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Academy Award® winning actress Geena Davis was watching television with her young daughter in 2004, when she noticed that there was a noticeable disparity in the representation of male vs. female characters in children’s programming.

We’ve known for a long time that females in film and TV are often sidekicks, romantic interests or just absent, but it’s been like the elephant in the room – everyone knows it’s there, but nobody says anything about it.

Change begins with recognising and acknowledging where we are right now, and Geena Davis addressed that fact by founding a non-profit organisation, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, to quantify and act upon gender disparity in children’s and family programming.

These days, research is critical to legitimacy – ‘Publish or perish’ – as the saying goes. The Geena Davis Institute started out by sponsoring four studies of media directed at children or families, with striking conclusions.

G-Rated Movies – Dr. Stacy Smith and her team at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California analyzed the portrayals of male and female characters in 101 of the top-grossing G-rated movies from 1990 to 2005. They tracked the gender of 3,039 individual speaking characters, 1,210 characters who spoke in groups, and 47 narrators. The researchers also examined other variables including physical appearance, age group, role within the story, ethnicity or cultural background, and occupations characters held.

TV for Kids 11 and Under – Dr. Smith and her team randomly sampled 1,034 shows from 12 network, public broadcast, and cable outlets between June 12 and August 18, 2005 to assemble a typical week of children’s television programming. The researchers used more than 75 criteria to measure the story centrality, demographics, occupation, body/clothing, appearance, likeability, and personality of speaking characters.

The findings, summarised on their research page, state in part that 3 out of 4 characters in G-rated movies made between 1990 and 2005 are male, and that in G-rated films, the majority of storylines with female lead characters are focused on physical appearance and the ability to attract a mate. Their findings also reported that females of colour were the least-represented in G-rated programming.

Their website features a wealth of valuable content, including a discussion forum, an activism section, and a location where visitors can report networks with quality content. Their what we do section indicates that the institute is both active and ambitious, with goals ranging from research and outreach to activism and policymaking. There are also two active media-creation competitions for youth: a PSA contest and the I Want to See Jane Campaign.

Their upcoming projects, including a Best Practices policy for industry players, sound very exciting and focused. This is clearly an organisation whose goals are to make a difference and change the world! Their mission statement underscores this:

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media focuses first on getting more females and more varied portrayals of both female and male characters into movies, TV, and other media aimed at kids 11 and under.The Institute is a resource for the entertainment industry (media companies, animators, writers, producers, and others), the next generation of content-creators, and the public. We outreach to these individuals and companies towards supporting positive change in media, so young girls and young boys can grow up treating each other as equals.Our approach is collaborative, friendly, and cooperative.
Please join us in this important work!

Jacques Cousteau said, ‘We protect what we love, and we love what we know’. If this is true, then entertaining children with stories where females are largely absent or one-dimensional cannot be healthy or good.

For tackling an issue that has been discussed at length but seldom challenged, GDIGM is doing its part to Heal the World.

New study released February 1, 2008 – .PDF format

5 Responses to “Heal the World: Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media”

  1. Thanks so much for posting this, Natalie!

    The GDIGM “I Want to See Jane” Campaign is where women and girls from around the world tell about the characters that most affected them as children. Watch some of them at http://www.youtube.com/gdigm , and visit http://www.thegeenadavisinstitute.org/sj_howto.php to learn more.

    We’d love to hear from you!

  2. My pleasure!! Your website is wonderful, and the work you are doing is extremely important. Some people (on message boards I’ve read) seem to think that the world might not be ready for media depicting females in equal numbers and positions of power and influence; I say, ready or not, here we come!

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