In the domain of gender studies on films, one particular topic of interest has been the way gender is portrayed in children’s films and the corresponding effect this has on the viewers. Authors Stacy Smith, Katherine Pieper, Amy Granados, and Marc Choueiti, investigate this topic in their article titled, “Assessing Gender-Related Portrayals in Top-Grossing G-Rated Films”.
The authors provide an analysis of various children’s films and more specifically the ways male and female characters are portrayed. Smith, Pieper, Granados, and Choueiti provide insight to an area of concern held by many gender studies scholars as well as by parents.
They state, “Exposure to such distorted “reel” world images may be having a detrimental effect on youth’s gender-role socialization,” (774). In other words, the way that many children’s films depict gender-roles may be reinforcing stereotypes and causing harm to young people’s outlook on the world. Concerns such as these provide the justifying grounds for the study the authors decide to conduct.
As previously stated, the purpose of this article is to examine G-rated films to gather data regarding the way male and female characters are shown. More specifically, the authors state, “…We were interested in content analyzing the frequency and way in which males and females are shown in top-grossing U.S. general-audience films that we assume are popular with children,” (775).
In order to study the effects that showing stereotypical gender-roles in films have on children, there first must be an understanding of how exactly the movies are depicting the characters. The authors predicted within the 101 films they were to study, the majority of main characters would be male and that the characters would exhibit traditional characteristics of males and females.
To be more specific, Smith, Pieper, Granados, and Choueiti claim that “The earlier research shows that male characters outnumber female characters, and that gender-related differences emerge across some behaviors,” (776). Before conducting their own studies, the authors reviewed research and literature that has been previously done on this topic to help formulate their thesis and predictions.
There is a significant amount of literature that exists regarding the effects of television that display stereotypical messages has on youth viewers. Smith, Pieper, Granados, and Choueiti studied existing work on this topic before performing their own study on G-rated movies.
In one study that was examined by Meyer, Perloff, and Repetti, it was noted that “survey research has generally revealed that viewing TV is positively associated with elementary school aged children’s stereotyping of personality traits,” (776). The essence of this statement seems to be that the more often children view certain television programs, the more likely they are to stereotype personality traits according to gender roles.
A similar finding was discovered in a study conducted by Kimball concluding that, “With the introduction of television, the Notel (town where study took place) females had become significantly more gendered in terms or their relationships with peers and authority figures whereas males increased their stereotypical attitudes toward a variety of behaviors and occupations,” (776). This conclusion is significant because it gives more weight to the idea that television promotes gendered stereotypes amongst a younger audience.
After gaining an understanding of the negative effects television can have on children’s attitudes toward gender, Smith, Pieper, Granados, and Choueiti, researched the prominence of movies among the media that children consume. They found that according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, “over half (53%) of the parents of 0-6 year olds indicated that their child had at least 20 videos or DVDs in the home almost half (46%) of the children in this age bracket watch at least one video or DVD on a “typical” day,” (774).
Taking this important conclusion into account, the authors deemed it necessary to contribute literature on the effects of films rather than television. Another suggestion that adds importance to study films that was taken into account was made by Dobrow who performed a study on children’s viewing habits of VCR films. Dobrow found that “children may be watching videocassette tapes over and over,” (774).
Due to the repetition of viewing one particular film, the ideas from that movie may have a more powerful effect on children than the ideas from television. Taking both the access to DVDs and videos in the home and the option to watch a film more than once, Smith, Pieper, Granados, and Choueiti, were compelled to examine gender in G-rated movies that these children are likely to watch.
In order to obtain the most important and clear results from the study, Smith, Pieper, Granados, and Choueiti narrowed down the areas that they wanted to look at to determine how gender is depicted in the G-rated films.
These categories included; the ratio of males to females, demographics, occupation, and likeability traits. The authors then analyzed and coded 101 films released between 1990-2005. Out of the all of results from the study, a few stuck out as particularly important to me. The study of prevalence yielded that “for every 2.57 males depicted in G-rated films there was only 1 female portrayed,” (780).
This alarming statistic is consistent with the authors’ predictions and with character portrayal on television. Another related finding was the gender of narrators in the films. This result was that “83% were male and only 17% were female,” (780). In other words, it seems as if most of these stories which have narrators, are being told by a male voice and perspective. The second interesting finding is related to parental status.
The authors discovered that “females (66.3%) were significantly more likely to be depicted as a parent than were males (34.6%),” (780). Along these same lines, “males (68.5%) were significantly more likely to be shown without a relationship than were females (36.9%),” (780). Both of these findings promote the idea that women should place more value on obtaining a relationship than they should on something else such as their occupation or career goals.
So far we have discussed the major findings from the prevalence and demographics categories that I deemed most interesting and important. There are two other sets of results that I believe contribute valuable insight to the topic of gender portrayal in G-rated films.
The first is that “Males (52.5%) were substantially more likely to be shown in traditionally masculine occupations than were females (16.2%),” (781). This conclusion suggests that there is little room in the work world for men to try out different jobs that are not traditionally associated with males. Another important finding is related to the likeability of the characters in the movies.
The results of this category were, “…females were more likely than males to be physically attractive, smart, and good. Males, on the other hand, were more likely than their female counterparts to be strong and funny,” (781). Depicting characters in such ways that are restrictive to gender stereotypes most likely has negative impacts on the attitudes of the children viewers. Now that we have addressed some of the major points of the article, we will turn to the authors’ discussion of the impact these conclusions may have on youth.
The first major conclusion that Smith, Pieper, Granados, and Choueiti come to is the negative impact that the lack of female character in the G-rated films may have on children who watch the movies.
They state, “For girls, a lack of representation may affect their perceptions of importance or self-esteem. For boys, exposure may subtly perpetuate the status quo and reinforce a hegemonic view of girls and women,” (783). The effects on both girls and boys are harmful in different ways. In both cases, the lack of female characters in films only reinforces preexisting gender stereotypes and does not encourage young viewers to question them.
The second conclusion relates to the harm that the different characteristics of the male and females in the films can have on children. We have already established that female characters tend to exhibit qualities the authors deem as “likeable”, such as good motives, attractiveness, and intelligence, more than male characters. The authors write, “Boys, however, need just as positive role models as well yet, on average, we see fewer instances of male models in comparison to female models that would facilitate positive social learning for young boys,” (783).
The lack of male role models in these movies may send unintended harmful messages to young boys about who they should strive to be when they grow up. On the other hand, if the female role model characters are only valuable because of their beauty, then that can also send negative feedback to girls about who they should strive to be.
The final conclusion of the authors I will discuss is the one that involves the findings regarding romantic relationships. To recap, “women were nearly twice as likely (66.3% vs. 34.6%) to be parents or in a committed romantic relationship,” (783).
This distressing discovery suggests to young girls that they should not only strive to be attractive, but to place a lot of their value in being in a relationship with a significant other. Smith, Pieper, Granados, and Choueiti point out that, “This presentation of women as wives and mothers and men as swinging singles may send young viewers a mixed message about gendered parental and relational expectations,” (783). These conclusions have significant applications in the field of gender studies and also pointed out possible effects that G-rated films have on children who view them.
In my personal opinion, this article successfully shed light on some major problems in the production, casting, and filming process of G-rated movies. The authors’ conclusion added important insight to the larger conversation surrounding how characters of different genders are portrayed in films. Previously to this article, there was a lot of literature published on gender in television, but gender in G-rated films was not something that had been often studied by scholars.
The discoveries made by Smith, Pieper, Granados, and Choueiti stimulated the conversation on this topic and brought many issues to the surface that scholars may have not previously been aware of. I was personally shocked and alarmed at the results of this study such as the underrepresentation of female characters and the number of females depicted as wives, girlfriends, or mothers. This was not something I was consciously aware of and it made me reflect on how I may have been affected by this growing up watching G-rated films.
One area of improvement that I can identify within this study is the lack of material evidence of the negative effects these films have on children. Although the authors conducted a thorough investigation of how the different characters were depicted in the films, their conclusions about the effects on the children seemed to be based upon assumptions.
It would be very interesting to reexamine children’s attitudes towards gender before and after viewing the films in question. I do agree with the authors on their conclusions on the effects that the films can have, but hard evidence of these conclusions would give them more weight. Overall, I believe this article does a great job at shedding light on something that parents probably do not think twice about when their child watches the same G-rated film over and over again.