NEW YORK — In the Welsch family's well-appointed kitchen, Harriet's mother is watching her daughter in despair. The sixth-grade student is standing chest high to the counter to prepare her school lunch: globs of mayonnaise and a sliver of tomato on white bread.
Harriet's mother points out that Harriet has had the same thing for lunch at school every day - wouldn't she like to try something different? "Mom!" Harriet says with a theatrical roll of her eyes. "I can't help it if I know what I like."
That confidence, in the eyes of the national youth group Girls Inc., makes Harriet a very special girl, all the more so because she isn't real. The young heroine in the new movie "Harriet the Spy" is a prime example of the kind of character Girls Inc. hopes to see more of in television and film: smart, strong, and confident.
To further their new campaign to promote better media images of girls, Girls Inc. took the unusual step of joining forces with Nickelodeon, the maker of "Harriet," to give the film its New York debut.
"Girls Inc. is about building up skills and self-esteem, telling girls they can do and be anything," says Jennifer Hahn, associate director of communications. "Yet they're being bombarded by popular culture that tells them they are inferior, incidental, unimportant. They rarely get to see a character like Harriet who's smart, adventurous, confident, and strong."
And girls respond when they do get the chance. The hundreds of school-age girls who crowded into a New York theater earlier this month for the premiere oohed delightedly as Harriet climbed, leapt, and crawled through her daily spy route; giggled as she recorded her opinionated thoughts in a notebook; and cheered when Harriet stood up for herself against a classmate. "I thought Harriet was great," says teenager Abigail Santiago. "She was smart and funny and believed in herself."
Rosie O'Donnell, one of the movie's leads, offers a real-life story of confidence. In a question-and-answer session following the premiere, she said, "I've wanted to be an actress since I was 5. I always knew; I never had a second thought. So whatever your dream is, dream it first, then live it."
The film's positive response isn't surprising to Ms. Hahn. In 1995, nonprofit Girls Inc. surveyed 2,000 girls from Grades 3 to 12 to learn about their views of TV. The response, says Hahn, was overwhelming. "They said girls on TV were depicted as silly, second rate, not dealing with serious stuff. They wanted more ethnic diversity. They wanted to see girls that look like them and face the same problems."
From the survey results, Girls Inc. launched their "Girls Re-Cast TV" campaign and action kit to teach girls to evaluate what they see and hear on TV and encourage them to speak out about it. The kit contains cards that pose questions to get kids thinking about how often they use television and how realistic it is.
Nickelodeon proved an ideal partner for Girls Inc. to work with to promote better girl characters. The children's channel, which is making its film debut with "Harriet," has created a variety of popular shows with strong, dynamic female characters that disproved common wisdom - that boys won't watch shows with girl leads.
Creating shows around girl characters and people of different ethnic backgrounds has been a conscious decision, says Debby Beece, president of Nickelodeon movies. "It evolved from giving kids what they want in entertainment that they aren't getting. People said 'you're going to fail,' but the results speak for themselves."