Wishful identification, gender, and scientists on television

By Kerri Wingert - December 2013


Steinke, J., Applegate, B., Lapinski, M., Ryan, L., & Long, M. “Gender differences in adolescents’ wishful identification with scientist characters on television.” Science Communication, 34(2), 163–199. doi:10.1177/1075547011410250


Research Design 

In this study, 370 students from three middle schools in the Midwestern U.S. watched 12 clips from selected television shows that featured scientists—some male and some female. Each scientist exemplified one or more characteristics of interest: dominance, intelligence, aloneness, respected, and caring. These attributes were drawn from a previous related study of traits found in media portrayals of scientists (Long et al., 2010). Dominance is defined as “asserting authority or influence over others”; intelligence as “making factual statements, assertions, explanations, or analysis”; aloneness as “being the only person in a scene with no interaction with others”; respected as “being awarded, complimented, or asked for advice”; and caring as “comforting or helping others.”

Because teens’ perceptions of TV scientists might also be related to the type of show in which the scientists are depicted, researchers categorized the 12 clips in three genres: educational, cartoon, and drama. The researchers also recorded participant gender in order to compare boys’ responses to girls’ on several measures.

After viewing each clip, participants completed a survey of their “wishful identification” with the scientists, responding to Likert-scale questions such as “I want to do the kinds of things they do on the show” or “They are the sort of person I want to be like.” Students were also tested on their beliefs about women in science and their own science identities.

Results of the wishful identification test were compared in four ways: by TV show genre, by scientist character gender, by the five character attributes described above, and, across all these, by participant gender. First, the results clearly indicate that both boys and girls identified at much higher rates with characters in dramatic shows than with those in cartoons and educational programs. They showed an overwhelming preference for characters from the dramas CSI, CSI: Miami, and CSI: New York.

Second, averages of the wishful identification score across all characters for all five attributes were compared based on the gender of the scientists. When identifying with female scientists, students identified most strongly with characters showing respect, caring, and dominance. When identifying with male scientists, however, students selected those with the traits intelligence, dominance, and respectedness.

Third, the gender of the viewer was compared with the attributes and gender of the scientist in each clip. In this analysis, girls identified significantly more highly with female characters who demonstrated dominance characteristics, as compared to boys who most identified with male characters who demonstrated respected characteristics.

There are limits to this type of research, because researchers cannot control all of the variables that might influence students’ perception of media content. For example, 36% of subjects reported “regular viewing” of CSI. That experience and previously formed perceptions of the show’s characters might have caused students’ preferences for drama shows.

Implications for Practice 

Despite the clear applications of statistical tests to tease out these differences, this article’s contribution to practice is much more complex than the statistics suggest. This study highlights the importance of acknowledging representations of scientists as a factor in students’ formation of STEM identities. Equity in STEM education, then, is not simply a matter of offering STEM programming, but also of attending to the details of who is positioned as a dominant figure or respected expert and making this positioning explicit to students. This study tells us that students do identify with scientists on television; it also suggests that these identifications are nuanced and depend on the TV scientists’ behaviors, gender, and context. Thus it is important for practitioners to continually reflect on their portrayals of who does science and how, since these portrayals affect students’ identities.

Further, practitioners can reinforce or deconstruct notions of expertise through the images they introduce; for example, showing only caring female scientists or respected male scientists could reinforce problematic gender-based preferences. The researchers also suggest that student preference for and familiarity with particular television shows may influence their wishful identity formation. Drawing on students’ existing knowledge of scientific portrayals may thus be a powerful key for identification. Because dramatic television shows seem to carry the most potential for strong identification, educators could use these shows in discussion and instruction to help students to reflect critically on their perceptions of who does science and how.

Theoretical Basis  

This paper draws heavily on the work and theory of Albert Bandura, a social cognitivist. To social cognitivists, children learn through observation of actual models in their lives as well as of symbolic models, which can include the media (Bandura, 1969, 2009). Models can be characters in TV shows or online games, as well as actual human beings. This need for models has strong implications for the study of identity development, as it urges educators to understand that any representation can be instructional: Models teach us not only about who we are but also about who we can become.


Bandura, A. (1969). Social-learning theory of identificatory processes. In D. A. Goslin (Ed.), Handbook of socialization theory and research (pp. 213–262). Chicago, IL: Rand McNally.

Bandura, A. (2009). Social cognitive theory of mass communication. In J. Bryant & D. Zillmann (Eds.), Media effects: Advances in theory and research (2nd ed., pp. 121–153). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.