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Gender in Media: Females Don't Rule

Actress Geena Davis (r) noticed a dearth of female leading roles in family entertainment. Dr. Stacy L. Smith conducted a study on how females are represented, and the results aren't pretty.

Gender bias in media is a topic society has been tiptoeing around since the women's liberation movement of the 1960s. Although women represent 51% of the population, a woman has yet to achieve the position of president of the United States -- though one is trying -- and for some reason the number of women represented in animation or G-rated entertainment is not even close to the number of men. Why?

Actress Geena Davis, who has portrayed moms and swashbucklers, asked that very question while she was watching TV with her then two-year-old daughter. On her fingers, she started counting girls on the screen in lead roles. Then she counted the girls in the crowd scenes. She had too many fingers left over.

"I was absolutely stunned to see the disparity in the ratio of genders. There seemed to be a lot more male characters than female characters," said Davis. "I decided I wanted to find out if this was true -- if it was across the board. I wanted to do something about it. Bring attention to it or talk to the studios."

She did just that. She formed the Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media (GDIGM) and partnered with USC's Annenberg School of Communications to undertake the largest study of live-action and animated G-rated movies ever.

Powerpuff Girls -- an exception to the rule? © Cartoon Network.

Under the direction of Dr. Stacy L. Smith, Principal Researcher, GDIGM Board Member, and associate professor at the Annenberg School, and Crystal Allene Cook, director of GDIGM, a team of researchers watched over 400 top-grossing G, PG, PG-13 and R live-action and animated movies produced from 1999 to 2006, and 1,034 television shows for kids, including 534 hours of programming between June 12 and August 18, 2005.

The results were not entirely surprising, but they were still eye-opening. Male characters outnumbered female characters in all genres by as much as 2:1, not only in lead speaking roles, but even in crowd scenes. The girls and women portrayed were "hypersexualized" for the most part, and still largely fulfilled what the researchers identified as three stereotypical female roles:

the "daydreamers" -- passive female characters who possess no particular goal or aspiration, or dream only of romantic love;

the "derailed" -- leading characters that express an ambition and are broadsided by romantic love;

the "daredevils" -- protagonists that express goals and make choices that move them forward to their ambition. While the daredevil might encounter romantic love, she is not willing to accept it as the only prize or relinquish her pursuit.

The one area in which there was some equality was preschool programming. Girls and boys played similar roles and were represented in more equal numbers.

Dr. Smith and her team gathered a wealth of statistics. They compared the human form to animated figures for both males and females. They looked at hypersexuality as it pertained to both male and female characters. They even evaluated the use of female narrators to male narrators. These findings were presented at the GDIGM 2008 Conference on Children and Gender in Film and Television held at USC for three days in January 2008.

During the presentation of this paper, panelists from television and film, as well as researchers, were asked how to create parity in entertainment. No conclusive answer was given. For this article, AWN asked a few leading members of the animation community to give their opinions on the subject.

Veteran producer Mike Young has a special affection for the straight-talking Dannon the duck (left) from Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks. © 2005 Entara Ltd. All rights reserved.

The Industry Speaks

Tara Sorensen, VP, Development & Current Series for National Geographic Kids Entertainment and one of the panelists at the GDIGM conference, recalls how she had to fight for a female character.

"Jade, of Jackie Chan Adventures, was the only female in the main cast of characters and she was really a breakout star of the show," says Sorensen. "While developing the show, there was a bit of resistance to including this little girl in the core group, but we believed in her as a character and stuck with her. I think she really became the star of the show. There is no doubt that little girls looked up to her, but boys too, I think, found themselves looking up to her. She was definitely a tomboy, so I think that's one reason."

Mike Young, CEO of Mike Young Productions, LLC and partner in Taffy Entertainment, has brought many female characters to the screen in recent years, including the girls of Bratz, Creepie from Growing Up Creepie and his all-time favorite, Dannon, the duck from Jakers: The Adventures of Piggley Winks.

"On the surface the Bratz were all makeup and clothes, but once you got past that they were independent leaders who epitomized self-empowered females," says Young. "Creepie was supposed to be the fish out of water, but firmly believed that everyone else was out of step, not her. Dannon was straight-talking, no nonsense, you got what you saw. She was more intelligent and insightful than her two male pals and was totally loveable."

Tara Sorensen, VP, Development & Current Series for National Geographic Kids Entertainment.

"Animation is much fairer than our [live-action] TV and big-screen brethren," says Young. Mike Young Productions is also producing female-lead shows Chloe's Closet, Hero 108, which has Mystic Sonia as one of the leads, and bits of Strawberry Shortcake. Young also boasts of having a majority of women running the shop, including his wife, partner and the executive in charge of production, Liz Young.

"What I really like about female characters today, is that they don't all fit the same stereotypic mold of being either babes or ugly/spinsters," says Kathleen Helppie, an independent producer who formerly served as VP of Classic Animation at Warner Bros. and Head of Studio/Production for Starz Animation/Toronto. "We see so many different aspects of the female characterization: body shapes, beauty, race, depth of personality, strength and style. These females are much more dimensional and more reflective of our society at large."

Helppie, who started her career as a voice actress and whose first leading role was Sweets in the Hanna-Barbera series The Biskitts, also believes that caricature cuts both ways. "Women are not alone -- stereotypes of both men and women exist in animation. Audiences laugh because we recognize the exaggerated stereotypes of these characters -- both positive and negative. Stereotypes are often considered to be fully negative, but many stereotypes can help us to realize how ridiculous the characters may be.

Young contends that animation is more egalitarian than live-action TV or theatrical films, pointing out Strawberry Shortcake as one example of gender equality. © Fox Home Ent.

"Years ago, I had a lively discussion with animation legend Friz Freleng about the need to create a new female character for Looney Tunes," she continues. "At the time, Friz, who it must be noted was a true gentleman with utmost respect for women, told me in no uncertain terms that female comic characters just wouldn't be funny. He further explained you couldn't have a female character [endure] the same kind of cartoon calamities that would happen to Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Sylvester, or Wile E. Coyote. He felt audiences would not accept, nor find any humor in, this sort of slapstick and physical treatment of female characters."

Helppie points out that female characters today have been greatly empowered physically (e.g., Fiona from Shrek) and that the roles of women in society have evolved significantly. Audience reaction to comedy and slapstick has also shifted dramatically over the decades in terms of what is considered humorous and acceptable to an audience.

"Women don't hold the market on being stereotyped. Our men can be impacted as well. After all, I don't know any men who act [like] or aspire to be Elmer Fudd, or, for that matter, can leap a building in a single bound. To be heroic and muscle-bound all the time has got to be tiring and a tad stereotypic to our men, as well."

Recent female characters like Shrek's Fiona are physically empowered, reflecting how the roles of women in society have evolved. ™ & © 2007 DreamWorks Animation LLC.

The Media's Acceptance

"Female characters in [6- to 12-year-old-targeted] animation tend to be overlooked," says Sorensen. "The higher-profile shows tend to showcase females that are 'nerdy' or 'needy.' This is because boys tend to drive the 6-12 animation." She says boys drive the 6-12 programs because girls tend to start watching live-action shows while boys are still watching cartoons. This makes boys a prime target for advertisers on animated shows.

According to Sorensen, there are exceptions to the rule, such as Powerpuff Girls. But she hasn't seen anything like these characters in quite a while. "We are seeing the major broadcasters now look to females in The Mighty B and Chowder and I think the progression is great, but time will tell if a show like SpongeBob would ever cast a female in the lead," she said.

Young sees a new future for gender and audience with new media and convergence. Old TV technology and the belief that a girl will watch a boy's show but a boy will not watch a girl's show has stymied programmers until now. "Kabillion, VOD and Online are changing all that," according to Young. Kabillion -- a partnership between Comcast cable and Taffy Entertainment -- is the first multi-platform kids network built around today's hottest TV audience viewing trends -- broadband and video on demand.

"If any gender does not like a particular program, then, unlike the linear channel, which loses one or the other gender to another channel, the new platforms need one click and there is a choice of many, many shows. Thus there should be no fear in driving anyone away, which in turn will lead to a great variety and change in program making," says Young.

What's Next?

Historically, there are multiple reasons why female lead characters are less abundant than males in the television, film, and animation industries. Male writers and/or creative talent were the predominant architects in the building of the animation industry; and, as many writers do, they wrote from the perspective they knew, observes Helppie. Dr. Smith and the GDIGM team came to a similar conclusion.

"Women's role in society has undergone seismic changes over the past 40 years, which has been reflected in an ongoing opening up of creative opportunities for female characters," said Helppie. "And as more female executives came to the forefront with the power to greenlight productions or oversee creative storylines, stronger female identities and less stereotypic portrayals were encouraged. The networks and children's broadcasters also pushed to have more engaging, leadership-driven, and less stereotypic, female roles in their programming."

In her recommendations, Smith suggests that a collaborative effort among entertainment executives, creators, scholars, parents and teachers is needed. While a few women executives have broken through the glass ceiling in the entertainment industry, their influence has had limited results with respect to gender parity and portrayal. Her report shows that, as of 2004, only 18% of WGA-employed film writers and only 27% of TV writers were women. In 2006, female membership in the Animation Guild was only 17.3%, and of these only 8% were producers, 14.9% directors and 10.8% writers. "Maybe the answer is that for change to occur even more women are needed in the creative process where key decision-making occurs at the pitch and story development level," writes Smith.

Or, as she writes in the introduction: "Clearly, along the entire creative and marketing process, participants can develop, design and engage in practical solutions to the problem of gender under-representation aimed at children. As balance and portrayals improve, children now, and the next generation of children, will be the winners. They will be exposed to entertainment in which females take up half the space and both females and males are active, diverse and complex."

Jan Nagel, the Entertainment Marketing Diva, is a consultant who has been involved in the business of animation and visual effects since 1991. She represents creative producers and production companies worldwide, including Small World Animation, Santo Domingo Films, and Jim Keeshen Productions, as well as being a frequent guest lecturer on the subject of the business of animation. She is also a founding member and president emeritus of Women in Animation International.

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Jan Nagel, Entertainment Marketing Diva