Geena Davis probably buys the same cereal as you.
But unlike the general population, the Hollywood star has a key understanding of what’s behind the box’s mascot—and the spokespeople or spokescreatures used to hawk more than 500 top-selling products in the US, for that matter. That’s because the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, together with food and beverage manufacturer The Jel Sert Company, recently conducted a study on how gender and race are represented in brand mascots. Davis says she can never look at product packaging the same way again, and now she’s hoping for the same reaction from the marketing and entertainment industry.
Among the Mascots Matter: Gender and Race Representations in Branding findings presented by Davis at today’s Kidscreen Summit keynote in Miami is the fact that male characters outnumber female characters two-to-one (67.1% compared to 31.4%). Female mascots are more likely to be presented as gender stereotypes than male ones (25.45% compared to 15.9%), and male mascots are seven times more likely to be shown as funny. They’re also more likely to be shown as being more active than their female counterparts (48.4% compared to 43.4%).
Like representations in film, television and other forms of mass communication, gender and race representations in the images seen in brand advertising send subtle messages about which individuals have the authority to confirm value on a product, according to Davis, and those messages are especially poignant when it comes to how kids self-identify.
“We are interested in the way females are portrayed in all forms of media that reach kids,” Davis says. “We primarily focus on film and TV for children under the age of 11, since that’s still their main entertainment source. But mascots for consumer goods were something that had never really been examined or researched before, and they’re a big part of kids’ lives.” Mascots Matter surveyed 1,096 character representations—from humans and humanoids, to animals and other creatures—across grocery, household and personal care products.
“The mascot study findings tell a similar story to what’s happening in the world of commercial entertainment, in that there’s a two-to-one ratio of male to female representation,” Davis says. The issue of race, too, is also hard to ignore. Among racial/ethnic minorities, Latino characters constitute 8.2% of mascots, followed by Black (2.9%), Native American/Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (2.2%), Asian (1.2%) and Middle Eastern (1.0%) mascots. “Kids are not seeing people who look like them in the characters their exposed to,” Davis adds. “For example, white mascots are more active and family-oriented. And this study reflects previous research we’ve done on media representation.”
The Academy Award-winning actor’s past research led her to present at Kidscreen Summit in 2016 in a keynote address entitled “If She Can See It, She Can Be It.” (This year’s keynote, “Marketing to Boys and Girls: New research from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media,” was moderated by Wind Dancer Film and Television president Dete Meserve.) Davis was initially inspired to launch the institute that bears her name in 2004, after she saw the children’s entertainment world through the eyes of her daughter, who was a toddler at the time.
“I was appalled that so many more male characters were being made to entertain the youngest of kids in the 21st century,” Davis recalls. “This area is profoundly urgent to acknowledge because we are training kids from the beginning to form an unconscious gender bias.” To be sure, Davis—whose own acting credits include unconventionally strong female leads in films like A League of Their Own and TV’s Commander in Chief—acknowledges that strides have been made to ensure children’s entertainment, in particular, is more inclusive.
Female empowerment has infiltrated a crop of toons like Nickelodeon’s Nella the Princess Knight, which premiered last year, as well Disney’s Elena of Avalor (which recently partnered with Girls Scouts for a leadership initiative) and long-running hit Doc McStuffins. DHX Media’s Rainbow Ruby, meanwhile, can transform into various forms to help her toy friends. Gender roles and sexual orientation in general are being portrayed differently, too. In 2016, for example, Nickelodeon’s hit series Loud House introduced the kidsnet’s first married gay couple, while Cartoon Network’s current series Clarence included a lesbian couple and a gay kiss. Disney Channel also featured its first gay main character on season two of Andi Mack last October.
“It helps that everyone is more aware. It’s been of paramount importance all along, but now society is realizing that something has to be done. But we still have so much work to do,” Davis says. “Marketers need to be exposed to our research, and so we take our findings directly to them and present things in a private way. And that usually does a lot of the talking for us. We have yet to leave meeting when one person doesn’t say we changed the outcome of their project in some way.”
Davis says the needle continues to move in the right direction when it comes to kids TV, and expects dramatic changes in terms of female representation to take form within the next 10 years. “On-screen media is one area of gross gender inequality that can be fixed overnight,” she says. “It’s so easy to solve the problem. There’s no reason not to make kids entertainment—especially preschool content—more gender balanced, since boys and girls are watching the same things at this age.”
As for the products and marketing messaging to which this same demo is exposed regularly, Davis is optimistic that change will be in the air—and on shelves—eventually, too. “It’s so important to know this research,” Davis says. “And once you’re aware, it’s something you can’t unsee.”