Media and gender are intricately linked in our society. Every day we see representations of women and men on the screen, read about politicians in the press, watch influencers on YouTube or go to the cinema where we meet screen heroes. Our images and notions of gender draw on these media narratives and role models. Children and young people are socialised with these views and cultivate their own identity and gender roles accordingly. Ideas of gender are not static. They are produced discursively in an ongoing process. Gender is understood as a social category, and this perspective is interwoven with an observation of people’s social behaviour, their “doing gender” (West and Zimmerman). From a social constructivist, the focus lies on the production processes connected with the construction of gender representations through the media. The question of how masculinity and femininity, concepts of “being a man” or “being a woman”, represented on a platform such as YouTube become relevant. Our research interest lies exactly in this: How gender inclusive is the video platform YouTube? Are male and female representations equally visible—or do we find exclusion mechanisms that hinder this?
Europe-wide studies show that children and adolescents are online for an average of 2.4 hours a day (Hasebrink et al.). Eighty-seven per cent of young people report watching videos (e.g. on YouTube) at least once a week (ibid., 11). This applies for Germany as well (MPFS). Considering the relevance YouTube has for adolescents, the question arises as to which role models are portrayed through YouTube and how diverse the representations of gender are depicted there. Initial analyses, primarily for the English-language YouTube platform, see its potential to counteract gender stereotypes (Maloney et al.), but generally show an unequal visibility of the genders on YouTube. These studies find that women are underrepresented, receive more hostile feedback and present themselves in stereotypical forms (Wotanis and McMillan; Döring; Molyneaux et al.). Döring and Mohseni showed in their current nine-country comparative analysis that men dominate the popular YouTube across countries and women are more likely to give up after hostility. The existing research usually examined the English-language, mainly US YouTube, it analysed gender performance, stereotypes in selected genres such as advertising or gaming, the stigmatisation of obesity, the representation and experiences of black women on YouTube, and the staging of alternative images of masculinity (see Hussin et al.; Kataria and Pandey; Wotanis and McMillan; Casabianca; Maloney et al.; Sobande). Molyneaux et al. noted in their landmark study gender-specific differences: female YouTubers tend to focus on private matters and interact more frequently with their users. Male YouTubers, on the other hand, share opinions and information and avoid emotions (Pedersen and Macafee). In addition, female vloggers are more often criticised for their appearance than for the content of their videos (Molyneaux et al.).
Even though YouTube is an international medium, its use remains limited to language and nation. For example, the most popular YouTube stars among German children and young people are predominantly German-speaking influencers or sportsmen and women. In 2019, girls between the ages of 6 and 13 most often name Bibi, Dagi Bee, Shirin David, Lisa & Lena, and Miley; boys at the same age Julien Bam, Gronkh, Die Lochis, LeFloid and Manuel Neuer (IZI). All these are German YouTube or sports stars. YouTube itself shows in its recommendations under the heading “most popular videos in Germany” exclusively German-language videos, music videos, or sporting events (YouTube). Therefore, YouTube also needs to be examined in national contexts, as well as in cross-national context.
Our study will focus on the national German context to examine whether there are similar gender differences in the German-speaking YouTube as have been identified for the English-speaking YouTube. For German-speaking YouTube, few studies are available. Döring and Mohseni examined male and female operators of the top 100 YouTube channels in nine different countries. The results show that women make up 25 per cent of the top 100 German YouTube channel operators, a distribution which is similarly uneven in other countries. Usage data shows that the German-speaking YouTube appears to have a greater relevance among boys than girls. Boys (93%) use YouTube more often on a regular basis, than girls (86%), and rank it higher as their favourite app (MPFS). Other than for traditional media such as television or film, where intensive research has for decades shown a wide gender gap in the visibility of women (Prommer and Linke; Linke and Prommer), research on German-speaking YouTube is rare (Döring and Mohseni).
In reflection of the research outlined above on representations of gender in media and the stereotypical portrayals of men and women in film and television, we assume that these gender role depictions are carried over into online videos on social media platforms. The fact that girls use YouTube somewhat less often, consider themselves less competent in the necessary Internet skills, and anticipate greater risks related to communicative aspects suggests that female operators might have been held back and that the female perspective might be marginalised in public (self-)portrayals. The following hypotheses will therefore guide our study:
H1: Fewer women are channel operators of Germany’s most popular YouTube channels, and they are more limited in their choice of genres.
H2: Women are less visible than men in popular YouTube videos.
H3: Women portray themselves more often as connected to stereotypically female topics or are depicted as such in videos.
H4: Men stage themselves as professionals.
Methods and Sample
Following these hypotheses, we conducted a two-step research. The first research step was to analyse to what extent women and men produce popular content. For this, we looked at the ratio of female to male YouTubers among the 1,000 most successful German channels. These YouTubers are called either creators or channel operators by the industry. Both terms are used synonymously here. To identify the most popular YouTube channels, we acquired the viewing and ranking data from the market research company Social Blade, which is one of the very few sources for these data. We measured the popularity of the channels by the number of subscribers to a channel. The success of individual videos was measured by individual views.
We coded the 1,000 most successful German YouTube channels, with a standardised quantitative content analysis. This method is frequently applied in existing studies on gender representations in YouTube (Döring; Döring and Mohensi). Different to existing research, we looked at a larger number of channels. This quantified analysis was combined with a more qualitative, but still standardised analysis of visibility of gender and concrete content and presentation forms (Prommer and Linke). For the second step we used the Audio-Visual Character Analysis (ACIS) developed by Prommer and Linke as a method that is able to code any audio-visual content in order to describe visibility and diversity of the depicted people. Here, the analysis considered the individual video as the unit of analysis. For 20 videos from each of the top 100 YouTube creators, we chose the 10 of most recent videos plus the 10 videos with the most views to be analysed. In total, 2,000 videos were analysed. For the qualitative analysis, looking at the visibility of gender, we excluded channels operated by institutions, such as radio and TV broadcasters, music labels, and other commercial entities. These were not considered since there is no individual person responsible. We also excluded “Let’s Play” videos, since these often do not show the operator, but only show game play from video games.
H1: Fewer women are operators of Germany’s most popular YouTube channels, and they are more limited in their choice of genres.
As the analyses show, if the non-individual channel operators are included in the statistics, we see that 27 per cent of the top popular channels in Germany are hosted by institutions (270); this leaves 172 channels operated by women (17%), 525 channels by men (53%), and 25 (3%) by mixed-gender teams. Further on, we will only consider the top 1,000 channels produced by one or more individuals; of these, one quarter (24%) of channel operators are female (fig. 1). This shows that, for every channel in the list produced by a woman, three are produced by men. Only three per cent of the channels are produced by men and women together, constituting a mixed-gender team.
The YouTube genres, according to the YouTube classification, also show significant gender differences. Women can be seen first and foremost in tutorial channels (women: 61; men: 9). However, because only 24 per cent of channels in which an individual operator could be identified are contributed by women, all other genres except for tutorial channels are produced disproportionally more often by men. Gaming videos are solid male territory, as almost all "Let’s Play" channels are operated by men (women: 6; men: 150). Here, there are 25 men for every one woman who operates a gaming channel. This is particularly remarkable, as women make up 46 per cent of gamers (ISFE), and their underrepresentation can generally not be explained by lack of interest. Men operate channels in a wide variety of other genres, such as music (women: 9; men: 80) and sports (women: 4; men: 20). The genres of comedy, film, and education show only one female operator each—outnumbered from 10 to 1 to as much as 20 to 1. Examining the statistics for men and women separately reveals that men do not only operate the majority of the top 1,000 channels, but they are also visible in a wider variety of genres. Female YouTubers have primarily limited themselves to entertainment channels (50% of all women) and how-to channels (35% of all women). Male channels are more diverse and include entertainment (38% of all men), games (29% of all men), and music (15% of all men), as well as all other genres. Only in tutorial channels men are rarely seen (2%). The genre definitions of the YouTube channels used here are derived from YouTube itself, and these definitions are not in line with other genre theories and are overly broad. Nevertheless, these results confirm the first hypothesis that fewer women are operators of popular YouTube channels, and that women are more limited in their genre diversity.
Fig. 1: Gender distribution of the top 1,000 YouTube channel creators—individuals only (n=722)
H2: Women are less visible than men in popular YouTube videos.
From the list of the top 1,000 channels, the top 100 most successful channels produced by individuals were analysed in more depth. Of these top 100 channels we analysed 20 videos each, for a total of 2,000 videos, for the visibility and appearance of men, women, and non-binary persons. If we count the main protagonists appearing in these 2,000 videos, we see for every woman (979; 29%) more than two men (2,343; 69%). Only two per cent (54) of the people appearing in these videos had a non-binary gender (intersexual, transsexual, or other). Interestingly, this is a similar imbalance as we can detect in television as well (Prommer and Linke). In other categories, there is more diversity than in television: in total, 44 per cent of channel operators have a recognisable “migration background”, which is more commonly seen in men (49%) than in women (32%). “Migration background” is the official German definition of people with a foreign nationality, people not born in Germany, or having parents with these criteria. This confirms the second hypothesis, according to which women are visible in popular Web videos less often than men.
H3: Women portray themselves more often in connection to stereotypically female topics or are depicted as such in videos.
In the 2,000 videos from the top 100 channels, female YouTubers are primarily visible in service-oriented tutorial channels (on topics like beauty, food, and the household). Female YouTubers are predominantly represented in video blogs (vlogs: 17%), battles/challenges (16%), sketches/parodies (14%), and tutorials (11%). The haul/unboxing format, in which presenters unpack acquired products or gifts, is almost exclusively female. Men are visible in a wide array of formats such as battles/challenges (21%), sketches (17%), and vlogs (14%), including music (9%), opinions/positions (6%), interviews (2%), music parodies (3%), and question-answer formats (2%). The wide range of content produced by male YouTubers, compared to the limited range of female YouTubers, becomes even more obvious when we consider the topics of the individual videos. The results show that men engage with a variety of themes. Women’s topics, on the other hand, are limited: female YouTubers address beauty (30%), food (23%), relationships (23%), fashion and family, as well as household topics (15%). As fig. 2 shows, men present a bigger variety of topics such as music, relationships, family and fashion, and they also address politics (7%), gaming, and much more. The men’s list is significantly more comprehensive (21 topic areas instead of 15). The data thus confirm the third hypothesis, according to which female YouTubers are more often represented in popular videos with stereotypically female themes. It also becomes clear that their spectrum of topics is significantly more limited than that of male actors.
Fig. 2: Topic and subject areas of main actors by gender (3,322), statistics for all women and all men; multiple answers possible
H4: Men stage themselves as professionals
The following results reveal selected characteristics of the staging with which the main female protagonists portray themselves in the 2,000 videos analysed, and which we understand as an expression of professional versus non-professional ability. Female YouTubers appear predominantly in private settings, and their relationships to (almost exclusively male) partners and to their families play a larger role in their appearances than with the male protagonists. Their activities in the videos are described more frequently by the women themselves as personal passions and hobbies, and they rarely discuss their activities as connected to a career. Women talk about their passions, while men thematise their professional abilities. While fewer than a quarter of female YouTubers (22%) address their careers, almost two thirds of men (61%) do so. When looking at hobbies and passions the reverse is true: while only a third of male YouTubers (32%) mention these themes, two thirds of women (64%) create this context in their videos. Also, public spaces and professional contexts are predominantly reserved for male protagonist on YouTube. This means that women shoot their videos in what appears to be their homes or other private environments, while men are also visible in offices or other professional environments (e.g. fitness studios). The settings in which most people are visible on YouTube are private houses and apartments, where most women (71%) and more than half of male actors (57%) are shown. Settings in the public sphere, in contrast, are chosen by male YouTubers twice as often (34%) as by females. This confirms the fourth hypothesis, which states that men communicate and stage themselves as professionals in their videos, measured by the choice of public settings, references to professional activity, and thematisation of emotions.
This study represents a first step toward a quantified analysis of gender portrayals on YouTube. Although a large number of channels and videos were included in the analysis, it is not a comprehensive assessment of all of the most popular videos, nor a random sampling. Limiting the scope to the most popular content necessarily excludes videos that may show alternative content but receive fewer clicks and subscribers. The content analysis does not allow conclusions to be drawn regarding the videos’ actual reception among adolescents. Even though the data prove the platform’s popularity among children and young adults, the audience groups for the individual videos we analysed could not be broken down by sociodemographics. The gender-typical depictions can thus only be understood as an offering; no statements can be made as to their actual acceptance.
The results show that Web videos favourited by children and young adults on the YouTube platform adopt and propagate similar role models to those that previously existed in television and film (Götz et al.). Female channel operators are significantly underrepresented in the most popular videos, they are more limited in their range of topics, and they appear predominantly in and with topics with a stereotypically female connotation. Further, most of women’s (self-)portrayals take place in private settings. Here, the new Web formats have not created a change from classical depictions on television, where women are also predominantly shown in their personal and private lives. Web videos emphasise this aspect, as female actors refer often to their hobbies rather than to their careers, thus characterising their actions as less socially legitimised. This shows that in their favourite new media, too, adolescents encounter traditional gender stereotypes that steer the engagement with gender onto traditional tracks. The actual variety of gender identities and gender roles in real life is not presented in the popular YouTube videos and therefore excluded from the mainstream audience. Clearly, the interplay of the structure of YouTube, the market, and audience demand does not lead to the inclusion and visibility of alternative role models.
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