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How the media portrays females is affecting girls—and boys

How The Media Portrays Females Is Affecting Girls—And Boys - Parents Canada

When Always released its “Like a Girl” video on YouTube, (and broadcast an edited version during the Superbowl) it sparked a wave of questions from parents and kids alike, launching the issue of gender stereotypes into the mainstream. The video features girls on a sound stage being prompted to do actions such as “run like a girl”, or “throw like a girl”. The young girls take the task quite seriously, running flat out. But teen girls and women demonstrate an uncoordinated running style and a weak arm. The question is posed: “When did the question ‘like a girl’ become an insult?” The reality strikes that at a certain stage of adolescence young women begin to see the role of female in a negative light.

We’ve been wringing our hands for decades over the issue of how the portrayal of girls in the media affects girls in the real world. But are we making any progress? Are girls treated the same way as boys? In a land where the heavily made-up and pouty pageant star Honey Boo Boo was a reality TV darling, you can’t help but want to give your head a shake (or at least the head of programming at TLC). What role does the media, specifically television, play promoting gender stereotypes? And more importantly, what role can it play in turning the ship around?

Where have all the girls gone?

According to a 2008 study by the International Central Institute for Youth & Educational Television and the Prix Jeunesse Foundation of Programming, only 32 percent of the main characters in children’s fictional TV are female, even though the world’s population is 51 percent female. If these characters are portrayed as heroes, they are “significantly more often” a member of a group, whereas males are frequently portrayed as heroic loners. Animated females are usually redheaded or blonde thin teens, according to the study’s authors. (A recent study from Common Sense Media found that 87 percent of female characters age 10 to 17 are actually below average weight.) Their stories are often dominated by stereotypical portrayals of girls as powerless, passive victims. One industry insider who didn’t want to be named for fear of a backlash by the broadcasters stated that programming is rife with “cookie cutter limiting roles.” Girls are seldom seen in tween or teen programming solving their own problems.

In a recent interview with C21 Media, Nat Abraham or Toronto-based Breakthrough Entertainment, discussed the difficulty of creating programming for both genders. “Aiming at boys is a safer bet. They grow up slower. The writing is relatively unburdened by the girlish issues of body image and over-sexualization.” In other words, in the world of television, there are fewer and fewer strong role models for girls.

Appearance matters

Girls on TV tend to be more attractive than boys, says Matthew Johnson, Director of Education for Ottawa-based MediaSmarts. He cites a recent study called “Gender Roles in Tween Television Programming: A Content Analysis of Two Genres,” which found tween female characters were portrayed as always being attractive (in contrast to the male characters, who had varying levels of attractiveness) “and as being both concerned with and valued according to their appearance.” This has an impact.

“Children as young as six express body image dissatisfaction,” says Dr. Seena Grewal, associate head of the Eating Disorder Program at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. “Sexualization in the media can impact a girl’s sense of self and her understanding of how she may be valued by others or what she has to do to be attractive to others,” she adds.

A January 2015 review of research from Common Sense Media concurs. “Children, Teens, Media and Body Image” found when teenage girls saw female characters on film and television programs wearing sexy clothing, showing exposed skin, thin, and referenced as being attractive or desirous – which happened far more often to female characters than male characters—it negatively affected their body image and self-esteem. In short, the report says, teen girls are learning that beauty equals thin and sexy.

Negative portrayals of girls in the media do nothing to help boys either. The American Psychology Association Task Force Report on the Sexualization of Girls (2008) found in a literature review that “exposure to narrow ideals of female sexual attractiveness may make it difficult for some men to find an ‘acceptable’ partner or to fully enjoy intimacy with a female partner” and “even viewing a single episode of an objectifying television program such as Charlie’s Angels may lead men to rate real women as less physically attractive.”

Good news stories

Besides Always, other companies have addressed the issue of how girls are viewed in the media. Leading the charge was Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign launched 10 years ago. The ads celebrated real girls of all sizes and shapes and even myth-busted an air brushed model.

More recently Cheerios started the “Go Girls Mentoring Program” for girls 12 to 14. Run by Big Brothers and Big Sisters, it promotes physical activity, balanced eating, and self-esteem.

And in the world of television and film there are still characters that are attempting to break the mold. Toronto based 9 Story Entertainment produces an animated series for pre-schoolers called “Peg & Cat” that involves finding fun and creative solutions to math problems with the aid of Peg, a spirited girl who demonstrates “that it’s never too early to start learning the magic of numbers.” Math of course usually being the domain of boys.

What can parents do?

“Get involved in your children’s media lives,” says Matthew. “Whenever possible watch TV or videos with your children and look for opportunities to talk to them about media issues.” This involves “modelling good habits of asking critical questions about what they see in media and encouraging them, as they get older, to ask those questions themselves.”

As a consumer, never forget the power you have. Matthew says that when it comes to youth-oriented programming, merchandising will often be the “tail that wags the dog.” Take the time to tell children’s broadcasters when you see gender stereotypes or a lack of positive female role models. The market is there only because it’s supported.

Dr. Grewal says seeking out diverse role models is key—not only in the media but also in kids’ personal lives. “If you notice your daughter idolizing or admiring a particular person, use it as an opportunity to have a conversation with her about what she admires about that person and, in turn, what she admires about herself.”

That’s what Krista (last name withheld), of Milton, Ont., and mom of tween Olivia, tries to do. Krista grew up with her own body issues, so she tries to be aware of what she’s teaching her daughter. When Olivia asked for a bikini, Krista said no because she felt it was inappropriate for Olivia’s age. Her response was, “Why? Do you think I’m fat?” Krista explained her decision but took it one step further. She asked if Olivia thought she was fat. Mom was relieved that Olivia said no.

Although Olivia was shielded from a lot of adult television and advertising during her early years, she is a dancer, and she emulates the likes of Beyoncé and what she sees on programs like So You Think You Can Dance. Krista says “I think she understands the stage persona versus the actual person.” Also helping in the matter is Olivia’s exposure to ongoing media and advertising classes that started in Grade 3. Awareness, and making the most of learning opportunities are key to a child’s development.

Most important, remember that the power to raise our daughters as confident strong, women, and our sons as respectful, sensitive men, is still within our grasp. Everyone is leading busy lives, but making an effort to ask appropriate questions about how kids perceive themselves, and about what they see in the vast world of media is a step in the right direction. Positive programming with non-sexualized, pro-active, and independent female roles exist, it just takes some time to wade through the rest of the muck to find them.

Brave New World: A case study

Her waist suddenly got smaller, the neckline of her dress plummeted, her shoulders are bared, she’s wearing black eyeliner, her hair’s been re-styled and now cascades in well-coiffed sausage curls instead of unruly frizz. Unfortunately she also appears to have aged 10 years. (No, I’m not talking about your daughter). In the spring of 2013 Disney unveiled the new enhancements to the tomboy heroine Merida, from the Oscar-winning animated film Brave. Her transformation was part of her launch as the 11th official Disney Princess. Sadly even her trademark bow and arrow were rarely seen in graphic representations.

The strong, independent Meridas of the world don’t come around too often. So the question is, why mess with success?

Journalist Lindsey Bahr, writing for Entertainment Weekly, expressed that the re-making of Merida was not a surprise, and questioned whether it was a big deal—given the fact her makeover was part of Disney’s corporate initiative to sell dolls and t-shirts. “It’s a product. It’s commerce. And it doesn’t have to diminish what Merida stood for or represented in the film.”

Or does it? What message are we sending to girls, when the image they know and love isn’t good enough to wear emblazoned on their chests? Disney was sending the message that a “real” and familiar unglamourized face and body can’t be turned into a commodity to be sold for profit.

But it’s not all bad news. With Merida, fans and parents were up in arms and expressed their displeasure online, and many media organizations also got on the bandwagon. started an online petition, addressed to Walt Disney Company executives, asking for a return to the original.

“My little girl has unruly curls, wants to climb trees, run with the wind, and challenge stereotypes every day AND she is only four years old,” wrote one petition signer. “How can I possibly tell her that her favourite character has given in and given up to become an overly sexualized pin-up version of her former self?”

After a bit of blustering and claiming the artwork was intended to be used only on a “limited line of products” as a “one time stylized version,” Disney backed down. Products once visible on their website, as well as those sold through Target, seem to have disappeared.

Katherine Di Marino has worked in the Canadian film and television industry for the last 20 years and has just begun writing films featuring female role models.

Originally published in February/March 2015 issue.

a man carrying two children

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