TikTok’s - silent- gender stratification

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AUTHOR: Maria Zoi Michailidou

FROM: Sciences Po

We have all seen it. We have all laughed at it. From the videos on TikTok in which men are asked how often they think of the Roman Empire, trying to prove their masculinity on a subconscious level to, women being  asked to explain the so-called “girl math”: a trend in which they try to justify expensive purchases of luxurious items by aiming to make them appear cheaper than they actually are. Of course, the numbers rarely make sense using that method. Despite the fact that this particular type of content might not seem especially intelligent, a lot of people still find it quite amusing, funny even.

Yet, danger lurks. If one takes a deeper look at these videos, one will find it very difficult to ignore the blatant sexism they contain. Men are more than empty-headed admirers of an Empire which eclipsed hundreds of years ago and women in reality are financially responsible, opting not to waste money on unnecessary, luxurious and utterly useless goods. The fact that a platform as popular as TikTok has ended up presenting this image of the two sexes raises a lot of questions on how the two genders are traditionally perceived in society.

Of course, one should take into account the enormous influence that TikTok exercises upon society, especially to the younger audience. The sheer strength of this platform is visible in its numbers. The app has been downloaded 3.6 billion times and in fact, in 2021 it surpassed the downloads of Facebook by 20% (1). Furthermore, in 2022, 67% of young people at the age of 18-19 in the United States actively use TikTok (2). This further proves the point that the platform’s target audience consists of young and, admittedly malleable, users. Consequently, users, considering their age, are more likely than not to internalize what they watch on this platform. Concerning the possibility of bias in the aforementioned data, since they are provided by official academic sources it is safe to assume that they are as objective as possible, especially considering the fact that the researchers don’t belong to the age group that normally uses TikTok.

Of course, some people might have a different point of view altogether. They tend to believe the narrative that TikTok is actually a platform empowering youth, especially young women (3). According to them, this empowerment usually means teaching them how to be financially independent and how to make money fast.  Others will definitely add that it is not the first time the media yield such a huge influence on people, reminiscing without a doubt the 90’s, when channels like MTV reigned supremely (4). Despite that, it is still quite difficult to ignore the blatantly sexist content one can find in TikTok.

One must not forget that, at the end of the day, TikTok is a business like every other and therefore has to be profitable in order not to shut down. If that means promoting content that encourages a stereotypical vision of men and women, the platform probably won’t hesitate to do it. In fact, TikTok excels at promoting the kind of content that appeals to the public, since it generated an income of about 1.56 billion in the third quarter of 2022 (5). Moreover, it does not anymore only concern the platform’s structure: influencers make a living out of promoting products in TikTok and most of them adhere to traditional gender roles, as illustrated by women promoting luxury goods while men stick to technological devices and even gaming material. In fact, according to research, after seeing gaming content on TikTok 41% of players actually downloaded the game, demonstrating how the platform has become a new space to promote gaming content, even to non-gamers (6).

Yet, the question remains: What does this representation of the two genders signify about our society’s values? Probably one could argue that this means that the values of our society have evolved little in comparison to the past. We all know,though, that this could not be further from the truth. Even though we still have progress to make in this subject, the eclipse of traditional gender roles is still rampant. Are all men bloodthirsty warmongers who crave a glorious past? Are all women financially irresponsible impulsive buyers? The answer to both is simple: Of course not. Assuming that the answer was yes, it would fail to take into account the complexity of human nature. Keeping that in mind, nobody deserves to be caged into stereotypes, especially not by a trendy platform.

  1. Bueno-Fernandes, Anna Cláudia, and Eduardo Campos-Pellanda. Gender Stereotypes in TikTok and Instagram: A Reverse Engineering Experiment for Understanding the Mechanisms of Social Network Algorithms, Revistas de ciencias sociales y humanas, 1 Sept. 2022, www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwjR7orpx62CAxWbRKQEHY3nD3cQFnoECBkQAQ&url=https%3A%2F%2Funiversitas.ups.edu.ec%2Findex.php%2Funiversitas%2Farticle%2Fview%2F6418%2F5887&usg=AOvVaw3nRa3G9FTDj6UARQyx5DDT&opi=89978449.
  2. ‘U.S. TikTok Users by Age 2022’. Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1095186/tiktok-us-users-age
  3. Pelly, Liz. “In the Era of Teen$ploitation: Our Capitalist Media Culture of Youth without Youth.” The Baffler, no. 45, 2019, pp. 34–41. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26639746.  Accessed 5 Nov. 2023.
  4. Granados, Marlowe. “I Turn My Camera On: Notes on the Aesthetics of Tiktok.” The Baffler, no. 54, 2020, pp. 96–103. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26975672 . Accessed 5 Nov. 2023.
  5. ‘21 Essential TikTok Statistics You Need to Know in 2023’. The Social Shepherd, https://thesocialshepherd.com/blog/tiktok-statistics.
  6. ‘How TikTok And Gaming Are Redefining Entertainment | TikTok For Business Blog’. TikTok For Business, https://www.tiktok.com/business/en/blog/tiktok-gaming-redefining-entertainment.
Second year student in Sciences Po Paris, Menton campus.
More posts by Maria Zoi Michailidou.
TikTok’s - silent- gender stratification
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