Among her many credits, Geena Davis has played a professional baseball player, president, and housewife-turned-outlaw, Thelma. Her portrayals include steely-spined women who speak their minds. Yet when Davis became a mother and sat down with her toddler daughter, who is now ten, she noticed women were conspicuously absent. “Especially in G-rated movies, it seemed that there were far fewer female characters [compared] to male characters,” Davis told GOOD. She began asking other people if they’d noticed the imbalance and “most people either didn’t notice, or said, ‘No, no, no. That’s not true anymore. That’s all been fixed.’”
It wasn’t just the gender imbalance in media that unnerved the actress, but what those imbalances communicate to children. She explains that studies, like that by FEM Inc., have shown “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.” Davis realized that in order to make a change, she would need to begin gathering data to back up what she’d noticed herself in her daughter’s TV time, and created the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media as a research-based organization to do just that.
Earlier this month at its Third Symposium on Gender in Media, the Institute released its most recent study, in conjunction with Dr. Stacy Smith from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, and revealed a children’s media landscape where men work and earn prestige—while female characters are sidelined or not given speaking roles at all. The study evaluated gender roles and occupations by looking at the 129 top-grossing family films between 2006-2011; prime-time TV in the spring of 2012; and kids' shows airing in 2011. Female characters only had a third of the speaking roles. Women held only 20.3 percent of all jobs in family films.
As Davis summarizes, “there are zero female characters in the upper echelons of business and finance. Zero in the higher levels of the legal arena, and zero as journalistic editors… In the C-suite it’s only 3.4 percent. And in politics, out of 11,000 characters, only three in the political sphere were women in family films.”
Despite the fact that over recent years, the majority of women have become breadwinners in their households and women are outnumbering men on college campuses, the glass ceiling refracted so starkly in kids’ programming reflects real women’s still hampered options. Says Davis, “at the entry level, women are doing great. It’s at each level of promotion where women start to fall out, and I think part of the reason that could be is that people are not used to thinking of women as the boss, as the leader.” What’s worse, not only is children’s programming making girls see themselves with fewer options, but Davis says studies have also shown that the more hours of TV a boy watches, the more sexist his views become.
The Institute is battling attitudes that are so entrenched that many in the media can’t see them. Davis notes that the ratio of male-to-female characters has been exactly the same since 1946. She adds, “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.” The Institute frequently meets with diversity departments at studios and hears again and again that they look at scripts to ensure ethnic parity but it never occurs to them to add more women. Gender balance simply isn’t a box that gets ticked off in the diversity checks.
Davis and her Institute are asking those who care about this issue to share their PSA “See Jane”—a kiddie battle cry that says that when little girls sit down to watch an average of seven hours of television each day, they should get to see themselves as more than princesses and eye candy. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor advised Sesame Street's Abby last week, "Pretending to be a princess... is definitely not a career." Children’s media should be doing more to show girls what it means to be a woman in a STEM field, or what it’s like to be a judge, for that matter.
See Jane is an effort premised on the idea that “if she can see it, she can be it.” If we are to look forward to men and women sharing spots around conference tables or legislative seats equally, it begins with how they picture themselves as children. To get there, says Davis, “It just seems to make sense to me that young children should be seeing boys and girls sharing the sandbox equally.”