The Power of Media Images

Sixteen years ago, while watching a pre-school show with my then two-year-old daughter, I was stunned to see that there seemed to be far more male characters than female characters in something made specifically for the youngest kids. Then, I noticed it everywhere in children’s fictional media and entertainment. As a mother, I thought — in the 21st century — why on earth would we be showing kids from the beginning that boys are far more important than girls? There are some exceptions, of course: the Teletubbies are gender-balanced, though it may be hard to tell.

Media images have a powerful impact on shaping our perceptions of our value to society. When you see someone like yourself on-screen, doing interesting and important things, you get the message: “There’s someone like me. I must matter.” The stark inequality in media aimed at young children is significant, as content — whether digital, television, movies, or gaming — wields enormous influence on kids when they’re developing a sense of their role and purpose in our society. And since children watch the same content repeatedly, negative stereotypes get imprinted again and again.

If the content we’re making for them has a profound lack of unique and diverse female characters, boys and girls are unconsciously taking in the message that girls, women, people of color, people with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ+ community are not as valuable as white men and boys.  This may inform their views throughout their lives.

My theory of change is this: one of the most powerful ways to immediately impact the stubborn issue of inequality — in all sectors of society — is to change what images people see in popular culture. If it happens on-screen, it will happen in real life: life will imitate art.

When Real Life Reflects Reel Life

Why unwittingly teach gender and cultural bias to young children, when it’s so hard to get rid of later? Just show kids from the beginning that boys and girls share the sandbox equally; that they are equally impressive, fun, and essential, and they’re each — by the way — half of the population.

When I first started speaking to content creators about gender inequity I’d observed in kids’ media, they said: “Oh no, that’s not so anymore; that’s been fixed.” They truly felt a responsibility to do right by girls, and they thought they were. They had no idea that the fictitious worlds they were creating were nearly bereft of meaningful female presence — probably because they grew up seeing the same gender imbalance too.

I realized then that I needed data if I was to prove to them that we are indeed still sending the message to kids that men and boys are far more valuable than women and girls. Here’s one example of what the research revealed: when we looked at the  occupations of characters in family films, 81% of the characters with jobs were male. And the number of women in top professions was profoundly underrepresented — even compared to the low real-life statistics.

In other words, however abysmal the numbers are in real life; it’s far worse in fiction. Where you make it up. It can be anything we want, and we chose to make it even worse than the unfortunate reality. Do we really want to stand by the idea that it’s fine for female characters to be one-dimensional, narrowly stereotyped, hyper-sexualized, unempowered… or simply not there at all?

Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media: Data-Driven Research

In 2004, I launched the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and sponsored the most extensive research on the representation of female characters in children’s movies and TV programs ever done. Our results were astonishing and bore out my observation that there was significant inequity: at that time, we found a 3:1 ratio of male to female characters in both family films and television shows aimed at kids. We’ve been data-driven advocates ever since, and have amassed the largest body of gender in media research focused on family entertainment.

As a result of being awarded a technology grant from Google a few years ago, we were able to pioneer a machine-learning driven research tool to measure gender bias in film, television, and advertising. In partnership with USC Viterbi School of Engineering, we developed GD-IQ (the Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient), which uses face and audio recognition software to analyze moving images and reveal data that is not possible to discern with the human eye. For example, GD-IQ enables us to accurately measure screen- and speaking-time for gender and race from face.

Since our inception, my Institute works collaboratively with the entertainment and media industries to reduce negative stereotyping and to achieve cultural equity and inclusion onscreen, with a special focus on  content targeting children 11 and under.  We are the only research-based organization examining representation of six identities: gender, race, LGBTQ+, disability, age, and body size.

In advocating for change, the data does most of the work for us because, as you’d expect, the people making media for kids love kids and want to do right by them! By tracking and measuring female portrayals in children’s entertainment media, we are able to influence industry-wide change. And we have been successful.

We are in effect enculturating kids from the very beginning to see women and girls as not taking up half of the space.


Achieving Historic Gender Parity

In fact, we recently achieved two of our top goals in this work: we’ve reached gender parity for lead female characters in children’s television for the first time in history, and we’ve achieved gender parity for female lead characters in family films (G, PG, PG-13) for the first time as well. This reinforces to us that our theory of how to drive systemic culture change in this area works. We still have a long way to go to achieve intersectional gender equity across the whole population of the fictitious worlds being created, but we are seeing progress — including concerning race.

People frequently ask me: “What can I do?” Parents, relatives and teachers can have a tremendous impact by watching media with children and pointing out stereotyping and discrimination to them: “Why do you think there’s only one girl in that story?” “Why do you think she’s wearing that if she’s going to go rescue somebody?” For content creators, the quickest and simplest way to reach gender parity onscreen is to go through a script that you’re already going to make, cross out a bunch of first names of ensemble and supporting characters, and make them female. With one stroke, you have created some non-stereotyped female characters who might even be more interesting now that they’ve had a gender swap!

On-screen is the one area of gross inequality where the underrepresentation or misrepresentation of diverse women can be fixed absolutely overnight. No matter what a creator has made before, their very next project can go straight to gender parity and racial justice. For those of you interested in shifting the cultural narrative and actively advancing social justice  — in any sector of society — I encourage you to finance content creators and organizations such as mine that are working on cultural change through transforming program development for children.

When Life Imitates Art For the Better

Here’s a fun example of how life can imitate art. My archery coach called a couple of years ago to tell me about an interesting phenomenon: the participation of girls in the sport suddenly skyrocketed in 2012, shooting up an astonishing 105%. So, what happened in 2012 that could have caused such a stunning change? Well, Hunger Games and Brave came out that summer — both of which had female archers as their protagonists. The reaction from girls was instant: they essentially left the theater and bought a bow. There are myriad examples like this, all of which prove the truth of our motto: “If she can see it, she can be it.”