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On-Screen Sex Ratios Add Up to One Big Minus

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

There are more women on TV and film these days than decades ago. But media researchers say healthy on-screen representation is missing and Lynn Ziegler says the big picture has to change.

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There are more women on TV and film these days than decades ago. But media researchers say healthy on-screen representation is missing and Lynn Ziegler says the big picture has to change.
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Lynn Ziegler

(WOMENSENEWS)--Women on "The View" may get Barack Obama showing up to pay his presidential-hopeful respects. Oprah's one-woman media empire may seem like a world without end. And Ellen DeGeneres' daily dance-and-gabfest recently has taken a more activist spin (just ask Chris Matthews!)

But that doesn't mean mainstream entertainment--meaning TV and film--reflects anything like our true worth to girls and women.

Earlier this year, researchers gathered from all over the country--and the world--at the University of Southern California to present studies that document and display the historical context of how we see females on TV (if they are on-screen at all). The conference was a first for the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

An overview of female portrayals on U.S. TV there reminded conference-goers that the United States television in the late 1950s and early 1960s--had such extremes as "Rifleman" and "Bonanza" with no major female characters at all--and shows like "Bewitched" and "I Dream of Jeannie," in which female leads had to minimize their talents when they orchestrated "real life" with their men.

Today we have more programs with stronger female characters: "Cold Case," "Grey's Anatomy," "Desperate Housewives," "Law and Order." But the fact that women make up more than half the world's population is not reflected on-screen. The male-female on-screen ratio is still only 1-in-3, up from a more dismal 1-in-5 two decades ago.

In a study presented at the conference of 13 top-grossing children's films with female leads--produced between the mid-1930s through the 1990s and many of them from Disney--only one featured a character who wasn't looking for "happily ever after" with a prince. Dorothy Gale, from "The Wizard of Oz"--the oldest movie in the bunch as it so happens--kept her eyes on a different prize: going home.

Animation Offers Big Challenge

Animation--where hypersexualization is intense--offers some of the biggest challenges to gender parity. Animated females are thin and impossibly stylized. Many conference-goers talked about how there is literally "no room for a womb" in these busty, hourglass-shaped females.

In sharing her recent work with the conference, Stacy Smith from the Annenberg School of Communications, told attendees a story of two female researchers who went to a studio to meet with a very successful illustrator. He showed them a crowd scene that he was finishing. "Here are some businessmen. Over here is a cop directing traffic. There are some guys doing construction work on a building, and some kids on the corner, skateboarding . . . this is a group of doctors leaving a medical center."

Everyone was male.

"And here," he said proudly, "is the girl." For the record, she was wearing SRC (sexually revealing clothing), had a waist that was too tiny to allow blood to reach her brain and, no surprise, inordinately large breasts.

The two researchers--keeping their eyes on the prize--said, "Well . . . what if you added some women to the group of business people? And a female doctor talking to an EMT in front of the hospital? And over here, a female city engineer talking to the architect? And . . ."

The illustrator put his hands to his face. "Oh my God. The problem here is ME."

Like many other men in a male-dominated entertainment industry, he had gotten the idea that having one "girl"--drawn as the "ideal" woman--was representation. It's not.

It's about the numbers. And the shapes. And colors. And sizes. And ages. And our part in the big picture.

'We Thought It Was Better'

"We thought it was better," was the general sentiment expressed by conference-goers, even by longtime media activists used to the glacial pace of progress.

International researchers assured us that parity problems are not restricted to U.S. media. From one hemisphere to another, the picture for women is grim.

Prof. Kara Chan, from Hong Kong Baptist University, said that women on screen in Hong Kong are there for a purpose--to be nonstop consumers. They are portrayed (and valued) as shoppers who whine and pout when they don't get the item they "want" and "need."

Meanwhile, in mainland China--where families are allowed only one child and the preference, historically, is male--TV depicts an ideal world, where, for every male character, there is a female character.

One study presented at the conference looked at 42 kids from 10 countries and documented the use of "media traces," in which children "borrow" the attributes of strong (male) characters and include them in drawings of themselves. Some were wearing capes and hats (like Batman); some waved light sabers from "Star Wars." But symbols of female strength--as well as female voices--were in very short supply. They simply weren't there.

Geena Davis, the actor who played the female U.S. president in the TV series "Commander in Chief," created the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media after starting a group called See Jane. That has grown into an institute dedicated to increasing awareness of gender imbalance in media, and developing strategies to change media portrayals of women and girls for the better.

'Nothing Near 50 Percent'

"Whatever environment we're in on TV, it's nothing near the 50 percent we are in the world," Davis said in her conference address. "Girls see this imbalance and realize 'I'm not important.' We need secondary and tertiary characters, too, and animals in the forest. Women have presence and space in this world."

Davis said later that "once you have a daughter, you look at things differently." Her search for positive on-screen role models for her now-6-year-old Alizeh Keshvar drives a movement whose time has come, in a year when, one way or another, electoral history is about to be made.

We don't have to be a parent of a daughter to take action about gender media bias. Remember the lessons of "Sesame Street"--one show that actually managed to get it right--and count just like the Count ("ONE guy, TWO guys, NO girls) when you watch programs that leave us out. This is particularly important as you watch news programs, where the male-female ratios are still abysmal. One female correspondent among five male panelists is not "representation."

Contact the show, the producers, the talent and the sponsors, and follow up frequently.

The best recommendation I heard at the conference was to encourage girls to move from absorbing media messages to creating them. There are more female writers than ever before. More female animators and directors in the 21st century have landed gigs, and several studios are headed by women (although way too few.) Those numbers need to increase significantly if we hope to change the big picture.

Film critic and author Sara Voorhees, who led the final panel discussion at the conference, wants to see more women running studios. "Chick flicks are dissed because they feature relationships and problem-solving; dick-flicks reflect the Warrior Ethic," she told the conference. "Maybe Hollywood needs a mother to make sure that everyone gets to play."

Stay tuned.

Lynn Ziegler is the author of "Spongeheadz: U and Media" (2007). She has three media-savvy Alaska Native kids who support her work for on-screen diversity and who cheerfully ignore her screeching when she watches TV.