Girls On Screen – Stereotyping & Representation in film & TV

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There is an ever growing plethora of new channels and shows available to kids on TV and online these days and children can often be very attached to or even fanatical about their favourite shows and characters. But are we really aware enough of what our kids are watching? Is it ok to just trust whatever’s on to entertain them in a safe and informed way?

Unfortunately, all too often, the answer is no. Children’s media is full of gender, racial and economical stereotypes. The more stereotypes are repeated, the more reinforced they become and there is a real need to help kids deconstruct what they see and how it informs or, in most cases, misinforms us about the world.

Research, by the amazing Geena Davis Institute for Gender in the Media, shows that there is a pretty consistent 30% female to 70% male ratio of named or speaking characters in TV and film, worse in animations with just 13% of characters’ female. That means no matter what those female characters are even doing, our girls aren’t seeing themselves represented at a basic level. Even having more females behind the scenes in the making of these movies and programmes only made for an increase of 10% in front of the camera.

The Institute also conducted a study into the depiction of girls in a broad selection of popular family films which highlights a continuous trend. Only 23% of movies in the research had girls as protagonists who drove the plot. A girl was 5 times more likely to have her appearance commented on and was twice as likely to be shown in sexually revealing clothing. 38% of girls in these films were more likely to have an unhealthy body type and nearly a quarter (24%) of them were fully naked at some point.

So what are this limited number of female characters like? We all know (and have love/hate relationships with) the ubiquitous Disney Princess. But they represent just a small fraction of the multitude of characters and role models that our girls are exposed to an on ever changing basis. Men hold positions of power disproportionately in movies and because of this young people are not being given the opportunities to see female role models in positions for girls to relate to, emulate or be inspired by. In the afore mentioned Geena Davis Institute study it was found that female characters with STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) based jobs accounted for a poor 11.6%. That’s a ratio of 7.6 men for every 1 woman. This teaches girls that these subjects are the domain of men and boys, as are fields like law, academia and professional sports. Depictions of female characters are showing our girls that they are not equal or aspirational when it comes to interests and careers, instead your value lies in being popular and attractive. So is it any wonder so many girls say they would rather be famous pop stars and dancers than doctors, firefighters or astronauts.





Not only are girls restricted and unrepresented but little time is really given to a broad spectrum of boys either, with mindless violence and objectification cited as major concerns for parents. The pressure to be a fearless, gung-ho masculine man also prevails over traits such as empathy or sensitivity. Gender equality means to overcome these one dimensional traditional constructs of masculinity and femininity.

Female stereotypes in kid’s TV were all too often found to fit into two moulds: dumb and/or bitchy or a tomboy. Positive traits, such as intelligence, bravery or humour, are often counteracted with unattractiveness or unpopularity. The depictions of girls are mostly those motivated by romantic interest and are shown often as beautiful, underweight and sometimes sexualized in addition to being dependent on boys or hostile toward other girls.

If there are majority male characters with only one or two token female ones, then the girl characters come to represent all girls. Their distinguishing feature is merely being female, as all other attributes; smartness, strength, capability and potential, are left behind. Increase the number of girls in a film or television show and the possibility of several types and personalities increases with it. According to the International Institute for Youth and Educational Television, 84% of children’s TV is animated.

2 out of 3 female characters in animated shows measured as having “unreachable long legs and thin waists.”

Founded in 2000, the brand of the Disney Princess is one of the top earners for the billion-dollar company, although of course princesses have existed in folklore and fairy tales for hundreds of years before Walt got hold of them. From their exaggerated eyes, perfect faces and tiny waists to their subservient status, youth and need for a romantic hero, Disney Princesses have been teaching us the value of a good singing voice and twirly skirt for a long time now and they’re not going anywhere. (Although fascinating recent research conducted by Linguistics Professors Carmen Fought and Karen Eisenhauer in the U.S. revealed that Princesses don’t even dominate the dialogue in their own movies, usually being out-spoken by the male characters!)

New generations of Princesses brought with them some diversity. Mulan and Pocahontas, the franchise’s Chinese and Native American princesses, are often notably missing on the merchandise. As are the Asian and African-American fairies often missing from Disney Fairies merchandise. These princesses are relegated by their individuality, deemed less important or worthy than their more traditionally royal counterparts, which is emphasised by their absence.

Then, in the wake of the highly popular, red-maned feisty huntress Merida, of 2012’s Brave (who was controversially ‘sexed up’ for her induction to the Princess Hall of Fame) came Anna and Elsa. The Disney Princess has taken on a whole new level of involvement in our lives with the release of Frozen. Yes, it was a critical success and merchandising goldmine but it was also celebrated as the first Disney Princess movie to have just female leads driving the narrative and even for Elsa’s lack of male love interest. However, Frozen still received a lot of criticism on account of the unrealistic body shapes, facial features and sexification of it’s female characters.

As anyone with half a dozen bits of plastic Frozen merchandise hidden around their house right now can attest, the allure of the Disney Princess can seem inescapable at times. But there is some light at the end of the pink and glittery tunnel. There is a slow rise in more positive female characters gaining momentum. Remind yourself to raise questions when you can with your girls about why there are more boys in a show or why Ariel gives up everything she has for a man she doesn’t know. Talk about the positive attributes you see as well as negative to further their understanding of value of actions over aesthetics.

It’s reported that kids look for characters that represent their interests and ideals and provide suspense and humour. Who both fail and prevail. Characters like Doc McStuffins, Kiki the witch, Hermione Granger or Astrid from How to Train Your Dragon continue to gain in popularity. And we cannot deny the power and influence of older characters such as Katniss Everdeen. Girls, in particular, like heroines who take control of their own destiny, find their way and make things happen. Although interestingly studies show that kids actually best respond to characters with less or no gender traits. They aren’t defined by gender and so it’s up to the child’s perspective to assign gender to them, usually giving them the same gender as themselves.

So what do you think? How do you approach talking to your kids in a way to combat these stereotypes and lack of representation? Or perhaps you feel it’s not influencing your girls and boys as much as we might think? What do you struggle with when it comes to the TV and films your kids watch?

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