When I was a kid, I wanted to be the Bionic Woman. Jaime Sommers to me embodied everything a woman should be – smart, competent, strong, compassionate. I never missed a week, collected Bionic Woman trading cards and had an autographed picture of Lindsay Wagner on my wall.
While this show was not specifically a kids’ show, parents back then did not need to worry too much about prime time showing inappropriate content (the raciest thing I remember was Charlie’s Angels in bikinis or people kissing on the Love Boat). Today there’s not much on TV or in the movies I would let my kids watch — even those made for kids — because the characters are often modeling inappropriate behavior.
Watching television and the movies is one of the ways that children (and adults too) learn about their world and what the expectations are for their social behavior. This is why the content of entertainment programming is so important. Aside from issues of snarky, jaded children and hypersexualized preteens, children’s TV and movies have more fundamental problems in how they portray girls and boys, which I recently learned.
Last week I attended a meeting at which Crystal Allene Cook from the organization See Jane presented their research on how males and females are portrayed in children’s media. See Jane is a project founded by actress Geena Davis, who realized that girls were not seen on the screen as much as boys, and that boys and girls were shown in very different ways.
In a separate conversation, Crystal related the story of when Geena was working on the movie Stuart Little, one of the scenes was a perfect example of the discrepancy. In the scene in which Stuart is in a boat race on a pond, on one side were the boys, who were given the remote controls for the boats in the race. On the other side were the girls, who were cheering them on. Geena (or it could have been someone else – I don’t remember) noticed this and suggested that by giving some of the girls the remote controls as well and having some boys cheering, the scene would be much improved. It’s just a small change, but it subtly affects the message about who is expected to be active vs. passive.
I am not someone who jumps on the bandwagon about how us poor women have it so hard and that we haven’t gotten ahead because the Man is keeping us down. So I have to say that initially when I found out about this project, I almost dismissed it as more of the same whining. But when I heard the statistics and read the research, I was convinced that this is a serious problem. It’s critical that girls see themselves as more than big-eyed Disney princesses and that boys know that it’s accepted and expected that they will be nonviolent and socially engaged.
The study, conducted by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, included the 101 top-grossing G-rated films released between 1990 and 2004 and analyzed 4,249 speaking characters appearing across all the films in the sample. Among the key findings released so far are:
- There are three male characters for every one female character.
- Only 28 percent of the speaking characters (both real and animated) are female.
- Fewer than one in five (17 percent) of the characters in crowd scenes are female.
- Male characters are only half as likely (34.6%) as females (66.3%) to be parents.
- Only 34.6% of male characters of color are parents, while 53.1% of white male characters are parents.
- 62% of male characters of color are shown as physically aggressive or violent while 37.6% of white males are portrayed that way.
Crystal is working from within the entertainment industry to try to raise awareness of this issue and offers what should be relatively easy solutions to this problem. So far she has been receiving positive interest. It seems that when most of the writers, producers and directors are male, they focus on what they know — boys — without even realizing this bias. For example, in the Animation Guild, which hosted a forum featuring See Jane’s recent research, only 10.8% of the writers are female, 8% of the producers, 14.9% of the directors, and so on down the job description line. Now that the issue has been raised, hopefully this will lead to more awareness and a conscious effort on the part of the writers and others to include female characters — rather than the one girl in the story who has to be all things to all people.
See Jane’s research is available in these pdf reports:
- Where the Girls Aren’t: Gender Disparity Saturates G-Rated Films
- G Movies Give Boys a D: Portraying Males as Dominant, Disconnected and Dangerous
- The G-Rated Job Market: Occupational Aspirations for Girls and Boys in Children’s Films
And another report will be coming soon on body image and hypersexuality.
We need Jaime Sommers! We need lots of her.