The future is female, just not in film: Image of girls in popular movies bears little resemblance to reality

While parents, teachers and even advertisements may tell girls that they can do or be anything, a new study reveals that popular movies have a different message. The report, out today from Professor Stacy L. Smith, focuses on the depiction of girls age 6 to 20 across 900 top movies of the last decade. The findings show that younger female characters are missing and marginalized in top-grossing films.

Entitled “The Future is Female,” the report is the latest from the Media, Diversity & Social Change (MDSC) Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and was released today at the Surefire Girls conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. Quantitatively, the study focused on the demographics and hypersexualization of younger characters appearing in the 900 top films from 2007 to 2016 (excluding 2011). A qualitative investigation focused on academic pursuits, relationships and activities of these characters in 200 films from 2015 and 2016. The results demonstrate that elementary and teenage females on screen bear little resemblance to their real-world counterparts.

“Girls of today are dynamic and diverse,” said Professor Smith. “The entertainment industry continues to tell stories that bear little resemblance to the reality of today’s girls and young women. Where are their intellectual pursuits? Their interest in STEM? Their desire for justice and equality? Those passions are not being shown with frequency in popular movies.” 

Child and teen characters made up 12.5 percent of all speaking characters in the 900 films analyzed, which is 7.9 percentage points below the U.S. Census estimate for these age groups. Of those characters, 39.7 percent were female, a ratio of 1.52 males to every one female character. In 2016, however, younger female characters reached parity with younger males, as they accounted for 48.2 percent of all speaking or named roles in this age bracket. Despite this progress, younger female characters were predominantly white, as only 23 percent of female child and teen characters were from an underrepresented racial/ethnic group.

“Invisibility is the norm for girls and female teens from diverse backgrounds,” said Professor Smith. “When 89 percent of 200 top films from 2015 and 2016 did not feature a single Black or African-American female speaking character age 6 to 20, and 94.5 percent did not feature young Latinas, this is grounds for concern. Not only are these groups erased, but 96.5 percent of movies did not feature a female character with a disability, and younger females from the LGBT community were completely missing from the films we examined.”

The report also addressed the low number of younger females driving the action in films. Only 15 leading or co-leading characters were younger females in the 200 most popular films of 2015 and 2016, with eight females in 2016 and seven in 2015 at the center of storytelling. This was virtually unchanged from 2007, when six younger females were in leading roles. All but two of the leading characters were played by white actors across the three years.

“Young people spend critical hours each day learning from media, and this report shines a light on the messages that film can convey to them,” said USC Annenberg Dean Willow Bay. “It also shows why we must continue to provide young girls and young women with new stories, role models and opportunities to become leaders and to create real change.”

The study also explored the sexualization of female characters. Female teens were almost four times as likely to be shown in sexually revealing clothing and over twice as likely to be shown with partial nudity compared to teenage males on screen. Teenage females were also more likely than male teenagers to be thin.

The authors evaluated whether the age of the actor portraying the primary and secondary female characters aligned. Over half (53 percent) of the female teens in these key roles were played by actors whose age did not match that of the characters. Most often, the actors depicting these characters were older than the role they played. “The casting of adult actors to play younger roles may be one explanation for the sexualization of teenage characters,” said Professor Smith. “However, what Hollywood may consider standard practice may have negative consequences for young female viewers.”

The qualitative analysis of primary and secondary young females further demonstrates the disconnect between girls on screen and girls in real life. Feminine stereotypes are still the status quo in film, as 35.8 percent of young female characters were shown engaging in chores such as housework or caring for siblings. Additionally, over half of the female teens evaluated were shown with an opposite sex romantic interest in the story. There were no young LGBT female characters depicted in the top 200 movies of 2015 and 2016.

When stories focus on stereotypes, scholastic pursuits are pushed to the side. Slightly less than one-third (31.7 percent) of younger females were shown in an academic context or doing homework. Only 12.2 percent of the female girls or teens were shown with an interest in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM). Few (7.3 percent) of the female characters revealed professional aspirations.

“Girls and young women are a vital part of our global future, and this report makes it clear that popular films do not value their stories, or the ways they already contribute to building a better world,” said Ann Lovell, one of the study’s funders. “We can and must do more for them.”

“As a movement builder for the advancement of women and girls, these results reveal how much we have to do. The leaders of the next generation — our future CEOs, lawmakers, doctors, lawyers, teachers — do not see themselves or their stories told,” said Jacquelyn Zehner, president of the Jacquelyn and Gregory Zehner Foundation, which funded the study. “If we do not show them what is possible, who will?”

The report is the latest from the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative, and can be read in full at this link.