A lot of people say Toy Story is a great film. Joe Kelly, president of Dads & Daughters, agrees. “It’s a marvelous movie, beautifully done and a powerful story of two personalities,” he said. “They drive each other crazy, but still are able to work together to solve a crisis. That’s an incredibly important message that I want my child to get.”
If you sense there’s a “but” coming, you’re right.
“In Toy Story 1,” said Kelly, “There’s only one female toy character. And that’s Bo Peep.”
Kelly’s point isn’t that Toy Story is flawed, but that its boy-centered plot is all too typical of kids’ movies. See Jane, an initiative of Dads & Daughters founded by actress Geena Davis, has just released a study of the 101 top-grossing G-rated films released between 1990 and 2004: researchers found gender imbalances in 93 percent of the films, both real and animated.
Of the films in the study, females make up only 28 percent of speaking characters, 17 percent of the characters in crowd scenes and less than 20 percent of film narrators.
The results weren’t a total surprise. “We suspected that there was an imbalance but didn’t realize it was this pronounced, this lopsided,” Kelly said. “There were only 7 [films] that were balanced out of 101.”
The See Jane program was created two years ago when Davis approached Kelly with her concerns about children’s entertainment. Together they came up with the idea for the study, “Where the Girls Aren’t.”
Find the blind spot
Only smaller studies had been done on the topic. Kelly and Davis wanted something more comprehensive, so See Jane hired a team of researchers at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California to analyze the films.
“It’s the most in-depth analysis of G-rated movies that has ever been done,” said Kelly.
The analysis showed gender disparity across the board. “The films in this sample come from 20 different distributors. There’s no one culprit. To me that’s evidence that it’s not a conspiracy; it’s systemic blindness,” he said.
To back up that point, Kelly tells an anecdote of Davis’ about filming the model boat race scene in Stuart Little. (Davis played the parent of a mouse in this 1999 kids’ film.) The assistant director gave the boy actors remote controls to the boats and told the girl actors to look over the boys’ shoulders. Davis asked if half the remotes could be given to the girls.
“He said, ‘Oh sure, no problem,’” said Kelly. “He didn’t have any objection to it, it just never occurred to him.”
Gender disparity might be unintentional, but that doesn’t make its consequences any less serious—for both boys and girls, Kelly said. “You’re primarily talking about preschool children who are watching these videos over and over and over, so these images are being imprinted,” he said. “That’s why we focused on this age range.”
The issue is a perfect match for Dads & Daughters, he said. “It’s men taking leadership on this. It doesn’t just take women to see this; men can see this. It’s a matter of saying ‘Think of your own kids. Do you go out of your way to tell your children that boys are three times more important than girls and women? So take that lesson and apply it to your work.’”
More work to do
Additional results from the study will be released later this year. But with the first results in hand, Kelly has already launched the second phase of the project: teaching parents, educators and entertainment professionals to pay attention to gender balance in films and on television. Dads & Daughters has hired a staff person in Los Angeles to meet with writers, directors and others in the film industry.
“If we can get people thinking, it’s a good thing,” said Kelly. “We’re not into scolding the industry: what we want is we want the movies to change. And [we’re] providing context for parents and educators.”
Read the report at www.dadsanddaughters.org.The See Jane website (www.seejane.org) provides film-watching tips for parents, educators and kids.
TV tips for parentsM/b>
• Decide how much time you want your kids to spend in front of the television and what kind of shows you want them to watch. Be consistent.
• Help your child differentiate between advertisements and programming. Explain how the two function differently.
• Are you making assumptions about the gender of animated characters? Are you more often referring to them as he?
• If the gender of characters is unknown, ask your child what she or he thinks about the character’s gender. What clues does your child use to choose a character’s gender?
• Even if your child likes to watch the same show over and over again, continue to talk to him or her about the show.
Adapted from www.seejane.org