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Making media equitable: Why women on screen matter

Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer whose work places a feminist lens on a variety of topics, including motherhood, maternal health, gender, and reproductive rights. Her work has been featured in Bitch magazine, Cosmopolitan.com,...

Where are all the girls? Why who your child sees on screen matters

The lack of positive female characters in children's media is astounding. Research has shown that in family films, there is only one female character for every three male ones. And in group scenes, only 17 percent of characters are female. This glaring disparity needs to change, and has become the founding platform for the work of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

Most of us immediately come up with movie classics like A League of Their Own or Stuart Little when we think about actress Geena Davis. But how many know about her groundbreaking work through her organization, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media? Davis was spurred to action after watching a lot of media directed at children with her daughter. The actress was astounded with the lack of quality female characters being represented. She connected with Dr. Stacy Smith at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism to launch the largest research project to date on gender in television and film.

Davis' observations were confirmed when the research showed just how little screen time female characters receive within children's media. Here's just a glimpse at some of the data they discovered:

  • Males outnumber females 3 to 1 in family films. In contrast, females comprise just over 50 percent of the population in the United States. Even more staggering is the fact that this ratio, as seen in family films, is the same as it was in 1946.

  • Females are almost four times as likely as males to be shown in sexy attire. Further, females are nearly twice as likely as males to be shown with a diminutive waistline. Generally unrealistic figures are more likely to be seen on females than males.

  • Females are also underrepresented behind the camera. Across 1,565 content creators, only 7 percent of directors, 13 percent of writers, and 20 percent of producers are female. This translates to 4.8 males working behind-the-scenes to every one female.

  • From 2006 to 2009, not one female character was depicted in G-rated family films in the field of medical science, as a business leader, in law, or politics. In these films, 80.5 percent of all working characters are male and 19.5 percent are female, which is a contrast to real world statistics, where women comprise 50 percent of the workforce.

What is the potential impact of all of this? As children view media that does a poor job of showing girls and women in positive and progressive framing, they are at a danger of absorbing negative stereotypes and having them ingrained in their thought patterns, affecting the way girls view themselves as well as the way boys view girls.

So how do we go about changing all of this? Nobody is going to just tell kids not to watch TV or movies, so how can we make sure that the media they are watching is more egalitarian and not trading on decades-old stereotypes? Halting all media consumption is certainly not the answer, but we can teach our children media literacy so they are aware of possible pitfalls in the entertainment they consume. To help you get started, Davis' institute has a great resource center with information for parents and educators.

While the media industry has a long way to go before boys and girls are portrayed equally and equitably, it's clear that Geena Davis and her institute are making an impact. A recent study showed that due to their outreach and education, content creators — aka the ones responsible for the media our children consume — are actually making some positive changes. Hopefully this trend continues and we eventually are at a place where kids are able to turn on the television and see an equal amount of strong, capable girls leading the way.

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