Gender Equality in the Media: The New Social Movement

Artwork by Jessica Bishop; Infographics by Erin Ford

“The media is the message and the messenger, and increasingly a powerful one,” says Patricia Mitchell, the former president and CEO of PBS [4]. By the age of 10, a young girl will watch an average of 31 hours of television a week [1] and join other women around the country in comprising 52% of the movie-going population [5]. 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” [3]. 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.

Dr. Stacy Smith and Geena Davis

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.

Lola Bunny, "Looney Tunes"

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.

Moving Forward?

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” [6].

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” [7]. 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 [8]. 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 [2]. 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) [2]. 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” [9].

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” [9].

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” [10].

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” [9].

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” [9].

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” [3] 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.


[1]  Cause and Effect, Miss Representation 

[2] Why Are There So Few Female Filmmakers? The Guardian

[3] Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media

[4] Miss Representation, Youtube 

[5] Who Goes to the Movies, Anomalous Material

[6] Brenda Chapman, LA Times 

[7] Official Trailer, Youtube 

[8] Pixar’s Brave calls attention to women both on and off screen, Mercury News 

[9] Media’s Influence on Body Image Disturbance, Journal of Social Issues 

[10] Factors associated with weight concerns in adolescent girls, Pub Med 

Images via
Perri Birney
Adventures of a Lost Boy

  • StorytellerTroy

    @gabrielwilder My apologies! We can be depressed together.

  • Embarrassed

    This is the kind of shit that makes me embarrassed for feminists everywhere- you’re the kind of people that give feminism any negative connotation it may carry. I am a feminist in my own right, only I’m not screaming it loudly with substance-lacking claims like this article is.First, the animated Disney film. ALL of the characters in Disney films have fiercely over exaggerated features- a caricature-esque look that you will find applied to their faces and bodies. The women’s waists receive no special treatment in their exaggeration- that would be like saying that by making the characters have really strange noses and receded jaws, they are promoting those characteristics as an ideal of beauty.Secondly, the statistics about percentages of women being nominated for best picture being significantly less than the percentages for men? Maybe that’s because there are far less women producing movies! You even said so, which is a problem in itself, but renders that statistic totally invalid. It’s not because the Oscar committee are a bunch of egocentric male dominant assholes, calm down.That’s not to say that we don’t need to work towards showcasing more females in youth films, but articles with skewed facts do not lend any credibility to the cause.

    • Not embarassed

      @Embarrassed I understand your argument but I think you may be overly critical of this article. I agree with you that all Disney characters do have over-exaggerated features. I can’t speak for the authors of this article but I don’t think they were trying to say that the only thing exaggerated in Disney movies or other cartoons is the female character’s waist. Male characters are also exaggerated, often portrayed as overly muscular. Both of these exaggerations are unattainable ideals for real human beings and therefore promote unhealthy body images. Often these stereotypes are seen as especially dangerous for women  because women are commonly portrayed as sexual objects, meaning they are judged solely on the basis of their sexual attractiveness. Much research supports the claim that little girls do in fact see themselves as sexual objects. So, promoting unattainable ideals is especially dangerous for women who may be putting too much importance on sexual appearance. These unattainable ideals such as the diminished waistline are not only found in Disney movies or cartoons, but also in magazines and advertisements where images are so photo-shopped that the end result is so completely different from the original image. Female models are often slimmed down and male models are made to look more muscular. I think one of the points the authors were trying to make with talking about Lola Bunny, the cartoon character, was that even a female cartoon character that is an animal, is sexualized and given a slim waistline. Which is seemingly unnecessary because male and female rabbits, in nature, are essentially the same in body shape. And aside from that is seems odd when you think about a cartoon bunny being sexualized. If you watch scenes from Space Jam with Lola Bunny and you will see that she is very sexualized. Also, in regard to your comment about the statistics with women being nominated for best picture, the authors used that statistic to show that there has been progression for females being nominated. They were citing that statistic in a poitive way. They never said the oscar committee were a bunch of egocentric male dominant assholes, you are the one who said that. I don’t know if my response to you is in line with what the authors might say, but I felt the need to defend this article because I feel it raised some excellent points.

  • Another Point

    Another place to see a lot of this is in the video game industry. With an increasing number of gaming girls like myself, it makes me really put down when I see that even the “kick ass” characters in video games that are female have to be nude, but a guy can wear a full on army suit right next to her. Games like “Lollipop Chainsaw” aren’t considered pornographic how? And as a child growing up, when you see most of your video game heroines resorting to bouncing breasts in order to be useful, it really affects you deep down. 

  • biki

    I will agree that as a whole women are cast into minor roles, or have less “important” jobs in the movies/tv.  However having said that, if this is such a problem, why is it that females far out number the amount of male college applicants?  And have any of you watched tv lately?  Most of the commercials all paint men as stupid, incapable of tending to even the simplest of tasks correctly, which I find to be just as big of an issue.Its past time for this gender war to end.  What needs to happen is to open up gender roles, allow a wider range of behavior in men, and to loosen the grip of fashion to only the young and extremely thin, thin, thin.  A woman can walk about town in work boots, jeans and a plaid shirt, and no one really notices.  If a man were to walk about in clothing that is thought of as being feminine, he will get negative feed back.  Why do we allow more masucline women, but require our men to be uber macho?  And the rules of when its allowable for men to be uber macho, changes with the slightest breeze.We have feminized school programs to the point where we are losing the boys, and this is just as wrong as side lining our girls.  Boys and girls, men and women are different, how much is society and how much is innate is a hotly contested question.  Personally, after having raised 4 sons I feel that our gender is set at birth, like our sexuality is. Our granddaughter is barely 2, has a very “butch” mom, and a middle of the road male dad, and she couldnt be more feminine, more frilly if she tried.  If she could, she would roll herself in pink paint and ruffles and sparkles.  And until she starting making noise about liking pink of late, she never owned anything pink, or frilly.We need to be equal, and as we understand sexuality to be a spectrum, we need to understand that gender is the same.  There is more than one way to be female, more than one way to be male, and more than two distinct genders as well.

  • Clarissa

    @biki 1.  Your question states why do women out-number men in college and that commercial tend to paint pen as stupid?  You do realize that women barely outnumber men in college we are talking 1 -4%. Also, just because you graduate doesn’t give you credibility to be hired, and the statistics show more men being hired and promoted.  TV and all other media are controlled by the BIG 6, and those big 6 are controlled by men and most occupations in film are being given to more men then women.  The point is that there have been proven studies that media can play as reality for most consumers and the reality for men and women are very different.  2.  Point is, just because an argument or conversation about the objectification of women is brought up, doesn;t downgrade the objectification of men as well.  You should be happy that a viewpoint like this is being heard, because it allows some statistics and well researched arguments to be made.  I would say to join the conversation instead of proving the author wrong . 

  • Nellie

    Awesome awesome essay. So happy to see this.

  • Tamstarz

    I just saw this shared on Upworthy and I had to pop in. I am not shocked by the disparity, but the how large the disparity is. I’m so glad that the Geena Davis Institute is shining a light on this. Great post as well.

  • Chris White
  • sondrapetrone

    It might be a good idea to include some information on how we can support the movement or get involved.

  • tamiwinbush

    I think it’s about time someone took the time and energy to think about gender equality in the media. There’s a campaign that I’ve been following called LetmeBME that talks about it a lot and actually talks to girls/women/boys about how they feel about it. It’s amazing to watch. I wish more people were like Ms. Davis and the LetmeBME people.

  • ramiya

    You know realize Gary’s fourth badge is a companion cube

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