Academy Award-winning actor Geena Davis shocked the 5C audience at Scripps’ Garrison Theater last month with some alarming statistics. Her research institute, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, found that only 17% of people appearing in the media are women. SEVENTEEN PERCENT.
Davis, A.K.A. Thelma from Thelma and Louise, A.K.A. Stuart Little’s mom, is a true badass mama and activist for gender equality in young children’s media. She confided that watching television shows and movies with her daughter, Alizeh, that were targeted to young audiences sparked her interest in the issue because of the lack of female characters that she found. Funnily enough, when these children programs do show female characters, they are often in the form of queens and princesses.
Davis posed a challenging question. What messages are we sending to our young boys and girls? When there is such a dramatic imbalance in gender representation in the media aimed at children, girls question their roles in society and boys become increasingly sexist. At such an impressionable age, children soak up what the media offers them. If this includes negative images of women and girls, or simply no images of us at all, then gender inequality is bound to persist. After hearing Davis’ talk and her terrifying 17% statistic, I took a moment to think back to the positive female role models I remembered looking up to when I was her daughter’s age.
Take a blast to the past and remember the days when television shows were awesome and featured relatable female characters we could actually look up to. My personal faves were (and forever will be) Topanga from Boy Meets World. Smart, weird, sassy, and real! She had flaws, sure, but all ladies do (believe it or not). And let me just say that I have all fingers and toes crossed in the hope that the series sequel Girl Meets Boy is even half as amazing as the original. Then there’s Raven Symone from That’s So Raven. Her character was outspoken, one-of-a-kind, and confident in her body and in who she was. These characters, in addition to a few others, were my soul sisters growing up. I believe they really helped me to be sure of myself and explore my inner sassafras in order to be able to share it with the world.
That’s why it is so frustrating to see the characters in popular television shows that my little sister is obsessing over these days. These girls are more concerned with getting the school’s hottie to be their prom date rather than, oh I don’t know, getting good grades or standing up for themselves.
This brings me back to a statement Davis made at the beginning of her speech.
“There are few opportunities we give wom[y]n to feel inspired coming out of a movie,” she said.
These words had a significant effect on me and got me thinking hard about what female images we see in media aimed at our youth. What experiences, personal transformations, and opportunities to grow and learn are being stolen away from kids today?
Media representation shapes how our society thinks about gender and equality. It is so important to have work being done to make sure these issues are gaining more attention and promoting a dialogue to create a, perhaps small, but significant change. Young girls, and boys, deserve to see themselves equally represented on television, and they deserve our dedication to make it happen.
Above all else, what became clear to me after the talk was the fact that Geena Davis is, actually, awesome. Work by well-known actors to make the media a more equal space should be made more public because what they are doing is, as cheesy as it sounds, more than Oscar-worthy.