“The media is the message and the messenger, and increasingly a powerful one,” says Patricia Mitchell, the former president and CEO of PBS . By the age of 10, a young girl will watch an average of 31 hours of television a week  and join other women around the country in comprising 52% of the movie-going population . Unfortunately, the media’s influence on young women has yielded many negative consequences. The media has been associated with causing young girls to have poor body images, exposing them to limited career options, and accepting inferior status to men. Organizations such as The Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media seek to terminate these negative consequences of the media’s influence on young women through public education.
Research on Character Representation
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is a research-oriented organization that has drawn national attention to the issue of gender inequality in children’s media. The Institute uses independently conducted research to “work within the entertainment industry to dramatically alter how girls and women are reflected in media” . Geena Davis, a renowned television star, started this organization in 2004 when she was watching television with her young daughter. She noticed that there was a significant lack of female characters and an even fewer number of industrious female role models. Since then, Davis has formed a working partnership with Dr. Stacy Smith, PhD of the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. So far, Smith has conducted twelve groundbreaking studies that suggest major gender inequality in media directed toward children, as well as the consequences of the social inequity that this media apparently perpetuates.
Through these studies, riveting findings about the extent of gender equality propagated by the film industry have been discovered. For example, in top-grossing G-rated family films, there is almost a 3:1 ratio of male characters to female characters, giving young female audience members fewer female characters to empathize with. Of the limited female characters in a film, animated female characters still tend to show much more skin than their male counterparts, and are more likely to be portrayed with diminutive waistlines and other exaggerated physical features, and are often sexy in appearance. Even animated, anthropomorphic non-human female characters (e.g. Lola Bunny, featured below) are sexually objectified in this light. This simultaneously objectifies female characters and sets unrealistic standards of female attractiveness that can lead to body image problems in young girls.
On top of this demeaning objectification of female characters, the Institute brings to attention the grim fact that there were no G-rated family films between 2006 and 2009 that showed women with careers in the fields of medical science, as a business leader, in law, or in politics. Additionally, in G-rated family films from 1990-2010, 80.5% of all working characters are male and 19.5% are female, which is a contrast to real-world statistics, where women comprise 50% of the workforce. Such skewed ideologies are being presented to young people during their early childhood years when they are forming their perception of the rest of the world, which causes skewed perceptions of ideal body image and societal expectations. These statistics and observations are only a small selection of the eye-opening disparities that Davis and Smith have unearthed through their research on gender equality in children’s media.
Meet Some of the Data Samples
Meet the Robinsons, a 2007 Disney film that was included in the Institute’s data, is an example of a G-rated film that blatantly portrays an image of gender inequality. The film is set in the future and follows the time traveling experiences of two young, clever boys.
You’ll notice that there are 9 main male characters and 4 main female characters (no, the puppet does not count—in fact, it’s controlled by a man), making for more than a 2:1 male-to-female ratio. 3 out of the 4 female characters have extremely diminished waistlines, and only one male character has a diminished waistline. More specifically, all three of the young women have extremely diminished waists, and the only “man” with a tiny waist is an anthropomorphic robot who happens to identify with the male gender.
From left to right, the professions of the male characters are as follows: Unknown, unemployed, cannon engineer, precocious inventor, “intergalactic pizza man” (takes on a dominant, superhero persona), student, painter, retired former scientist, and family bodyguard/servant. From left to right, the professions of the female characters are as follows: unknown, model train enthusiast, housewife, and retired former scientist. In other words, the male characters generally have more prestigious jobs than the female characters; which holds true regardless of whether or not you’d interpret “intergalactic pizza man” as a prestigious career. The only female character in this film that holds a job with prestige is retired.
Despite all of these grim statistics, the Institute notes that some progress has been made in the male-to-female ratio in Best Picture-nominated films in the Academy Awards, though it is important to recognize that the decreased male-to-female ratio has not had a consistently downward trend:
A “Brave” Move
Aside from this research, it is also noteworthy to mention that Pixar, a movie production company that is particularly popular among young moviegoers, released its first film that features a female lead, Brave, this past June. Pixar’s 12 other films all feature male leads. Brave was conceived by Brenda Chapman: the woman who was supposed to be Pixar’s first female director. However, following artistic disagreements in October 2010, Mark Andrews replaced Chapman as the main director, making Brave the thirteenth consecutive Pixar production directed by a man. Chapman, who spent six years working on Brave before being cut from the production, shares her opinion on the state of the film industry with the Los Angeles Times “I think it’s a really sad state. We’re in the 21st century and there are so few stories geared towards girls, told from a female point of view” .
Though Chapman’s involvement in Brave indubitably made a huge difference by introducing the first female lead in a Pixar production, she still didn’t get to tell it completely from a female point of view after being stripped of her directorial authority. Chapman’s situation brings us to a driving force behind the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of females on screen: the gender disparity of content creators.
Research on Gender Disparity Behind-the-Scenes
Davis and Smith have found devastating evidence that confirms there is a substantial underrepresentation of not only female characters in children’s media, but an enormous underrepresentation of women being involved in the fields of film and television production in general. In America, film is a very influential industry, given its capability of reaching the majority of the population, its accessibility, and its popularity in any given age range. One would think that such a widely distributed enterprise would strive to represent 52% of its targeted audience, women, in at least the production and content creation aspects of the field, right? However, a study conducted by Dr. Smith shows that only 7% of directors, 13% of writers, and 20% of producers in film and television are women.
The lack of female influence in this field is further promulgating the underrepresentation of women and misrepresentation of their physical appearances. Since men are significantly dominating a hugely influential industry and our society is swayed by the media’s ideologies, society adopts a skewed, male-fabricated image of the ideal female. Jane Fonda, an Academy Award-winning actress and activist for gender equality in the media, states “Media creates consciousness, and if what gets put out there that creates our consciousness is only determined by men, we’re not going to make any progress” . Women themselves know more about female body image and the insecurities that American girls experience early on in their lives, and therefore should logically have a stronger presence behind the camera to provide a more realistic perspective of the physical appearances and occupational capabilities of female characters, just as Brenda Chapman accomplished by designing a strong female lead, Merida in Brave, whose character was directly influenced by Chapman’s own daughter . In the small proportion of family films that employed female professionals in the production and creative teams, female characters were more likely to be portrayed in a realistic, non-demeaning fashion.
One may propose that the solution to the problem of the underrepresentation and misrepresentation of women and girls in the film industry would be something as simple as hiring more female production team members. However, an entirely different subcultural hierarchy is at play, making such a commonsensical solution a somewhat daunting goal.
Various primary sources, such as Professor Martha Lauzen of San Diego State University, state that women are now well represented in film schools in the United States . Then why is it that only 9% of Hollywood directors are female? The Guardian columnist Kira Cochrane proposes that the problem is that the biggest budgets tend to be given to films that appeal to teenage boys – still considered the most frequent, most enthusiastic moviegoers (this may be because so many films are aimed at them, but that’s another argument) . It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that men typically direct these kinds of films. It’s fair to consider that men know more about the interests and mentalities of teenage boys due to their own past experiences and therefore would be more interested in directing such a film, but this does not justify the overarching prevalence of the media’s excessive pandering to adolescent male audiences in the first place.
The Media’s Influence on Reality
Of course, one may argue that film and media portray fantasy rather than reality. The problem here, however, is that fantasy has projected itself into the reality of young American girls, and its consequences are no fairy tale. While young boys are given a wide variety of male role models in film and TV, young girls have more limited options of female role models to choose from, leading girls to feel less valuable than their male counterparts. As referenced in J. Kevin Thompson’s research on “The Media’s Influence on Body Image Disturbance and Eating Disorders”
“Stice and colleagues have proposed a Dual-Pathway Model that asserts that maladaptive messages in the mass media predispose individuals to bulimia nervosa when those messages are condoned and reinforced by family and peers and when this occurs in the setting of self-esteem, a poorly developed self-concept, and perceptions of being above an ideal weight” .
Since a large proportion of female characters are portrayed with an idealized physique, thus perpetuating insecurity before and during an already emotionally transitional time in a young girl’s life: puberty. A Psychology Today survey quantified the extent to which young women are influenced by the media: “Of 3,452 women who responded to this survey, 23% indicated that movie or television celebrities influenced their body image when they were young, and 22% endorsed the influence of fashion magazine models” .
Younger teenage girls are especially susceptible to disordered eating behaviors and media influence, so the almost unattainable yet very desirable physical ideals portrayed in film and television can be depressing, and/or contribute to the development of eating disorders. According to a study by CB Taylor,“Trying to look like girls/women on TV or in magazines is one of the strongest predictors of variance in level of weight concerns for middle-school students” .
Gonzalez-Lavin and Smolnak found that “Middle-school-aged girls who perceive higher peer influence and more television influence on the importance of attractiveness reported greater body image dissatisfaction, use of weight management techniques, and pathological beliefs about eating” .
A Psychology Today survey quantified the extent to which young women are influenced by the media: “Of 3,452 women who responded to this survey, 23% indicated that movie or television celebrities influenced their body image when they were young, and 22% endorsed the influence of fashion magazine models” .
The Focus of the Social Movement
In order to increase the prevalence of female filmmakers, there must be major reform to the social construction of the film industry. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has provided comprehensive research to “inform and empower”  such a reform, targeted specifically toward the family film industry, by offering encouragement and motivation to female filmmakers to assert themselves in the film industry and make a difference by not adhering to negative gender stereotypes when characterizing their productions for the sake of gender equality and female empowerment.
Overall, this is a movement that seeks to boost young girls’ senses of worth by targeting the source of much of their self image problems in the first place: the media and those who create the media’s content. Hopefully by continuing research on gender inequality in the media and providing this information to the film industry and the rest of the public, the people who influence our country will be enlightened about the impact that they truly have on people’s lives and self-images, particularly those of young girls. The fantasy of the media has interfered too much with reality; it’s time to get real.