selection process to obtain an equal cross-section of women, people of color, and LGBTQIA individuals as much as possible. To begin, participants will be screened in a pre-test survey to determine current media viewing practices amongst undergraduate college students who actively watch and read mainstream media. Participants who indicated active media viewing on the pre-test will be selected to form cross-sectioned focus groups.  Separate focus groups will be formed to discuss radio, television, film, and print media.  Each focus group will be asked a short open-ended series of questions regarding media depictions of women, Groups will then engage in conversation with the moderator to discuss what these texts signify.

Focus group questions will include the following:

1.   Describe the images you saw. (Where? When?)

2.   What do you think about when you see these images?

3.   How do you feel about these images?

4.   Do you feel that these images depict anyone that you know in your personal life?

While these questions are tentative, my goal is to engage focus group participants in a conversation around current depictions of women, people of color, and LGBTQIA in media, whether it is radio, television, or print. I also wish for subjects to discuss what media should look like, and what should be done to change it. Co-researchers, as part of this Participatory Action Research, will determine what the best course of action is.


This study will be designed using Participatory Action Research (PAR).  According to Kidd & Kral (2005), “PAR is, ideally, a process in which people (researchers and participants) develop goals and methods, participate in the gathering and analysis of data, and implement the results in a way that will raise critical consciousness and promote change in the lives of those involved—changes that are in the direction and control of the participating group or community.”  PAR, for this study, will take the form of search conferences where groups made up of relevant stakeholders meet under socially isolated conditions for 2-3 days and possibly up to five.  The opening meetings concern the contexts of the wider research question or questions that will produce the overall issues that will be addressed and affect the future study.  This context is determined entirely by the co-researchers.  The initial meetings utilize a series of lists, boards, or flip charts with items displayed without criticism that are discussed in depth in smaller break away groups that are reassembled as a larger picture by the reassembled larger group. The group also examines and determines an ideal organizational structure.  Once these preliminaries are determined the research study begins (O’Brien, 1998)


While several studies have assessed the sexist content of media and their damaging effects on women and minorities in the United States and elsewhere, and while a handful of studies have researched the effects of the language of sexism, no research has been found that links the two and their combined effects upon individuals and small groups,. The results, when I am able to conduct this study will invariably link the language of sexism to sexism in media that perpetuates stereotypes of women, people of color, and LGBTQIA,  effecting change in community perceptions and attitudes.  Through additional studies this elementary link may be found in other areas, including the perception of women and minorities in sports, the perception of women and minorities in politics, and even the perception of the United States through exported media to foreign markets (as a much larger study).



Black, J. (2001). Semantics and ethics of propaganda. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 16(2-3), 121-137.

Chew, P. K., & Kelley-Chew, L. K. (2007). Subtly sexist language. Colum. J. Gender & L., 16, 643-678. Retrieved from http://extra.shu.ac.uk/daol/articles/closed/2003/001/mills2003001-paper.html 14 October 2013.

Gastil, J. (1990). Generic pronouns and sexist language: The oxymoronic character of masculine generics. Sex roles, 23(11-12), 629-643.

Halliwell, E., Malson, H., & Tischner, I. (2011). Are Contemporary Media Images Which Seem to Display Women as Sexually Empowered Actually Harmful to Women?. Psychology of Women Quarterly35(1), 38-45.

Heldman, C. (2009). From Ferraro to Palin: Sexism in media coverage of vice presidential candidates. Available at SSRN 1459865. Retrieved from http://ssrn.com/abstract=145986 14 October 2013

Kidd, S. A., & Kral, M. J. (2005). Practicing participatory action research. Journal of Counselling Psychology52(2), 187.

Kramarae, C , & Treichler, P. A. (1985). A feminist dictionary. London: Pandora Press. (quoted in Piercey)

Lakoff, R. (2003). Language, gender, and politics: putting women and power in the same sentence. The handbook of language and gender, 161-178.

McConnell-Ginet, S. (2003). What’s in a name? ‘Social labelling and gender practices. The handbook of language and gender, 69-97.

O’Shaughnessy, N. J., & Baines, P. R. (2009). Selling terror: The symbolization and positioning of Jihad. Marketing Theory, 9(2), 227-241.

O’Brien, R. (1998, April 17). An Overview of the Methodological Approach of Action Research. Retrieved from http://www.web.ca/~robrien/papers/xx%20ar%20final.htm.

Penelope, J. (1988). Prescribed passivity: The language of sexism. In Nebraska Sociological Feminist Collective (Eds.), A feminist ethic for social science research (Vol. 1) (119-138). Nebraska: Edwin Mellen Press.  Retrieved from http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/englishfacpubs/89/ 14 October 2013.

Piercey, M. (2009). Sexism in the English language. TESL Canada Journal, 17(2),

Sarrasin, O., Gabriel, U, & Pascal, G. (2012).  Sexism and Attitudes toward Gender-Neutral Language: The Case of English, French and German. The Swiss Journal of Psychology, Vol 71(3), Jul 2012, 113-124.  Preprint copy, 37 pp, retrieved from http://unifr.ch/psycho/site/assets/files/lingsoc/SarrasinGabrielGygax_preprint.pdf.pdf 14 October 2013.