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Five years ago, while watching children’s entertainment with my then 2-year old daughter, I was stunned to see that there were far more male characters than female characters in this media aimed at the youngest of children.
Media images are a powerful force in shaping our perception of men and women. The stark gender inequality in media aimed at little children is significant, as television and movies wield enormous influence on them as they develop a sense of their role in the world. And because young kids tend to watch the same TV shows and movies repeatedly, negative stereotypes get imprinted again and again.
Well, it occurred to me that it was high time for our children to see boys and girls sharing the sandbox equally.
So I launched the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, and its programming arm, “See Jane.” In collaboration with the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, we sponsored the largest research analysis ever conducted into content of children’s movies and television programs.
The results were stunning. At the dawn of a new millennium — in a world more than 50 percent female — the sorry message sent to kids by the media is that women and girls have less value than men and boys. For every female character there are three male characters in G-rated films. In group scenes, fewer than one in five characters are female.
Our research also revealed that when female characters do exist in media, most are highly stereotyped and/or hyper-sexualized. Consider this: Female characters in G-rated films wear virtually the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as female characters in R-rated films.
With such disempowering images, then, what message are girls absorbing about themselves? And what message are boys taking in about the worth and importance of girls? In fact, studies show that the more television girls watch, the more limited they consider their options in life; the more boys watch, the more sexist their views become.
The antidote, of course, is positive media images, where children see an abundance of female characters occupying space rightfully theirs. Girls shown engaging in non-stereotypical activities can broaden and expand girl’s lives, fostering confidence, enthusiasm and achievement. If they see it, they can be it.
Armed with our research, we work hand-in-hand with the content creators of children’s entertainment to encourage and foster improvement in the gender balance our children see.
People frequently ask me the question: What can I do? Parents, teachers and the public can have a great impact by watching media with their children and educating them on gender stereotypes. One simple exercise I taught my kids is to count how many female and characters speak in a show or a movie.
Clearly, gender equality is an idea whose time has come. Which begs the question, why hasn’t it? In many areas of society, there’s a common belief that progress happens naturally. On its own. That as time goes by, things change, and change for the better. Or perhaps we believe that the necessary change has already taken place.
I yearn for the day when I can share with my daughter a tale of “the way things used to be,” of days when women held lesser positions in the world than men. And my daughter, living in a world where all girls and women are seen as important, respected and fully valued members of society — a world of gender equality — will turn to me and say, “Oh, Mom, that’s just a fairy tale.”
Davis is an Academy-Award winning actor and Founder of See Jane and The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. www.seejane.org