LOS ANGELES (WOMENSENEWS)–Proving the adage that all things are possible in Hollywood, a handful of film and television executives have taken a stand for girls by creating strong, smart and bold female characters. Not surprising, some of the executives themselves are role models.
Karey Burke, NBC’s executive vice president of prime-time series development; Dolores Robinson, talent manager; Lauren Shuler Donner, film producer; Josh Sapan, president and chief executive officer of Rainbow Media Holdings and Tom Lynch , writer-director-producer, are five such industry leaders honored recently at a ceremony hosted by Girls Incorporated, a national organization that seeks to empower girls. All of the honorees were Girls Inc. financial supporters.
Joyce M. Roche, president and chief executive officer of Girls Inc., said the awards were a response to the confusing messages the entertainment industry is sending to girls. Films such as “Charlie’s Angels,” she said, feature women who are strong in one scene, only to be minimized and sexualized in the next.
Girls today have a tremendous need for more strong women role models, particularly women of color, Roche said, noting that the entertainment industry has a profound influence on teen-age girls.
Powerful, Quirky Women, Openly Gay Characters Challenge Stereotypes
Burke, responsible for NBC’s Emmy Award-winning comedy, Will and Grace, said at the ceremony that she challenged stereotypes by presenting openly gay men and powerful quirky women. She did the same in another series she created, Providence, a drama in which the lead character is a smart, introspective woman physician.
Burke said she draws inspiration from her family.
“My mother raised my sisters and me to think not only where we are as good as boys, but better,” Burke said.
As the mother of two girls of her own, Burke takes very personally the responsibility for bringing strong smart women to the screen. Her message: “telling our sisters and daughters that they can be presidents, not princesses.”
Film producer Shuler Donner has worked on movies like “Mr. Mom,” “Dave” and “Bulworth.” She talked about working her way up from being one of the first television camera women in the early 1970s to one of just a handful of women producers in Hollywood today.
She used to be afraid, she said, to voice her ideas in a room full of men. “Then someone else would say what I was thinking,” she said. “I had to learn to speak up for myself and trust myself.”
Grandma Said: “Look Them in the Eye”
Dolores Robinson, president of her own entertainment firm, manages stars such as Rosie Perez, Michael Clark Duncan and her daughter, Holly Robinson Peete.
In 1974, Robinson, then a single mother, moved her family from Pennsylvania to Hollywood. When she was starting out 25 years ago, people told her that managing talent wasn’t a woman’s job. She said she drew strength from her grandmother.
“When I was growing up my grandmother would say, ‘if you can look them in the eye, you’ll be okay.'”
Lynch, a writer, director and producer, creates complex teen-age girls in Caitlin’s Way, a television show about a strong-willed, big-city orphan who must adapt to a new family and life in rural Montana. Creator of the Emmy Award-winning Kids Incorporated and head of his own production company, Lynch is the father of four boys.
Though he said his wife inspires his work, when he comes to creating characters, he doesn’t think of stereotypes of boys and girls or whether he is challenging and negating them: He simply focuses on creating interesting characters.
“In my shows, girls get to be funny and attractive, feel ugly, have a dark side and also have a lightness and simplicity,” Lynch said.
Sapan of Rainbow Media Holdings Inc. gave credit to the women who work for him.
“I’m surrounded by great women role models,” he said.
The women are Kathy Dore, the president of Bravo Networks; Andrea Greenberg, the executive vice president of Rainbow Sports; Katie McEnroe, the president of American Movie Classics, and Nora Ryan, the general manager of Much Music USA.
The Big Picture for Women’s Images Is Discouraging
The awards ceremony, while inspirational, was actually a vivid reminder of the rarity of such television programs and films–a fact that increasingly draws the attention, and ire, of advocates.
In general, women’s characters on television and in films have changed: They no longer are spouses, nurses and secretaries. Now they have higher status professions–lawyers, doctors or detectives. Yet they remain stick-thin and provocatively dressed, presenting girls with unrealistic images of adult women and doing girls a disservice, these advocates say.
Bianca Guzman, a psychology professor at the Claremont Graduate University, says cases of anorexia and bulimia have increased among 11- and 12-year-olds trying to look like the stars of such shows as Friends and Ally McBeal.
“Girls get the message that you have to be sexy, blond and made-up,” says Guzman, also a counselor of low-income, teen girls of color in the inner city here. Those girls are particularly vulnerable because they tend to have fewer cultural resources, Guzman added.
Beyond the boundaries of the particular television show or film, negative images of women abound in the interspersed advertisements.
Good Programs Undermined by Bad Advertisements
“The advertising has never been worse,” said Jean Kilbourne, creator of “Killing Us Softly,” a documentary about advertising and images of women. The effects of even the most positive programming are greatly diminished by advertisements that are increasingly “sexist and sexual,” she said in a telephone interview.
“What if they do a wonderful show about a girl who develops then recovers from an eating disorder and the show is larded with advertising for diet products?” Kilbourne asked.
Kilbourne, a visiting scholar at Wellesley College, added, “There is an increasing sexualization of products. Retouched models are being used to sell computers.”
Elizabeth Zwerling is a journalist based in Southern California who specializes in education and business, as well as women’s issues.