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Dublin: 5°C Tuesday 7 December 2021

Column: There aren't enough female characters on kids' tv – so I'm doing something about it

There’s just one female character for every 3 male character in films aimed at children. This needs to change, writes actress Geena Davis.

Geena Davis

FIVE YEARS AGO, while watching children’s entertainment with my then 2-year old daughter, I was stunned to see that there were far more male characters than female characters in this media aimed at the youngest of children.

Media images are a powerful force in shaping our perceptions of men and women. The stark gender inequality in media aimed at little children is significant, as television and movies wield enormous influence on them as they develop a sense of their role in the world. And because young kids tend to watch the same TV shows and movies repeatedly, negative stereotypes get imprinted again and again.

Well, it occurred to me that it was high time for our children to see boys and girls sharing the sandbox equally.

So I launched the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, and its programming arm, See Jane. In collaboration with the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, we sponsored the largest research analysis ever conducted into the content of children’s movies and television programmes.

Female character are rarer and more sexualised

The results were stunning.  In a world more than 50 percent female, the sorry message sent to kids by the media is that women and girls have less value than men and boys. For every female character there are three male characters in G-rated films. In group scenes, the ratio moves to five to one, male to female.

Our research also revealed that when female characters do exist in kids’ media, most are highly stereotyped and/ or hyper-sexualised. Consider this: Female characters in G-rated films wear virtually the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as female characters in 18s-rated films.

With such disempowering images, then, what message are girls absorbing about themselves? And what message are boys taking in about the worth and importance of girls?

In fact, studies show that the more television a girl watches, the more limited she considers her options in life to be; the more boys watch, the more sexist their views become.

How can this change?

The antidote, of course, is positive media images, where children see an abundance of female characters occupying the space that is rightfully theirs. Girls shown engaging in un-stereotyped activities leads to their pursuing non- traditional occupations later in life. If they see it, they can be it.

Armed with our research, we work hand-in-hand with the creators of children’s entertainment to encourage and foster a dramatic improvement in the gender balance our children see.

People frequently ask me the question: What can I do? Parents, relatives and teachers can have great impact by watching media with children and educating them on gender stereotypes. My children have been encouraged to notice if there are very few female characters in what they’re watching, and to wonder why that’s the case.

I yearn for the day when I can share with my daughter a tale of “the way things used to be,” of days when women held lesser positions in the world than men. And my daughter, living in a world where all girls and women are seen as important, respected and fully valued members of society – a world of gender equality – will turn to me and say, “Oh, Mom, that’s just a fairy tale.”

Geena Davis is an Oscar-winning actor and founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

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Geena Davis

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