The approach of the American holiday season means lots of family movies will be in theaters.
This likely means a fresh parade of female characters who are young, thin and extremely attractive.
Many, myself included, will ask what’s wrong with that? Haven’t we all enjoyed Angelina Jolie’s tomb-raiding Lara Croft, Kirsten Dunst’s “Spidey”-loving Mary Jane Watson and Gwyneth Paltrow’s “Iron Man”-assisting Virginia ‘Pepper’ Potts?
But maybe times have changed since I was raising a little girl. There is growing criticism about how too many actresses in family films are princesses or “eye candy.”
“What children see affects their attitudes toward male and female roles in society,” says Oscar-winning actress Geena Davis, who formed the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (GDIGM) a few years ago to look into this issue. “Eye candy is not for kids.”
In a study released in October, GDIGM said that, among speaking characters, men outnumbered women by a ratio of 2.42 to 1. That’s an odd imbalance since women make up more than half of the world’s population, said Madeline Di Nonno, GDIGM’s executive director. Moreover, this tally “has not changed significantly in 20 years,” the institute said.
The study, conducted by researchers at University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, found additional distinctions.
Female characters were more likely than male characters to be in “sexy, tight or alluring attire” (24 percent to 4 percent), be physically attractive (14 percent to 3.6 percent), appear with partial nudity (18.5 percent to 5.6 percent) and have “small” waists (22.9 percent to 4.5 percent). Such results “show that females’ curb appeal is more important than their male counterparts,” wrote USC associate professor Stacy L. Smith and colleague Marc Choueiti.
And they found these results in the 122 top-grossing films aimed at children and young teens from 2006 to 2009; i.e., only movies rated G, PG and PG-13.
When children watch the same shows and movies repeatedly, “negative stereotypes are imprinted over and over again,” warned Miss Davis, who started her institute after noticing a lack of good role models in entertainment media for her young daughter.
The institute wants to see more speaking roles for women in films and TV programming, especially with characters doing “non-stereotypical activities,” said Ms. Di Nonno. The concept is “if you see it, you can be it,” she said.
Over at Common Sense Media, the nonprofit group created to help parents and families manage their media, co-founder and editor in chief Liz Perle shares many of the GDIGM’s concerns.
“The media works like a superpeer for kids, and it normalizes all sorts of things” — drinking, smoking, certain anti-social behaviors and gender roles, she said. “Kids absorb it. They are sponges. And what they see looks very real to them.”
One of Ms. Perle’s pet peeves is the tired story line about the beautiful, strong woman who can’t get a (quality) guy. (Personally, I would say that’s any female actor who stars with Seth Rogen, Vince Vaughn or Will Ferrell.)
Ms. Perle also disdains cursing in family films, plots that say a girl is “nothing” until she finds her Prince Charming, and cigarette smoking in family movies. (“Avatar” is a case in point: Sigourney Weaver plays a competent scientist who lights up. In a science lab. On a planet where people need masks to breathe. In the future, when cigarettes will have surely gone the way of the dodos.)
Speaking personally, I am not a media critic, and arguments about onscreen gender parity don’t really excite me.
But I highlight GDIGM and Common Sense Media’s comments because I share their alarm about teen eating disorders and steroid use, the hypersexualization of media aimed at girls (and how it affects boys), and a weariness of all those wasp-waisted “eye candy” female characters. One can hope a “rise of women” in the entertainment industry will make some positive changes.
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.