Tackling gender imbalance in children's films

stockphotopro_51363907WHF_young_childrenby Dafna Lemish, PhD

Actress Geena Davis’s recent speech to the United Nations highlighted a concern that researchers of children and media have been speaking about for many years. The programs on the screens our children view – on television, computers, movie theaters or even their mobile phones – portray a world of gross gender inequality: Girls still appear marginal to society.

Indeed, a recent study of children’s television in 24 countries, including the United States, found that there are two boys on average for every girl character. Furthermore, girls and boys continue to be represented in traditional, conservative and stereotypical ways: Girls appear largely as emotional and passive, hypersexual, and are overly concerned with consumption, beautification and romance. Boys are portrayed as aggressive, adventurous, rational, technologically-oriented, risk taking and “womanizing.” The more exciting stories and challenging adventures in the media still happen to boys rather than girls.

Dafna Lemish, PhD
Dafna Lemish, PhD

Most of the video, computer games and even television programs continue to be oriented towards boys’ tastes and interests. The media industry continues to operate under their working axiom: Although girls will watch boys’ shows, boys will not watch girls’ shows. Therefore, they would rather cater to boys.

In addition, commercial corporations continue to divide and drive boys and girls into two different media worlds by assigning different toys, clothing and games for each. Have you noticed recently how the aisles in the big toy stores are divided between the girls’ pink area and the boys’ metallic-grey-blue one?

While these are all well-documented facts, researchers are only now learning about the long term implications of this situation for our children’s well-being and healthy development. Some of the questions we are studying include:

  • What kind of role models do these stereotypical images of boys and girls provide our children?
  • What kind of aspirations do they foster?
  • What do they tell children about whom they are and who they can strive to become?

What we do know from earlier studies is that when presented as marginal to the narrative, as a passive minority mainly concerned with appearance and attracting boys, girls learn that this is the way society values them. These studies demonstrate that girls learn from media images to experience themselves as inferior and to limit their ambitions for themselves and for their futures.

Boys, on the other hand, internalize the pressure to be “muscular,” “daring,” in control of their emotions and of others (people, animals and technology alike). While girls learn that their most important quality is their sexual appeal, boys learn that they are defined by their aggressiveness. These are not the kinds of lessons that promote a healthy sense of self or a humane environment for fostering mutual respect.

Furthermore, these gender-segregated childhoods provide different contexts for children’s social development. Such an environment does not necessarily prepare them for mutual understanding and collaboration. Nor does it foster common interests, friendships and recognition of such basic human commonalities as:

  • Both girls and boys are children who share the same challenges, aspirations, morality, dreams and hopes
  • Children of both genders need love and friendships, have adventures and overcome difficulties
  • Both are curious and eager to explore their surroundings, and both struggle with their multiple identities
  • Both sets of children are trying to carve their place in the world

The good news is that awareness to these issues is growing. There is an expanding body of knowledge about the images of gender in media and we are learning more and more about their implications

A lot of these efforts are available on Children’s Center on Media and Child Health’s website. Geena Davis has established an advocacy and research institute that focuses on gender equity in films and television. Many producers of quality television, internet sites and computer games are working towards changing these images and seek to create a more healthy media environment for children.

My own work in this area has documented many ways by which we can contribute to this process of change. But most importantly, the adult members of our families can make a difference in the everyday choices we make for our children’s media exposure –

  • In the movies we take them to
  • Computer games we encourage them to play
  • Television programs we watch with them
  • And comments we make about sexist images or aggressive boys