Gender in Media: The Myths & Facts

MYTH: Boys and girls are equally represented in film and television.

FACT: Even among the top-grossing G-rated family films, girl characters are out numbered by boys three-to-one.

That’s the same ratio that has existed since the end of World War II. For decades, male characters have dominated nearly three-quarters of speaking parts in children’s entertainment, and 83% of film and TV narrators are male. The Institute’s research indicates that in some group scenes, only 17% of the characters are female. These absences are unquestionably felt by audiences, and children learn to accept the stereotypes represented. What they see affects their attitudes toward male and female values in our society, and the tendency for repeated viewing results in negative gender stereotypes imprinting over and over.

MYTH: Family entertainment is a safe haven for female characters.

FACT: Astoundingly, even female characters in family films serve primarily as "eye candy."

Female characters continue to show dramatically more skin than their male counterparts, and feature extremely tiny waists and other exaggerated body characteristics. This hypersexualization and objectification of female characters leads to unrealistic body ideals in very young children, cementing and often reinforcing negative body images and perceptions during the formative years. Research shows that lookism still pervades cinematic content in very meaningful ways.

MYTH: Things are looking great for females behind the camera.

FACT: Females behind the camera fall far behind their male contemporaries and are at a distinct disadvantage in the entertainment industry.

Only 7% of directors, 13% of writers, and 20% of producers are female. With such a dearth of female representation in front of and behind the camera, it’s a struggle to champion female stories and voices. The Institute’s research proves that female involvement in the creative process is imperative for creating greater gender balance before production even begins. There is a causal relationship between positive female portrayals and female content creators involved in production. In fact, when even one woman writer works on a film, there is a 10.4% difference in screen time for female characters. Sadly, men outnumber women in key production roles by nearly 5 to 1.

MYTH: Girls on screen compare favorably to their male counterparts.

FACT: Messages that devalue and diminish female characters are still rampant in family films.

Gender stereotyping is an inherent problem in today’s entertainment landscape, and children are the most vulnerable recipients of depictions that send the message that girls are less valuable and capable than boys. The Institute’s research illustrates that female characters who are lucky enough to garner speaking roles tend to be highly stereotyped. From 2006 to 2009 not one female character was depicted in G-rated family films in the field of medical science, as a business leader, in the law, or in politics. 80.5% of all working characters are male and 19.5% are female, which is a contrast to real-world statistics of women comprising 50% of the workforce. With repeated viewings, young audiences may fail to realize this lopsided view is not, in fact, reality and believe there is no need for gender parity or industry change. Today’s children will be our future business leaders, content creators and parents and the ones who need to lead the charge for future generations.

MYTH: Gender imbalance issues have gotten better over time.

FACT: Statistically, there has been little forward movement for girls in media in six decades.

For nearly 60 years, gender inequality on screen has remained largely unchanged and unchecked. Without an educational voice and force for change, this level of imbalance is likely to stay the same or worsen. Only through education, research, and advocacy both from within the studio system and entertainment industry, and with parents and kids, can we effect real change in this heavily gender-biased media landscape.

All facts are supported by research conducted by Stacy Smith, Ph.D. at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism