by Vanessa Ciccone
At an event put on by the Canadian Women’s Foundation in Calgary last month, Geena Davis stated, “The more hours of TV a girl watches, the less opportunities she thinks she has. For a boy, the more sexist his views become.”
In 2004 Davis founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to shift female portrayals and gendered stereotypes in children’s entertainment. The Institute conducts research and offers training to alter how women are depicted in media.
With platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter changing the way entertainment is consumed, The Institute’s research can be applied to popular performances and music videos.
According to The Representation Project, a movement that uses media content to expose injustices created by gender stereotypes, teenagers spend 31 hours watching T.V. per week, 17 hours listening to music, three hours watching movies, four minutes reading magazines and 10 hours a week online.
The popularity of social media with tech-savvy children also means that much of the content kids are sharing isn’t age-appropriate. But then, some performances by Rihanna and Miley Cyrus aren’t either, and little girls are their number one fans.
With everyone and their dog writing open letters to Cyrus for the new direction she’s decided to take her career in, the debate rages on around whether it’s empowering or debasing for nearly naked women to prance around stages. If it is empowering for women, why is it that men don’t push the envelope in the same way? If Justin Timberlake or any one of the teen pop sensations in One Direction tried to pull the same moves as Cyrus, they would swiftly be laughed off stage.
Davis says, “The percentage of women in leadership positions is 16-20 per cent. In media portrayals it’s 17 per cent.” In music video portrayals it’s likely hovering around the three-percentile mark.
In Canada, women filled 27 per cent of senior management positions in 2012, meaning kids in the U.S. and Canada are actually consuming an even more negatively skewed gender portrayal than reality. Media also strongly influences the belief that women are not as employable as men. While women comprised 48 percent of the Canadian labour force in 2011, and 47 percent in the U.S., they only hold 20.3 per cent of the total on-screen occupations in family films, 34.4 percent of all jobs in prime-time shows and represent 25.3 per cent of those employed in children’s programs.
Dr. Caroline Heldman, an associate professor of political science says, “Little boys and little girls, when they’re seven years old, in equal numbers want to be President of the United States when they grow up. But then you ask the same question when they’re 15 and you see this massive gap emerging.”
On-screen, women are outnumbered by a ratio of 3 to 1 in kids’ media and they are often incorporated into programming purely as decoration. In 2011, only 11 percent of protagonists in films were female.
Women were also only featured in speaking parts 11 percent of the time for family films, 19 percent for children’s shows and 22 percent for prime-time programs.
Given the cultural context that sexually-charged performances are created in, a woman and man can give similar performances with the former being referred to as empowering and the latter as an embarrassment. With any luck, more celebrities like Davis will continue to try to change the channel on skewed portrayals of gender in media.
For information on the important research being done by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, click here.
Vanessa is a communications professional and social justice advocate living in Toronto.