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Not teaching children well

ajosephs Icon Posted by Ammu Joseph

February 6th, 2008

Less than one third (28%) of the speaking roles in 101 of the top-grossing G-rated movies made in the US between 1990 and January 2005 are female. This was one of the findings of the first of four studies on gender portrayals in popular films and television commissioned by the newly established Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (GDIGM). This study, which tracked over 3000 individual speaking characters, roughly 1000 characters who spoke in all-male or all-female groups, and more than 40 narrators, found even more imbalance in the racial/ethnic make-up of the characters: over 85% are white, less than 5% are black and under 10% belong to “other” ethnicities.

The key findings of all four studies were presented by Dr. Stacy Smith of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California during the GDIGM’s inaugural conference in Los Angeles last week.

The second study, which involved content analysis of 400 of the top-grossing G, PG, PG-13 and R-rated theatrically released films in North America between January 1990 and September 2006, established that little had changed over that 16-year period in terms of the prevalence of single-speaking female characters. Of the 15,000 single-speaking characters in the surveyed movies, 73% are male (this translates to a ratio of 2.71 males to every female).

Among the few female characters, two “types” emerged: the traditional and the hypersexual. While over half the female characters are depicted in stereotypical nurturing roles, a significant proportion is shown in a hypersexualised manner, emphasising physical beauty and sensuousness. For example, females are over five times as likely as males to be shown in sexually revealing clothing, nearly a quarter of them have exceptionally small waists (“leaving little room for a womb or any other internal organs,” according to Smith), and females are nearly three times as likely as males to have thin figures (although skinniness obviously does not preclude hourglass shapes, at least in films). Interestingly, females in animated films are more likely to be shown as thin and sexy than those in live action movies.

The third study, which took an in-depth look at 13 female leads in G-rated films (animated and live action, recent releases and timeless classics) distributed between 1937 and 2006, assessed the protagonists’ appearance and aspirations. Almost all the females in the sample were acclaimed for their physical beauty. As the researchers point out, this would not be a problem except that the films also promote a narrow ideal of attractiveness. For example, over half the animated female leads in the study have an exaggerated, unrealistic physique and over three quarters of both live and animated females are depicted in sexually revealing clothes.

The analysis also found that romantic love is an integral part of female protagonists’ aspirations. Almost all the films in the sample depict a female lead pursuing a romantic relationship. Smith pointed out that one film and female protagonist stood out for not having this focus: Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, who is the “hero” of her own story. According to her, this unusual film — distributed over 75 years ago – provided the best example of a multi-dimensional and complex female role. On the positive side it appears that the helpless damsel in distress stereotype is no longer popular among film-makers.

The fourth study assessed gender roles in television content made for children. A random sample of over 1000 shows (534 hours of programming) from 12 television outlets between June and August 2005 was used to assemble a typical week of children’s TV programming. On the whole TV appears more balanced than film, with 63% male characters and 37% female characters.

According to the research, the “healthiest” balance of male and female representation is in shows rated TVG (suitable for all ages, little or no sexual content, violence or strong language), which had a fairly even ratio of 1.1 males to every female. Not only do these programmes present a more balanced treatment of characters by gender as well as in roles of familial responsibility, they also have the highest proportion of non-white, ethnic minority characters.

On television, too, animated programmes appear to be more problematic than live action ones in all respects. While male characters occur at roughly twice the rate of female characters across children’s TV programmes, animated programmes are even more heavily populated with males. Similarly, animated stories show fewer non-white males (19.9%) than live action ones (26.8%). And, although females are almost four times as likely as males to be shown in sexy attire and twice as likely to have a diminutive waist line across both genres, these trends are more pronounced in animated fare. According to the researchers, animation appears to favour highly sexualised female characters with unrealistic body ideals; it also seems to heighten male muscularity.

The four-day conference included a Round Table bringing together international researchers studying gender representations in children’s television worldwide (of which more later), as well as a high-powered luncheon and forum featuring over 100 top executives and producers of film and television content aimed at children.

Speaking at the day-long event open to the public on the concluding day, Geena Davis said, “Quantity is very important to me – the worlds that children are seeing are bereft of female presence: residents of towns, crowds, schools of fish – females are nowhere close to 50%. From a very early age girls are seeing an imbalanced world and growing up with the assumption that they are not that important. At the same time boys are seeing that their stories are really important and they don’t really have to worry about girls. So when we talk to studios and networks, we are not just talking about making movies with female leads who are not just pretty but have aspirations, but also about secondary and tertiary characters. Whether they are factory workers, towns people, or animals in the forest, let half of them be female and give kids the sense that it’s OK for girls to take up space in the world. Boys also need to realise that girls have a right to take up space and create a more balanced world.”

According to her, the response from studios to the research findings has been welcoming and surprised at the same: they have obviously been operating on the assumption that everything is fine with so many female-oriented films being produced. “Simple awareness will do a big chunk of the work,” she said.

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