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."
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.