Parenting media savvy kids: Counter pop culture gender stereotypes

Parenting your kids into pint-sized media critics may be more important than you thought: A new report by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media shows gender stereotypes and disparities abound in popular media for kids.

Only 28.3 percent of speaking characters in family films are female, found a new report by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. The princess stereotype – sometimes seen in Disney Princess movies – is popular among little girls like these dressed as Princess Tiana from 'The Princess and the Frog' at the Disney Princess Royal Court Crowning Event in New York, in March 2010.

Next time you take the fam to the movies, give an extra close look at who on screen is doing the talking. Chances are, it’s not going to be the girl character.

In a new report by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, researchers from the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California found that only 28.3 percent of the speaking characters in family films (and 30.8 percent in children’s television shows) are female. Few stories are “gender-balanced,” or show females in 45.1 to 55 percent of all speaking rolls (11 percent of family films fit this category), while quite a few are very “male-centric.” (Fifty percent of family films and 39 percent of children's shows cast boys or men in 75 percent or more of the speaking roles.)

And it gets better.

Of those characters who do have speaking rolls, the ones shown working are typically male. (Females make up 20.3 percent of the total on-screen occupations in family films and represent 25.3 percent of those employed in children’s shows.) Prestigious jobs and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers also go to the guys.

Meanwhile – surprise, surprise – the characters more likely to be shown as thin, dressed in tight or otherwise provocative clothing or with exposed skin are female. (Yup, even in family films.)

The message, researchers conclude, is that girls should learn to be cute, quiet, and unemployed.  Nice, right?

“Female characters are still sidelined, stereotyped and sexualized in popular entertainment content,” they write.


Disappointing, I guess, but not a particularly surprising report. 

The realization that male characters drive the plot while female characters act as decoration is neither new nor under-analyzed  We have written a lot ourselves about the sexualization of young girls and the gender stereotypes in popular media.

But reports like this do point out that these sorts of stereotypes are a continuing problem, despite an awful lot of attention by advocates and media-watchers. And they give a heads up to parents to be aware.

Which is all well and good, you might say, but...  what’s a mom or dad to do about this?  

It’s a question I’ve asked a number of child development experts over the past couple of years. Although there are a variety of answers and suggestions for ways to give kids some ammunition against gender stereotypes in children’s programming, the consensus is that it’s important to turn your little ones into pint-sized media critics.

This means being a critic yourself, and noticing that it’s the female character (animated or not) who does the dishes, or the teenage boy who is going on the adventure. Then talk with your children about it. With, notice, and not at.   Ask them why they think that the female character is always wearing skirts. Ask why there might not be any female scientists. Don’t judge the answers, the child experts will often say, because the goal is to promote conversation and not to suggest that your daughter’s favorite television show character is, well, lame.

Many experts say the point is to get your kids to recognize that there are assumptions being made by those who create programming – often assumptions tied to commercial goals. And just because it's on screen, children don't need to copy. 

Maybe moms and dads can learn that lesson, too.

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