Thursday, September 22, 2011

Geena Davis on How Girls Are Portrayed in the Media

Academy Award-winning actor Geena Davis is famous for portraying strong (both physically and emotionally) women on screen. When she became a mom, however, she was struck by the utter dearth of positive, active, and central role models for girls in movies and on television. She founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media (GDIGM) to conduct research on the issue and advocate for change in the industry. We had the opportunity to attend an event on this topic yesterday at Georgetown University's McDonogh Business School and ask Ms. Davis a few questions.

GDIGM did a comprehensive survey of the roles girls and women had in film and television. They looked at everything from the amount of screen time girls and women had, how many girls and womens were in stories, their costumes, the number of lines they had, how they were or were not stereotyped, and the like. The organization also looked at the number of women in professional positions in the industry - that is, those behind the cameras. The results of these studies, especially those on family programming, were disturbing:
  • Women and girls account for less than a third of the characters in family films. Despite public perception that this has changed (oft-cited are films like Mulan and Tangled, and shows like iCarly and Hannah Montana), this figure has not changed since 1946. Surprised? We were.
  • Research shows that there is a direct correlation of when more women are behind the camera, women have more screen time and account for a higher number of characters (even background ones) shown. But the industry trend on female professionals in the industry is that women in the key roles of Director, Producer, and Write are going down.
  • In G-rated films, 80.5% of all working characters are male - but women comprise 50% of the workforce. Why are we shown a 1950's version of the world in 2011?
  • You can view their research here.

Why does this matter to parents, especially parents of tween girls? Because:
  • Even though females comprise 50% of the US population, our daughters see that men outnumber women 3-to-1 on screen. Inexplicably, only 17% of group or crowd scenes are female. As Ms. Davis said yesterday, "So if we're 51% of the population but only 17% of the crowd, where did we all go?"
  • This research means that "family entertainment" isn't the safe haven we parents expect it to be. Female characters are hyper-sexualized, almost especially when animated, and in the majority of shows are there just as eye-candy. One of our favorite quotes from Ms. Davis at yesterday's session was, "The way they're drawn, there's no room for a spinal column."
  • Other research GDIGM cites finds that girls who are exposed to more media have the feeling that they are fewer choices in life, and that, on average, the more media boys watch the more sexist their outlook.
  • Coraline is often held up as an example of a strong female lead role. Did you know that in the book, there was no boy character and that Coraline saved herself? Hollywood put one a boy character in, and he saved her. Really??

So what can parents do? (We LOVE when there are specifics like this)
  • Watch media with your tween as much as possible and discuss what you see. Ms. Davis tells of how she'll watch a show with her own tween (now 9 years old) and ask, "Why do you think she's dressed like that if she needs to go and save someone?" or "Do you think a girl could be the hero in this show as much as a boy?" Starting this dialogue will go a long way towards changing her mindset - neither you nor her have to accept what's shown.
  • Make your voices heard. The good news is that because of Ms. Davis stature in the industry, GDIGM's research was been shown to a key players in it. She has been heartened by the response: that people were shocked by the study. "This means," she says, "that there's no plot to keep women out. And that's a good thing."
  • Raise the consciousness about this issue. Count the number of females you see on screen. Ask about it. Because what we've seen hasn't changed since 1946, it means that we all just take it for granted. Be media-literate, and ensure that your tween is too.

GDIGM will update their research next in 2015. Let's all hope that the results show improvement.

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Lauren Sorrell said...

Hello, I enjoyed this post. I like your blog, and based on the fantastic advice you regularly dish out, I was wondering if you could help me with something. My tween's BFF recently switched schools and although my tween and her were very close, she (and the mother) dropped my family! I was wondering if you think I should confront them or let it play out on it's own. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

YooHoo! I have the same problem as Lauren above and would LOVE your help with it!!!!!!!!

Ms. Twixt said...

Lauren, I apologize for the delay in responding. Thanks so much for your comment and for taking the time to ask about this all-too-common issue. This EXACT thing happened to my eldest tween last year, and truthfully, I don't have a great answer for you. I tried to address what I perceived the situation to be head-on, but the other mother ignored all of my attempts to reach out. So although I wanted to confront her, I didn't get the chance to. Now that I've had some distance from it, I can share two things: 1) In general, the best course of action is the one that you'll be able to look back on and not cringe at (so this means choosing the path that your gut is most comfortable with today); and 2) Your daughter is watching and learning from this situation and your response to it right now (so be prepared to see some form of your response echo-ed in her behavior in the future). I hope this helps!

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