Exploring the gender gap

One seminar in particular at the last edition of the Alliance for Children in Television's Youth & Media Conference, held in Toronto in November, got a lot of people talking.
April 1, 2010

One seminar in particular at the last edition of the Alliance for Children in Television’s Youth & Media Conference, held in Toronto in November, got a lot of people talking. At the event, in which a who’s who of the Canadian children’s entertainment industry gathered to network and share ideas, a talk on gender representation in international kids TV programming put the spotlight on just how imbalanced it is. As it turns out, the bulk of kids shows feature male protagonists over females ones and are riddled with gender stereotypes.

Editor of The Journal of Children & Media – and author of the recently released book, Screening Gender on Children’s Television: The Views of Producers Around the World – professor Dafna Lemish led the seminar. She shared extensive research from her book that came out of face-to-face interviews with 135 children’s TV producers from 65 countries over a four-year period. During the session she also quoted eye-opening quantitative research from a major international study on gender representation led by Prix Jeunesse International head Maya Goetz that analyzed some 2,364 hours of kids programming from 24 countries.

‘In many cases, TV is the first exposure kids have to different people, cultures, workplaces and situations,’ says Lemish. ‘It’s crucial [to get it right] because characters are adored by children and decide for kids what is good, bad, pretty and ugly, and offer them possibilities of what their futures can and should be,’ she says.

What may or may not be surprising to industry folk is that Goetz’s content analysis found that of the 26,342 main characters coded in the study’s review of kids fictional programs, only 32% were female, while 68% were male. Animated shows in particular had a female-male split of 31/67, lower than live- action formats, which averaged 40/60. Overall, the study’s analysis found that the heroes in kids programming worldwide are overwhelmingly male and lead stories as female characters are generally there to be rescued, serving to further define the identity of the male heroes, rather than heroes in their own right. The research also revealed that the physical traits of female characters often subscribed to feminine ideals found in popular culture, with girls having blonde or red hair and slim builds more often than not. In fact, the number of overweight male characters doubled that of females. Depictions of overweight girls were scarce in the entire sample, and there were none found in shows produced in Norway, Argentina, South Africa or Hong Kong.

Though fictictious programs naturally stray from real life, Lemish contends that being consistently under-represented in the media imparts a message of marginality to real girls.

Of course, as Lemish points out, the issue of gender inequality is not unique to children’s programming – it permeates popular culture, advertising and merchandising. However, a studio-based industry traditionally dominated by male producers set the stage early on. ‘Even though they didn’t have bad intentions, men were directing what they thought was right, what interested them and what they thought was attractive,’ says Lemish.

The Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media, based in L.A. and founded by actress Geena Davis after she noticed how women were under-represented in the programming her daughter was exposed to, has also conducted quantitative analyses on gender roles. Research carried out in 2005 that sampled 1,034 shows found that when looking at animation vs. live-action programming, females in animated contexts were more likely to be shown in sexually revealing attire at a ratio of 25% to 17%. Toon girls were also more likely to have smaller waists than live-action female characters (40% to 7%). And the research wasn’t entirely focused on how female appearances are misrepresented. Animated male characters were more likely to have larger chests and smaller waists than their live-action counterparts.

‘Animation favored sexualized female characters with unrealistic body ideals, and for male characters, animation heightened a superhero muscularity,’ says Madeline DiNonno, executive director of the Institute.

DiNonno says the organization is aiming to bring about change from within the industry. Its programming arm, See Jane, is in the early stages of meeting with all levels of studio execs. The goal is to raise awareness and work together on developing scripts and holding educational workshops to help redress the skewed female-to-male character ratio and diminish the use of gender stereotypes.

Buying into realistic ratios

Creating shows with balanced gender representations is one thing, but both Lemish and DiNonno say they come up against producers who contend they have to produce boy-centric shows because that’s what broadcasters are going to buy. Going forward, DiNonno says some of the key research the Institute takes on will be to dispel the notion that boys will only watch shows with male leads, but girls will watch regardless of the main character’s sex.

‘One of the research projects is to challenge that myth,’ says DiNonno. ‘Everybody thinks that’s so, but five-year-olds are watching Dora the Explorer and don’t have a problem with it.’

Similarly, Lemish says broadcasters will buy series they know the audience wants. ‘One of the things that I’ve learned is to convince buyers that they’ll be making lots of money by showing positive images,’ she says. She also holds Dora the Explorer up as an example of a series with a strong female character that boys watch quite willingly. What’s more, its consumer products success proves there’s money to be made in providing such a role model.

New York-based Little Airplane’s The Wonder Pets! is another example, she says. At its core there’s a collaborative ensemble comprised of male and female characters. ‘They collaborate with each other, rather than lapse into the gender stereotypes like fighting or getting entangled in romantic relationships,’ says Lemish. Furthermore, she notes the series’ male characters, Linny and Tuck, aren’t compelled to be aggressive or reluctant to share their feelings, and female character Ming Ming doesn’t cry and become hyper-sensitive – all three experience a range of emotions.

(For his part, Little Airplane president Josh Selig believes that gender inequality may be hard for preschool producers to overcome. ‘The problem is preschool shows have become extended toy commercials and people don’t like to talk about this, but it’s a reality,’ says Selig. He contends the toy discussions become central to the development of a new show and gender imbalances are perpetuated by the needs of the toy business. Mass-market retailers, he notes, readily divide products into separate boy and girl categories.)

Positive examples aren’t limited to preschool. Lemish also cites Canadian-produced tween series Degrassi Junior High as an example of programming that gave equal billing to male and female characters and, more specifically, dealt with common issues of teen sexuality in a positive way.

Beyond the research being conducted by the likes of Lemish and the Geena Davis Institute, what’s really going to reverse the current direction of content is a thorough examination of what kids really want to see, based on empirical evidence and not proverbial industry wisdom. Nickelodeon’s Consumer Insights Research department, interestingly, has spent some time watching kids watch TV in an ongoing effort to get a clear idea of what types of shows boys and girls want to spend time with.

‘There has always been this idea that boys are partial to shows that have male leads and that girls would watch a program regardless of character gender, and we want to see if that is in fact true,’ says Andrea Strauss, VP of Consumer Insights Research at Nickelodeon. Her department did a content analysis of the top-100 shows for kids six to 11 this past summer and coded random eps of some 150 series by character age, gender and racial identity.

Strauss says the content analysis revealed that none of the boy-skewing shows had a solitary female lead characters but rather revolved around ensemble casts that included girls. However, during qualitative interviews with kids, 75% of boys and girls said that it didn’t matter to them whether a lead character was male or female.

‘Is the behavior a result of what’s available to them,’ asks Strauss. ‘Is it the industry that believes this conventional wisdom, so that is what is being created for kids?’ This is what the Consumer Insights team is trying to find out next, and Strauss says further research over the course of the next year will explore that question more deeply.

‘It’s easy to repeat the old formula,’ says Lemish. ‘I hope [producers and broadcasters] will take into consideration how to present the world as more equal, more humane, less violent and more respectful of diversity of people, geared toward gender and racial equality.’

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