Females in movies and TV are "not prevalent, but provocative," Smith's research shows

/images/news/big/smith_gdigm_180p.jpg Communication professor Stacy Smith (pictured, right and top left) unveiled research Jan. 31 at the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (GDIGM) Conference that shows a vast underrepresentation of female characters in popular TV and media. When females are shown, it is often in a highly sexual or provocative manner.

Smith served as principal researcher for four studies that analyzed popular films and television. Among many findings, the data showed that: only 28 percent of speaking characters in G-rated films are female; in the top 400 movies from 1990-2006, females were more than five times as likely as males to be shown in sexually revealing clothing; appearance is heavily focused upon when a female does play a lead role in G-rated films; and male characters occur about twice as often as females in television shows created for children (click here for a major findings overview).

“I think it’s fair to say the picture is not fair for young viewers,” Smith said. “There are more males than females, but when females are shown, they are much more likely to be shown in a hypersexualized way.”

Actress Geena Davis (pictured, top right) said her institute partnered with USC Annenberg because she wanted to bring serious research to movie studios when talking about the underrepresentation of women in movies and television shows. Now that the research backs her fears about gender inequality in Hollywood, she hopes changes can be made. 

“We’re not just talking about making more movies with a female lead,” Davis said. “I’m talking about secondary and tertiary characters. Let’s have them be half female and give kids the sense that it’s ok for girls to take up space in the world, and for the boys to see it’s ok for girls to take up space in the world … My theory is our kids can eventually grow up having more respect for each other.”

While most of the data points to disparity between female and male roles, some positive evidence was also uncovered. According to one study: “Research suggests that the ‘healthiest’ balance of male and female representation is found in shows rated TV-G. These programs present a more balanced treatment of characters by gender and in roles of familial responsibility (e.g., parent, romantic relationship).”

"Clearly, parity has been achieved in this particular rating," Smith said.

Female protagonists in G-rated films, although they don't appear often, show positive and negative trends. The aspirations and heroic actions of certain female leads -- such as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz -- are commendable. However, appearance is often heavily featured in these films.

One study says that a child viewer watching these films may vicariously learn that beauty is an essential part of being female: "In and of itself, appearance praise may not be problematic. Appearance praise becomes disconcerting when it is given only to characters that adhere to a narrow ideal of physical attractiveness, which is the formula for many of these females (small waist, large chest, ultra-thin). Over half of the animated female leads in this study are shown with an unrealistic or exaggerated physique. And more than three-fourths of live and animated females are depicted in sexually revealing attire. Thus, the beauty ideal reinforced in many of the films is an unattainable standard of sexiness and perfection." 

The studies include recommendations for entertainment executives and creators:

  • Include more females as main characters, secondary characters, in crowds and as narrators
  • Provide female characters with aspirations beyond romance
  • Develop the inner character of female characters, too 

Although differing in samples and approach, the results from the four studies show gender inequality is prevalent in both film and TV aimed at children.

"The results from these investigations reveal that much work is needed to be done to achieve gender parity and improved portrayal in film and in children's television. Despite the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950/60s and the rise of second wave Feminism in the 1970s, on screen gender equality still does not exist."

More on Stacy Smith 
Research Overview
Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media 
Conference schedule