Where Are All the Women & Girls? Report Shows Disheartening Picture of Female Characters in Movies and TV

Image courtesy Walt Stoneburner
via Creative Commons.
As humans, we pay a lot of attention to what we see around us -- what we notice others doing -- as it's important to us to feel like we belong. But what happens when the messages being modeled are skewed and potentially harmful? When we don't see others like ourselves portrayed in media? Females make up 50% of the population, but you wouldn't know that by watching TV or movies. And the kinds of roles female characters play are often stereotyped and sexualized.

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media recently commissioned the Annenberg School for Communications & Journalism to research the prevalence and type of gender roles in film and TV. Their report, Gender Roles & Occupations: A Look at Character Attributes and Job-Related Aspirations in Film and Television, assessed "11,927 speaking characters for gender roles across three media: 129 top-grossing family films (G, PG, PG-13) theatrically released between September 2006 and September 2011; 275 prime-time programs across approximately a week of regularly airing series in the Spring of 2012 on 10 broadcast (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, CW) and cable (Cartoon Network, Disney, Nickelodeon, E!, MTV) channels; and 36 children’s TV shows airing in 2011 across three networks (Disney, Nickelodeon, PBS)."

Researchers examined the prevalence of male and female speaking characters; the nature of those portrayals (e.g., any stereotypes?); and the occupational pursuits of characters, "and the degree to which males and females are shown working in a variety of prestigious industries and STEM careers." Their findings included these:

1. Gender imbalance still exists in popular entertainment.

Researchers looked at a variety of factors, such as how prevalent female speaking characters were across the various types of media and by program genre, and the degree of gender (im)balance within racial and ethnic groups. Here's what they found:

"Despite representing half the population, females are still sidelined in family films, children’s shows, and prime-time programs. The most gender inequality is observed in kids’ shows rated TV-Y7, PG-13 rated family films, and children’s and comedy series airing during prime time. It appears that, no matter their age, children and teens do not consistently see girls and women in the popular media they consume."

2. Females are still stereotypes and sexualized in popular entertainment.

Researchers examined "appearance indicators" such as attire, exposed skin (around the chest, stomach, and/or upper thighs), references to a character's attractiveness, and the prevalence of thin bodies. As researchers noted: "Females, when they are on screen, are still there to provide eye candy to even the youngest viewers."

3. Females still suffer from employment imbalance in film and prime-time TV.

Researchers assessed the percentage of speaking characters shown working, and also compared that information to real data about the U.S. labor force. They discovered that men are more often shown with jobs than women, and that media representations are skewed from real-world data.

4. Females are much less frequently shown in prestigious occupations.

Researchers looked at different high-level occupations and filtered by gender. These jobs included CEOs, investors, politicians, doctors, editors-in-chief, media content creators, etc. Their assessment showed that the percentage of female characters shown in positions of power is substantially smaller than for men.

5. Few females work in scientific fields.

Researchers also found inequity in the percentage of female characters shown in careers such as engineering, mathematics, computer science, and the life/physical sciences. As researchers said: "Outside of the dramatic series genre, only one comedy show and one news magazine depicts women in STEM. For females, excising dramatic programs eliminates STEM."

Read the complete report.

These findings are disheartening, but they're also an opportunity for students and citizens to conduct their own investigations and to take positive action to ensure that there are more women and girls appearing in significant roles in the media, and that those roles reflect more diverse and empowered characters. They're also a great reminder to us as parents and citizens to be mindful of the messages we're modeling about the role of women and girls in society.

~ Marsha

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