Family Movies: Where Are All the Girls?

6 years ago

In the Las Vegas area, where I live, there are currently nineteen movies that can generally be considered “family friendly” –- that is, rated no higher than PG-13 –- showing in theaters, with another five scheduled to be released before the end of the year. The holiday season is a good one for Hollywood, and the studios make sure to provide a steady stream of fare targeting kids and the parents desperate to entertain them.

I look forward to taking my niece and nephew to buy exorbitantly expensive popcorn and watch a movie together on the big screen. But I’m often frustrated by the offerings, particularly when it comes to representations of gender and the limited roles given to female characters.

I first really noticed it with Bee Movie, which came out in 2007. The movie's creators made a number of notable revisions to the way bee societies actually operate. Most glaringly, they changed the sex of all of the worker bees -— which are female in the real world -— to be male and gave them the appropriately masculine name “pollen jocks.” The jocks are tall and muscular, towering over the smaller female bees, who gaze up at them adoringly but don’t really have plotlines or personalities of their own.

Image Credit: Paramount Pictures
Apparently the creative team behind the movie felt that nature made a mistake by allowing female bees to work outside the hive and decided to rewrite biology to better fit our ideas about appropriate gender relations.

Unfortunately, this tendency to downplay female characters appears to be widespread. A study recently released by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media provides a disturbing overview. The authors, professors at the University of Southern California, analyzed 122 films released between 2006 and 2009 that were rated PG-13 or lower. Of the 5,554 speaking characters in the chosen movies, women made up only 29.2% --- that is, less than 1 in 3 characters with a large enough role to utter at least one word was female. In group or crowd scenes, only 17% of the roles were female.

Part of the problem may be that women are under-represented as creators of movies. The analysis also found that only 7% of the directors, 13% of writers, and 20% of producers were female. And movies with higher numbers of women in these jobs also had more female characters, as well.

It’s not just that girls and women are often invisible in family-oriented films; there’s also cause for concern in how they’re represented when they do appear. Female characters are often sexualized, shown in revealing (or non-existent) clothing; 24% of females in the analysis were in skimpy or sexy outfits, compared to only 4% of males. They were also more likely to have their physical appearance emphasized. Moreover, female characters’ plot lines often centered almost entirely around their romantic lives, presenting an image of women as interested in little but getting, and keeping, a guy.

And more disturbing, these trends haven’t improved in the past 20 years; a comparison spanning the two decades between 1990 and 2009 finds almost no change in the representation of girls and women in films targeting families.

When I discussed the under-representation of women in films in a post at Sociological Images, a number of readers pointed out how frustrating it is, particularly because of how easy it would be to remedy. One woman who recently saw the Disney film Tangled (a re-envisioning of Rapunzel) noticed that in crowd scenes, such as one with a group of ruffians and general ne’er-do-well characters at a bar, some of the characters could have been female, increasing the number of women in the movie without altering the script itself in the slightest. --- though doing so would require Disney to be willing to present girls as rough, rowdy, even criminal, which certainly doesn’t fit with the Disney princess image. Another reader was disappointed by Tangled because it focuses predominantly on the prince, downplaying the central female character (in one official trailer, she doesn’t come into view until just over a minute into the two-minute video, and utters only one sentence):

Hollywood seems to continue to believe that the default for major characters is to make them male. Studios seem to fear that having too many female characters will turn boys off, while assuming that both girls and boys can identify with male characters.

It’s a decidedly dispiriting message to give to kids this holiday movie season.

Do you talk to your kids about the number of male and female characters in movies?

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