Geena Davis knew there was something wrong with media for kids when she started watching what her daughter was watching. With her two year old on her lap, she would watch G-rated videos and children’s television, getting increasingly disturbed. Where were all the female characters? And what was with the few there were? When she brought this up with people in Hollywood, they all dismissed her concerns. She’d say, “Hey, have you ever noticed how few female characters there seem to be in G-rated movies and things for kids?” And they pretty much across the board would say, “No. No, that’s not true anymore. That’s been fixed.”
That’s when Davis realized her personal views weren’t going to change any minds. She wanted to show people it wasn’t about subjective impressions, but real numbers: data that could not be ignored. So she raised some cash and started The Geena Davis Institute For Gender and Media. The institute recently released a major study, and the results aren’t pretty.
The characters, on the other hand…
The study surveyed 150 G Rated movies produced between 1990 and 2006. Here’s what they found:
Fewer than one out of three (28%) of the speaking characters (both real and animated) are female.
More than four out of five (83%) of the films’ narrators are male.
85.5% of the characters in G-rated films are white, 4.8% are black, and 9.7% are from “other” ethnicities.
The percentage of females in 2006-09 films is only 2.7% higher than the percentage of females in 1990-95 films. That increase is so small, it’s actually statistically insignificant.
#1 occupation of female characters: royalty. Says Geena: “Nice gig, if you can get it.”
Primary goal of female characters: finding romance.
Male characters whose primary goal is looking for romance: zero.
Females were 5 times more likely to be shown in sexually revealing attire than male characters.
Animated females were more likely to be sexualized than live action ones.
Female characters were three times more likely to be drawn with hypersexualized, unreal body types.
Female characters in G rated movies are as likely to be shown hypersexually as female characters in R rated movies.
This data reflects what some parents have been complaining about for decades: our girls are being shortchanged by the way they’re represented on screen. Seeing it quantified like this is both upsetting and empowering. The lack of progress, even amid parental protest, is especially disheartening. Will these numbers make a difference, or is the bottom line the only number that counts in Hollywood?
Parents trust G rated movies to be safe and appropriate for children. But upon closer viewing, they might not feel good about the messages these films are sending. So what can we do? We can look outside the Hollywood box to independent filmmakers who present a different view. I’m always hunting for films that transcend these stereotypes, and I’ll share some here in the future. But as disappointing as these findings are, they don’t mean we should necessarily keep our kids from watching. Included in the study findings are the recommendations below to help parents use the biases in these films to start productive conversations with our kids. Teachable moment, anyone?
Recommendations for Parents & Teachers:
1. Co-view media content with children.
2. Spend time with children as they consume media content.
3. Critically engage and discuss what is present and absent in modern media-based stories.
4. Ask children who is missing in the story and whether the depiction looks like their family, social, or school environment.
For more info:
Gender Stereotypes: An Analysis of Popular Films and TV (Full Report in PDF form)
Geena Davis Interview on Gender Inequality on TV and in Movies: WSJ (edited from WSJWIE conference)
photo: Kevin Dooley/flickr