Gender Imbalance in Media, Geena Davis, Broken Models of Masculinity & Femininity

by Sophia Savage
April 12, 2011 7:19 AM
26 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood

In December we applauded Geena Davis's Institute on Gender in Media, which she founded after having a daughter in 2004 and became aware of how growing girls are represented and hypersexualized on screen, long before they have to confront the issue of how grown women are shown. Davis was astonished by the institute's research results -- upon which all of her comments are based: “I was absolutely floored to see that the same kind of imbalance and unfairness that exists in movies made for the general populace was also in these movies made for the very youngest kids.”

Davis explains to WSJ's Rebecca Blumenstein that it was not her intention to start an institute until she realized how lacking awareness was within the industry about gender inequality in children's entertainment, from the way roles were written and portrayed to the ratio of boy to girl characters:

"for every one female character, there were three male characters. If it was a group scene, it would change to five to one, male to female."

What disturbs Davis the most is that in G-rated films, female characters wear the same amount of revealing clothing as in R-rated films. The most common occupation or aspiration of female characters is to be royalty, and their goal is to find romance.

Since sharing research findings with the industry, from Writers and Animation Guilds to casting directors, who were shocked at the lack of a greater female presence, Davis believes it's "not a conspiracy, not a conscious choice, and leaves them very open to rethinking it and saying, 'Now that we know, we're going to make some changes.'" Davis is optimistic that their 2015 research will show change in the right direction, but she warns: "the more hours of television a girl watches, the fewer options she believes she has in life. And the more hours a boy watches, the more sexist his views become." Negative images affect children, but positive ones can, too, says Davis. It's about exposure: "if you can see it, you can be it."

Thompson on Hollywood

No question, gender stereotypes aren't helping anyone. They're boring, tired and destructive. There's no lack of fairy tale or superhero characters (Red Riding Hood, Hanna, X-Men, Sucker Punch, Tangled…), but where are reality-based female characters who aren't self-loathing and desperate, hypersexualized or entirely devoid of femininity?

It's no better for young boys. The current models of masculinity and femininity in both TV and film are broken, from G-rated kid fare to R-rated content. The current box office shows how off-balance movies have become, from juvenile guy movies Arthur and Your Highness to Hanna and Sucker Punch, which are meant to showcase tough women warriors. One works, the other doesn't.

When a feature film shows a woman going after balance and self-fulfillment (Julia Roberts' Eat, Pray, Love) critics dismiss it as an "picturesque rom-com" or "humorless (and) lifeless." So what if it does play like a travelogue? There's still depth to it, even if men can't relate. Luckily Zack Snyder got called on Sucker Punch's supposedly subversive empowered babes. It's hard to please everyone (or anyone) with films centered on women.

There is no lack of beautiful women on TV and in films. But their roles are constrained and limited. HuffPo recently featured a piece by psychologist Vivian Diller, Ph.D., raising the question: Beauty vs. Attractiveness: A Matter of Semantics? She argues that in our contemporary culture, the meaning of beauty "has been narrowed mostly to the visual sense, and further still, applied often to youthful looks. Synonyms include prettiness, cuteness, loveliness, exquisiteness and splendor…Beauty is a rigid, static physical image," while attractiveness:

"…is a fluid, variable psychological experience, one that moves from the inside, out and back again. Beauty can be inherited, Photoshopped or surgically attained. Attractiveness develops, evolves over time and can be ageless. One can be attractive to others or simply feel that way about oneself. Beauty leads women toward the pursuit of the physical features associated with the word. Attractiveness is an attainable goal for those who take care of their bodies, enjoy their lives, maintain sensuality and engage with others."

Sure, attractive women would make great role models. So where are they? There are some examples of attractive powerful women--mostly older--on such femme-driven cable shows as Damages, Saving Grace, The Closer and Hide in Plain Sight. But it's hard to find positive role models for young women in entertainment. Audiences prefer reality train-wreck stars (Jersey Shore, Real Housewives, Teen Mom and so on) to strong women, and stoner boys to actual men.

Another issue -- but arguably closely related to these broken gender models -- was considered by the NYT in August 2010 - "Why are so many people in their 20s taking so long to grow up?" They argue: "The traditional cycle seems to have gone off course, as young people remain un­tethered to romantic partners or to permanent homes, going back to school for lack of better options, traveling, avoiding commitments, competing ferociously for unpaid internships or temporary (and often grueling) Teach for America jobs, forestalling the beginning of adult life." It's not surprising. The economic and social reality of twenty-first century life is enough to send anyone running back to their mother's womb. And without strong models of how to be women and men, young people are left with lots of debt and no direction.

Not everyone can grow up to be a princess.

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26 Comments

  • Carly | April 14, 2011 12:26 PMReply

    As a teacher concerned with social justice issues, I also think it's high time we paid attention to the messages we're spreading in tv and movies, toys and the like. And it goes beyond gender issues to those of race, socio-economic status, religion, sexuality... It's really sad. I hope that if I can't prevent the images from seeping into the minds of my students, I can at least point it out to them and give them the critical thinking skills that will free their poor minds!

    However, there was no depth in Eat, Pray, Love. Not even Julia and Javier could save a shallow story from becoming even more shallow.

  • MidnightWolf | April 14, 2011 12:17 PMReply

    One of the many reasons I watch anime-- no lack of dimensional, strong female characters: The Twelve Kingdoms, Haibane Renmei, Kino's Journey, Moribito, all Miyazaki's films, Millennium Actress, Claymore, Romeo x Juliet, Spice and Wolf, Gunslinger Girl, etc. My other issue comes when people say, "Men can't relate to women." Why not? I have no problems relating to male characters I see because I look at their personality traits, motivations, and personal problems, not their sex.

    All this aggravates me so much that all my female characters in my novels are dimensional--strong, clever, smart, etc. And I do the same for my male characters, because I don't like to see anyone degraded--I like giving everyone strengths and weaknesses.

  • Jon | April 14, 2011 11:15 AMReply

    "I have no problem walking into a room full of gelded males and being the only stallion."
    Carry on, Napoleon!

  • PetarB | April 14, 2011 10:36 AMReply

    I should also mention that while I greatly enjoyed Sucker Punch, it made me feel guilty for being a man... a strange feeling!

  • PetarB | April 14, 2011 10:35 AMReply

    As a father of three little girls I despair at the role models that the US entertainment industry has presented to them.
    Luckily there are women in science, politics and other leadership situations that provide role models for my children to aspire to. Goodbye Hollywood.

  • elijah joon | April 14, 2011 9:35 AMReply

    I agree.

  • Loser | April 14, 2011 8:43 AMReply

    I actually think Sucker Punch was a slap in the face to men and how hollywood and the world treats women. A great movie.

  • mgunnarson | April 14, 2011 8:33 AMReply

    Male characters are mostly stoners because there are few real men left--most have their two kids and get castrated.
    I have no problem walking into a room full of gelded males and being the only stallion.

  • DJF | April 14, 2011 6:40 AMReply

    Great examples of female characters on modern TV are all over Parks and Recreation. Both Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins are great, non-sexualized role models for young girls. I'd go so far to say that April and Donna buck the norm, as well.

  • Louis | April 14, 2011 5:48 AMReply

    An article about femininity that didn't completely trashed Sucker Punch?
    I'm impressed. And yes as young male I felt weird and guilty and not at all aroused by Sucker Punch.

  • Yojimbo Slice | April 14, 2011 4:52 AMReply

    Is this really news to anybody?

  • Brian | April 14, 2011 4:41 AMReply

    "Someone once pointed out to me that strong women protagonists and antagonists were just as popular as men driven films in the 30s and 40s. No one’s been able to explain to me why that changed,"

    @Dee: Well, for one thing, more women went to the movies back then. Housewives would often take a break in the middle of the day to go to the movies in groups and there was a whole genre of "women's pictures" that catered to them. (Think DARK VICTORY, with Bette Davis, or MILDRED PIERCE, with Joan Crawford, as supreme examples of this kind of film.)

    @MidnightWolf: Another aspect of anime that's worth noting, esp. in its appeal to women and girls, is the astonishing emotional honesty found in its portrayal of adolescents and teens, esp. in dramas about middle school and high school. I don't know how many times I've seen interactions and romantic mix-ups in anime that reminded me strongly of similar things from my own (long-ago) youth. I never see things like that in American films/TV about young people. Even in a fantasy ninja series like "Naruto," the key element of its appeal (at least to me) is the quality of the relationships between the characters. Watching Sakura's feelings for Naruto transform from disgust and annoyance to respect and friendship over the course of a few dozen episodes is quite moving and very believable. And I love the way Sakura, an adolescent girl with a tall, lanky frame, is drawn and animated. She looks, sounds, and MOVES the right way. I remember my daughter at that awkward age and Sakura seems quite realistic to me.

  • Apathygrrl | April 14, 2011 2:53 AMReply

    I'm a woman and I loved Sucker Punch!

  • Bill Granik | April 14, 2011 1:10 AMReply

    Please consider Jennifer Laswrence's role in "Winter's Bone", for which she got a Best Actress nom. While she is a lovely young woman, her breakthrough feminist film role did not require her to be "sensual", but rather a very strong teenager in a very adult world.

  • DavidC | April 13, 2011 5:10 AMReply

    Note to Dr. Diller: Beauty is like money: it's only importent to people who don't have any. And vice versa.

  • Alex | April 13, 2011 3:47 AMReply

    I remember almost twenty years ago, reading a letter to the editor of Premiere magazine from Geena Davis, chastising them for describing a then pre-teen Christina Ricci as "sensual", captioned below a come-hither photo of Ricci in her underwear. I applaud her then, as I do now.
    Female child actors are only allowed to grow into adult roles once they become overtly sexual objects while the boys get to slide by on anything else. If the girl doesn't play ball, their career is completely thwarted. It's Maxim magazine or you're nothing but a trivia question.
    And we're looking at you too, Pixar! Ten masterpieces about boys is inexcusable. What's amazing is reading the aggressive, insulting comments on blog posts like this from the men. Count them up and you can get a sense of how threatened they really are.

  • Sue D'Nem | April 13, 2011 3:21 AMReply

    One thing that bothers me....... shows about teens very often have actors and actresses in their twenties portraying the high school aged characters. How are kids supposed to have a realistic body image when the media holds up 20-something bodies as what a high school aged person is supposed to look like?

  • Michael | April 13, 2011 2:28 AMReply

    The same Geena Davis who got famous for playing a buxom vampire and a slutty airhead?

  • Shel | April 13, 2011 1:45 AMReply

    As a mother of a 13-year-old girl, I see all of this first-hand. I don't let her watch the Disney Channel, Teen Nick or ABC Family because I am appalled at the portrayal of girls and women on these networks. When we go to the movies together we always end up having a debriefing afterward of how unrealistic the interactions between the genders are and what to avoid in men when she is an adult. For instance, "Tooth Fairy" featured a man who purposely ruins his girlfriend's children's innocence, lies to her and them, is a mooch, and really has nothing to offer, but as long as he appears to apologize to the girlfriend, she giddily keeps taking him back. This movie led to a conversation where I told her that she needs to pack a bag and never look back if a man ever treats her or her children like that. Light-hearted fare, huh?

  • Will | April 13, 2011 1:13 AMReply

    That NYT article has little to do with what you're saying here and you're totally misinterpreting it.

  • Audrey Brown | April 13, 2011 1:06 AMReply

    Hallelujah! I got RAKED over the coals by my fellow fangirls for writing an op-ed about how sick and tired I was of seeing all the slave leias with bedroom eyes dominating the convention scene. What about Leia in her Hoth gear? Why the ONE costume where she's a sex slave? Now I feel like I'm not alone, kind of undoes some of the damage from a thousand angry Leia's hate mail...thank you Sophia! I mean, if Geena Davis feels in a similar way, I can officially take the heat forever.

  • MG | April 12, 2011 12:39 PMReply

    Shouldn't this article actually have ended as:
    "Not everyone can grow up to be a princess but not everyone wants to."

  • Dee | April 12, 2011 11:09 AMReply

    I couldn't agree more. And while I know one could find even more strong female characters-at least in television-than mentioned in the article, (I'm watching one now in the new show The Killing) it says a lot about us and our culture that we have to rack our brains to come up with the list. This isn't the first time this subject has arisen and each time it's brought up, things becomes incremently better for a bit. Someone once pointed out to me that strong women protagonists and antagonists were just as popular as men driven films in the 30s and 40s. No one's been able to explain to me why that changed, but I wish the trend would reverse itself already.

  • Brian Meeks | April 12, 2011 9:53 AMReply

    I couldn't agree more with the post. I don't know that I have anything to add, but my support of trying to change the landscape.

  • Tom | April 12, 2011 7:50 AMReply

    We are honoring Geena Davis this Saturday at The Sarasota Film Festival with our festival's Impact Award for her work with See Jane and The Geena Davis Institute, presented by the President if the US National Commmitter of U.N. Women. Wish you were here to see it.

  • Monica | April 12, 2011 7:49 AMReply

    What do you think of this video Pioneer Women of Television featuring Angie Dickinson, Linda Evans, Nichelle Nichols, Stefanie Powers, and Alison Stewart? http://f4a.tv/ewlknB

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