When Geena Davis waded through the miasma of G-rated movies with her young daughter, she noticed a troubling phenomenon: male characters outnumbered female characters by a pretty striking margin. What's more, male characters were more often portrayed in leadership positions, meaning that, if a young female viewer were to take away a lesson in gender politics from many of these movies, it'd be that men fit more naturally into positions of power than women, which is of course bullshit.
Davis shared with GOOD's Sarah Stankorb some troubling findings about girls who are well-versed in popular media from an early aged, noting that
the more hours of television a girl watches, the fewer options she thinks she has in life. So, we're clearly not showing enough opportunities for girls, showing female characters doing and achieving things and being in leadership positions.
That unfortunate little insight comes courtesy of a recent study in television protrayals of women from FEM Inc. Davis' own research-based organization, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender Media Research, recently presented a study of its own earlier this month at the Symposium on Gender in Media, revealing that in the world of children's media, men are far more often shown in positions of "prestige," while women are at best ancillary characters and at worst mute set dressing.
The Institute's study evaluated gender roles and occupations by examining the 129 top-grossing family movies between 2006-2011, prime-time TV in the spring of 2012, and all kids' shows that aired in 2011. When it came to breadwinning, women held only 20.3 percent of the jobs in all the family films the Institute studied, and female characters had only a third of all speaking roles. Davis, in summarizing the study's findings, pointed out that, while women are increasingly becoming the breadwinners in their families and are beginning to pile up more college degrees than their male counterparts, television and film still impose a glass ceiling women, which contributes to audiences not being able to visualize women in positions of authority. Even more troubling, noted Davis, was that not only are these media portrayals of women in secondary roles limiting girls' perceptions of what roles women can occupy, but the more hours of TV a boy watches, the more sexist he is liable to become.
Davis is also keen to note that these attitudes about gender have been so entrenched in America's postwar media that not even the media itself is capable of seeing how marginalized female characters have become, which is a big part of why the ratio of male-to-female TV characters has stayed pretty much the same since 1946.
I think it's just one of those things where mostly men were calling the shots, and male characters have just sort of become a default… I think because pretty much anyone alive has only ever seen this gender imbalance in the media they watch, it really starts to look normal and therefore you don't notice it, and therefore even the people making it don't notice it.
How to solve a problem that not many people even know needs solving? According to Davis, the Institute meets regularly with studios, and though it often hears concern about including more "ethnic parity," Davis says it doesn't even seem to occur to studios that there's a huge gender imbalance in media.