The Blog

5 Ways to Help Boys and Girls Understand Sexism in Movies

There is no rating system that grades misrepresentation, bias or their effects on culture. Here are five things you can do to teach your kids, boys and girls, how to rate things for themselves.
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Given the world we live in, there is simply no way to stop kids from talking about, seeing and enjoying what are clearly overwhelmingly gender biased stories being told by their entertainment media, movies (and related derivative products) in particular. As I recently couldn't help but point out, in this seasons round of must see family movies only Breaking Dawn has a female lead. Yup, an insanely compelling, masochistic, teen-abstinence-poster-child, vampire-to-be gal.

The thing is, I gobble up these movies like chocolate and my kids really enjoy watching them, too. Most of the ones we see together are fun, thrilling, beautiful to watch and, if we're lucky, well-written. The fact that most stories are told from a male perspective (for example, 75% of speaking roles are held by males) and that my three children are girls is irrelevant. They, like most girls and women, have grown up empathizing with male heroes and stories and ignoring the marginalization of their gender. If they refused to see "a boy's movie" with the same disdain and scorn that many boys show for "a girl's movie" we would rarely walk into a theatre.

You might think I'm saying this is bad for girls. It is. But, this imbalance in representation is equally bad for boys and bad for our society as a whole. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has consistently found that the more time a boy spends watching television and movies the more stereotypically sexist his views become. The more exposure a girl has, the fewer options she feels she has in life. You can find details of the research conducted by the Institute, as well as a comprehensive list of similar resources here.

As I pointed out in a recent post, it's not just our movies, but the way we rate them, that perpetuate outdated gender stereotypes. There is no rating system that grades misrepresentation, bias or their effects on culture. Here are five things you can do to teach your kids, boys and girls, how to rate things for themselves:

  1. Before even talking about movie, games or TV, explain gender, gender stereotypes and gender bias in terms they can understand. The Media Awareness Network has good tips for doing this. Sexism includes representations of men and masculinity that are as harsh and limiting for boys as representations of women and femininity are for girls.
  2. Allow boys to empathize with girls, don't penalize them when they do. Cross-gender empathy is a one-way street in our culture. It's why "tom-boys" has no real male-to-female corollary. It's why we have a word like "effeminate" but no female-to-male corollary. ("Emasculate"?...Both are negatives.) Girls have a lot more leeway to do "boy" things, whereas boys understand very early on that there are real penalties for liking "girl" things. Indeed girls are virtually required to empathize with boys to be successful, whereas boys are taught to do just the opposite. Instead of teaching boys to define their masculinity by rejecting anything feminine in order to be a man, consider using as the counterpoint rejecting "childish" things instead. Don't encourage them or let them get away with disparaging things that are "for girls" as though the very fact that they are "for girls" is proof enough of their undesirability or inferiority. It happens in the other direction, but with no where near the same frequency.
  3. Teach boys and girls about the Bechdel Test and make it a useful tool for evaluating a movie and can be extended to explain stories told in books and games. To pass the test, a movie has to have at least two women characters who talk to one another about something other than a man in the movie. Some variations of this test ask that the women actually have, god forbid, names. You'd be amazed, once you start thinking about it, how few movies pass this test. There is a great site that keeps a running tab.
  4. Discuss the disjuncture between real life and the representations of gender in media. In real life there is an actual gender balance and not the 3-to-1, male-to-female ratio of films. There are lots of qualitative discussions you can have regarding roles, characterizations or, for example, clothing by gender. Most people would probably agree that men are not responsible for 75% of the talking being done in the world. Just like all women generally don't spend 95% of their waking hours in pursuit of marriage. Some of them exercise, do research, teach, coach, legislate, explore. They even work outside of the home. In a recent study of 333 speaking roles in G Rated movies, for example, 80.5% of working characters were male versus 19.5% female. The same study revealed that every instance of a doctor, politician, lawyer, military or law enforcement official or criminal was male. The report points out "on the positive side, six females [across 21 films] were shown in the hard science." Likewise, note how few genuinely nurturing roles there are for boys and men that don't somehow use irony to mock the effort as they represent it.
  5. Keep a sense of humor. Sometimes, I've get overwhelmed and frustrated by the sluggishness of culture in light of real, substantive change. Clearly, the negative impact of stereotyping on boys is better understood and girls and women are finding more and better opportunities in society every day. We are far from being done, however. We don't have equal pay. Violence against women is pandemic. We don't have enough representation in leadership roles. Chore wars, despite frequent claims to the opposite, are not over. It's important to teach kids to be media literate without demoralizing them. There is no shortage of opportunities to laugh when evaluating gender bias in movies.

I know that lots of people are going to come out of the woodwork to point out that girls are doing better than boys in school and that movies have no effect on their success. I hope you are having a good day. In the meantime, however, I think that the imbalance is relevant and has real consequences in how girls and boys learn about equality, ability, power and fairness. Ignoring sexism doesn't make it go away or make it any less unpleasant. Speak up. Tell your kids. Educate them so that they are media literate.