Is it coincidence that only 17 percent of women hold positions of leadership and authority in key sectors of American society—and that percentage also holds true among female characters depicted in today’s family oriented movies and television shows?
And what does it mean when female characters in animated children’s films often are as scantily clad as women in R-rated movies?
Those were the kind of questions raised when Academy Award-winning actress Geena Davis spoke about gender stereotypes in the media—and the impact on children—at Saturday’s First General Session.
“The invisibility, hyper-sexualization, and dis-empowerment of women and girls in the media cry out for change,” Davis told conference attendees.
Known best for her performances in such films as “The Accidental Tourist,” “Thelma and Louise,” and “A League of Their Own,” Davis offered school leaders her credentials to speak as an authority on these negative stereotypes.
“I’ve spent most of my adult life advocating for equal rights for women and girls, among other ways by appearing in movies that women might find empowering,” she said, jokingly adding, “I was in a movie, “Earth Girls Are Easy,” but that was early on. That one title aside, you can feel free to take me seriously.”
It’s likely that attendees did just that. As Davis explained, her interest in the issue was sparked nearly a decade ago while watching G-rated movies and children’s television with her then-two-year-old daughter.
“I had this ‘Spidey’ sense about the women’s roles,” she said, “I immediately noticed, with the exception of Dora the Explorer, that there seemed to be far fewer female characters than male characters in these entertainment programs that were made for kids.”
It was an issue that Davis started raising with friends and colleagues in Hollywood, all of who assured her that such stereotypes were fading. “They were very sincere in their interest in gender equity. They truly believed they were working on it … so this made me think I need the numbers.
That led to the launch of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which has gathered a large body of research on now females are portrayed in movies and television—and has worked to put those findings in front of writers, directors, producers, and others in the entertainment industry
What’s her institute has found is that the role of women and girls hasn’t changed significantly in Hollywood since the 1940s, Davis said. One study found that, in G-rated movies released between 2006 and 2009, “not one female character was depicted as a leader in business, the law profession, medical science, or politics.
More worrisome is how this portrayal of women and girls impacts on children, she said. “The message is sinking in. The more hours a girl watches [these shows], the fewer options she feels she has in life. The more TV a boy watches, the more sexist he becomes.
The good news is that change is possible, Davis offered. When her institute shares this data with movie studies and network executives, “their jaws are on the ground. They have absolutely no idea that the worlds they were creating were so bereft of a female presence.”
School board members can do their part, she suggested. They can examine their textbooks to review how women are depicted—that women are shown just as engaged in science as boys are and that women are taking up their rightful space in history book.
“I want the day to come very soon when I can share this story with my daughter—that once upon a time girls were considered a little less important than boys, and she will look at me with this incredulous look and say, “Mom, are you making this up?’ ”