Have you ever noticed how many girls there are in Transformer Rescue Bots? Me either. Until this morning when I peered over my sons’ shoulders (I let them watch while I ironed their school shirts) and counted. There was one. She’s the helicopter pilot, so that’s something. But as far as ratios go it’s pretty lame: Four out of four male rescue bots, one girl (the pixie cut chopper pilot) out of five ‘humans’, and an elderly lady trapped in a car.
“Where are the girls?” I asked my boys with accentuated mortification. “Girls can be Rescue Bots too”.
I’m taking a leaf out of Geena Davis’ book.
The Actor (note, she prefers ‘actor’ over ‘actress’ which she says is a ‘redundant term’), Activist and Feminist won’t let her kids watch TV in peace. The mother of three proudly admits to keeping up a “running commentary” to try to counteract the overt sexism in TV shows and movies which she says is particularly rife in PG shows for age eleven and under.
“Why is a boy doing that? Do you think a girl could do that too?” She’ll interject. “Why is a girl wearing that when she’s going to rescue someone?”
Davis, who’s made a name for herself playing feisty feminist roles like Thelma in Thelma and Louise (1991) and baseball player, Dottie, in A League of Their Own (1992) is founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, making it her mission to redress stark gender imbalance in Hollywood and beyond.
Rousing the crowd at the All About Women Festival at the Sydney Opera House yesterday, she pointed out just how dire the state of play still is:
One woman for every two-and-a-half to three male characters in speaking roles, and
the women who do make the cut are often stereotyped or hyper-sexualised. Female characters in G rated films wear the same amount of sexually revealing clothing as R rated. What’s with those tiny waisted Monster High girls?
Even group scenes have a piffly ratio of around 17% females, which has barely shifted since 1946. “Not a lot has changed since Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs”, says Davis. “Maybe Hollywood writers think women don’t gather”.
And kids TV is the worst offender, ”bereft of female presence”, says Davis citing an even more disproportionate number of male to female characters where ‘symbolic annihilation’ appears to be rife, and the females that do make it in are stereotyped as mothers or princesses.
“One of the most common occupations of female characters is royalty. Now that’s a good gig to get if you can. But it’s tricky to get”.
Ridiculously, there’s even less equality on screen than in the real world (which is saying something), a forum where anything is possible.
Davis says it’s crucial we turn this around especially for young, impressionable minds who gauge their sense of normality, even their ‘worth’ by what they see on screen. The way things are, you’d be left with the impression that girls are sexy “or not there at all”.
“The more TV a girl watches, the less opportunities she thinks she has in life. Think how different the world would be if boys and girls saw equality from the beginning”, says Davis.
Case in point: one of the most highly stacked female occupations in the media is forensic science thanks to shows such as CSI, NCIS and Law and Order. Research shows a direct correlation between the success of these programs and women studying forensic science, fictional characters planting the possibility in their heads.
When Davis was cast as the first female US President in TV series, Commander in Chief (2005), there was a spike in the number of Americans who said they would vote for a female president. Sadly, that was before its time.
But these shows remain, regrettably, the exception. A few ‘token’ female leads will not make much of a dent. “If we add women at the rate we have been we will achieve parity in 700 years”, Davis calculates.
In the meantime the onus is on us.
As if we don’t have enough on our plates, we parents must pass on the feminist mantle to our sons and daughters as we are their greatest hope.
Don’t do as I did: I’m guilty of talking my son out of buying a pink watermelon beach towel because it’s a “girl colour”. It was a shameful but, in my defence, rare indiscretion, counterbalanced with a feminist consciousness that pervades our single woman household.
In true fashion, American feminist author of ‘Shrill’, Lindy West, says she’s “shouty” with her two teenage daughters about feminism, “hoping some of it will sink in”.
Or, as Geena Davis suggests, we sit with our children during screen time, as author of Speaking Out and activist Tara Moss and her husband, Berndt Sellheim, do with their five year old daughter. “Our daughter is still young, so I like to run a commentary, providing some context when we watch movies together”, she says. “We often talk about how brave or strong or compassionate and clever the women are, as it is the more important focus, rather than the tiara or dress that might be made a big deal of in really overt ways in the film. When a great female character is called ‘shrill’ or a ‘know it all’, like Hermoine is by Professor Snape in Harry Potter, I might say, ‘That’s not fair. She’s smart and answered the question none of other students knew.’ And she’ll say, ‘Yeah!’ In agreement. It means she has a way of looking at the messages and questioning them, rather than just absorbing them automatically. And she often points out things to me now!”
The tide is turning with kids movies like Frozen, Ballerina and Sing, and TV shows like Sam and Cat, Doc McStuffins and WordGirl with kickass female characters. Even Mummy Pig has a job. As Geena Davis puts it, “The media itself can be the cure for the problem it’s created”.
This article was first published in Daily Life on 6th March 2017