At Least Get Gender Right!

Film & TV media sell females short

Boys will be boys and girls will be girls, right? Not exactly. There is a wide range of ways to do gender right, to be successfully female and male, but this knowledge does not prevent much of society from forcing restrictive gender stereotypes on us ad nauseum. What young boys and girls experience throughout their lives shapes and restricts or facilitates how they see “normal” and what they embody as expectations for behavior and expression of self. What we tell our children and each other about gender matters.

Take insurance and chickens, for example. The insurance company GEICO recently released a commercial featuring a chicken and a Roy Orbison song. It’s a riff on “free range” chickens and has a hen (i.e. a female chicken, a “she”) roaming the highways and byways of the USA, hitching rides with truckers, boozing it up with hobos, participating in the famous American adventure experience of being “On the Road.” The punchline has the chicken texting (instagraming?) pictures of its adventures back to the farmer and his wife. And the farmer says “He just keeps sending pictures.” Note the use of the pronoun “he”…it is absolutely clearly a hen doing the adventuring and picture sending. Why refer to it as a “he”? Can’t hens roam free and adventure? Apparently not. The assumed gender of the free range adventuring American icon is that of a male…even if the actor (the chicken in this case) is wholly female.

This is not as silly as it sounds. The framing and broadcasting of gender stereotypes is exactly how we inhibit a broader acceptance of gender roles and the possibilities for a much greater overlap between males and females and a healthier approach to being human. The subtle “gendering” of the chicken reinforces for all being entertained by the commercial the maleness of adventuring.

But lest you think this is a single example or a small aberration in the representation of how the media can act as a major force in the societal imposition of strict gender options, let’s take the some examples from the Media, Diversity, & Social Change (MDSC) Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, particularly the work from projects headed up by Dr. Stacy Smith. It is in their assessment of motion pictures that we can see powerful, and pernicious, diminution of options for gender females and substantive reinforcement of gender male dominance in action, adventure, assertiveness and societal importance.

In a study of 120 films from 11 countries there was a total of 5,799 speaking or named characters showing up in the films. Of these only 30.9% were female and 69.1% male–a gender ratio of 2.24 males to every one female (unlike any gender distribution in any of the countries the films came from). Of these films only 23.3% of the films had a girl or woman as a lead or co-lead driving the plot.

In another study of the USA 600 top‐grossing films (2007-2013) the research group assessed every speaking or named character (there were 26,225 of them). Females made up ~30% of speaking roles and males ~70%, with the highest female representation being in comedy and the lowest in action/adventure films. Voice matters. When we see a movie, those who speak, and take action, are those who get our attention. Females are woefully underrepresented in both of these areas relative to their actual roles in real life. The top movies are lying to us about what women do, and thus shaping what we think of as “normal.”

Maybe this is not so surprising when we see that only 1.9% of directors, 7.4% of writers, and 19.6% of producers are women. Gender bias in the workplace might be acting to reinforce stereotypes and expectations. And it is bias, as there is no evidence that men are biologically (or socially) better equipped to be directors, writers or producers. We should also consider who is making the movies when we see that females were far more likely than males to be shown in sexy and revealing clothing (30.2% vs 9.7%), were more likely to be shown fully or partially nude (29.5% vs 11.7%) and were also more likely to be referred to as physically attractive (13.2% vs. 2.4%).

The point here is not simply to berate the “system” for perpetrating stereotypes on the audience, the point is to note that they are doing it so widely out of synch with the actual patterns of diversity in gender roles and actions. Our society, through media, is painting a false picture of what females and males do…this negatively impacts us all.

What we see in popular media does not only shape gender and social expectations, it has broad scale power, especially with children. Telling more than 50% of the population that it’s normal to not speak up, not take action, not adventure or push boundaries matters. Case in point: there are very few women in the STEM fields (“hard” sciences) and it is not due to their being biological or intellectually inferior or incapable…but it might have something to do with overly restrictive gender stereotypes, and their reinforcement at multiple levels of society. The president of the USA recently implored us to think about this “…we need to have more girls interested in math, science, and engineering. We’ve got half the population that is way underrepresented in those fields and that means that we’ve got a whole bunch of talent … that is not being encouraged.” Such an increase in participation would benefit all of us, but is not going to happen without some serious rethinking of how we talk about gender and how we act to ensure more flexibility and options for being female.

So next time you see a commercial that robs a female of the option of adventure or a movie that mutes women and offers them up only as window dressing for the men of action, break the myth of gender stereotypes and vote with your feet and with your dollars–make a difference.

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