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Where Are All the Girl Ninjas? Sexist Stereotypes Pervade Children's Media

Females characters are sexualized, put down, or just plain absent in the shows your kids are watching.
 
 
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Geena Davis (pictured at right) was watching preschool TV shows and children's videos with her two-year-old daughter when she began to wonder: where were the girls? Where were the animated girl mice, the girl ninjas, the girl puppy dogs? Boy rodents, canines and martial artists seemed to dominate every frame and animated cell, but only an occasional female came popping in for comic or gratuitous effect.

For an actress who had galvanized women with Thelma and Louise and A League of their Own , and was soon to change the course of television history as the first female president of the United States ( Commander in Chief ), "Where are the girls?" was a question that needed to be answered.

"I mentioned it to a studio head whose movies were largely family fare," Davis told me in Los Angeles. "I said, 'Have you ever noticed that in kids' programs there are fewer female characters than male?' and he said, 'No no, not US! We're all over this issue!'"

"What he meant," Davis said, "was this: 'We have ONE female in our movie; we make sure we have one female that everyone can approve of.' I realized then that if we were going to address this question seriously, we needed facts. We needed data."

So Davis set out to get them. She started her own non-profit, and over the course of the next three years, with the help of USC Annenberg School of Journalism professor Stacy Smith, Davis began research to assess portrayals of males and females in children's media. On January 30 and 31, 2008, at the University of Southern California, under the auspices of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Children in the Media (GDIDM) she presented the findings at a forum for studio heads, writers, educators and students.

Stacy Smith, who introduced the data at the forum, summed up the Geena Davis Institute's results in three succinct points:

  • Gender imbalance reigns across the media.
  • System wide, when females are presented they are shown in a hypersexualized way.
  • The highest concentration of this imbalance is in animated films and G-rated programming, where parents might assume their children are safest.

The general sense of Smith's first two points is not new or shocking information, at least to regular media consumers, but the statistics are hard to ignore. Examining 15,000 individual speaking characters across the rating spectrum of G-, PG-, PG-13, and R-rated films, Smith and the GDIDM discovered that males outnumber females nearly 3 to 1 in movies; male narrators outnumber female narrators 4 to 1 (83% to 17%).

Studying 4,000 female film characters, females (from animated girl puppies to grown human women) were more than 5 times more likely than males to be shown as adornment or sexually enticing and three times more likely to be dressed in sexually alluring clothing.

When females appear in G and PG films, they are more likely to have traditionally motivated behaviors: they are more likely than males to be depicted in a committed relationship (59.9% vs. 47.4%), and with an inclination to romance as the main or exclusive personality trait.

Most dramatically, females of all ages were 3 times more likely (10.6% vs. 3.4%) to have unrealistically "perfect" bodies, introducing the skinny ideal at an early age to the minds of young boys and girls. In her address to studio heads on the first day of the forum, Amy Pascal, co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment, pointed out that most animated female characters have such anatomically impossible bodies "they have no room for a womb."

The forum also included four panel discussions: a group of entertainment business professionals considering the marketing of children's toys and products; an International panel discussing kids' TV around the world; a TV and movie critics' panel to discuss their perceptions and incidences of Smith's research, and an education and resource panel about possible ways to create a cultural shift toward gender parity in the media.

The good news was that although they are still less prevalent, when they do appear in movies and television, girls and women are becoming stronger and more heroic: fewer "hookers, victims and doormats," in the phrase used by forum participants.

When I asked Stacy Smith about the two films nominated for best picture ( Atonement and Juno) whose main characters are strong young girls in command of their own destinies, and whether they signal a trend toward gender parity, she said she'll be more optimistic if the trend continues for several years.

"We should all applaud these types of multi-dimensional and complicated roles for girls," she said, because box office and commercial sales are a primary motivator for all programming decisions. "Buy tickets and DVDs that feature them. Give the entertainment industry freedom to take risks without fear that no one will pay to see them."

Sara Voorhees has been a film critic for 27 years. She was nationally syndicated on television by Conus Communications and from 1990 to 2001 wrote for the Scripps Howard syndicate. She is the membership director of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and serves on the board of the Action Coalition for Media Education.

 
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