Girls Need Better Media Role Models


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By Meaghan Webster

Television and movies play an important role in our lives. Regardless of the varying levels to which we engage in a little binge-watching these days, most of us in the U.S. or Europe have grown up surrounded by TV and film media.

We learned what love is supposed to be from Disney movies, what heroes are supposed to look like from action movies, and what occupations are acceptable for us from workplace sitcoms. Without our full realization, this media helped teach us what was “normal” in our everyday lives for our genders, ages, and races. Unfortunately, the media lessons we’ve learned are pretty discouraging for women.

On a basic level, most of us have grown up watching movies that don’t pass the “Bechdel Test.” Created by Alison Bechdel, the test asks three simple questions: Does the film have two or more female characters? Do they speak to each other? Do they speak about topics other than men? My favorite movie of all time, The Godfather (1972), definitely does not pass this test. Even today, many movies don’t.

study by Dr. Stacy L. Smith and Amy D. Granados on Gender in the Media called TV and film a “window to the world,” and “because occupations can be gender-typed on TV, heavy viewing may reinforce to some children that certain jobs are more or less appropriate for males and females.”


It’s hard not to notice the outdated gender expectations that TV and movies normalize for us, beyond occupation. Smith and Granados found that typically, “Female characters are sidelined, women are stereotyped and sexualized, and a clear employment imbalance exists.”


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The study goes on to note that “females are more likely than males to be younger and sexier,” and that “females in G-rated films are nearly as likely to be shown in sexually revealing clothing as females in R-rated films – 20.3 percent vs. 23.5 percent.”

Think about how both young girls AND young boys’ brains are molded by these norms, and what messages we might internalize because of them. Is a guy inadequate if he isn’t ripped or the boss of a company? Should a girl even bother aspiring to be the boss of a company? Is my value primarily determined by my ability to find a husband?

Another report by The National Commission of Working Women found that one of the most common portrayals of women in the media is of “a passive, dependent and often silly person,” and while “there are more women characters, more minorities, new family structures, job diversity, and new roles for men,” the norm for female characters in media “remains young, white and single women.



Modern Family – Image credit: ABC

This definitely feels true. When I watch TV, CEOs and politicians are white males. Young women are supposed to appear attractive to the men around them, but not too attractive, until they finally get chosen by a man to be his supportive, beautiful wife. I am taught that violence against women is normal, and that girls must always compete with one another.

The repeated lessons we learn from television and movies become ingrained into the picture we hold of what life is supposed to be like. And that can be extremely powerful in relation to all genders’ career aspirations and perceptions of self-worth.

I was inspired to write about this topic by actress and model Freida Pinto at the Social Good Summit in New York last week. She asked us to “think about the screenwriting boardroom, where there are usually only two women in a group of 15 men. They’re already under pressure to conform to their gender roles,” where they instead could be using their powerful positions to challenge the traditional portrayal of gender and race in the products they create.


What really struck me about Pinto’s message was her statement that “storytelling is observational learning.”



Image credit: Mashable

So how do we change the stories young people learn from the media?

  1. Increased and more diverse roles for women on TV and in movies: Smith and Granados argue that “seeing females in nontraditional roles and occupations in the media can heighten the suitability of women’s achievement, confidence, and employment in nontraditional vocations.” There are already good examples out there, such as Viola Davis’ strong lawyer persona in How to Get Away With Murder, Claire Danes’ multilayered CIA character in Homeland, or the diverse female characters on Orange is the New Black. But there are still too many examples that depict women as sexual objects and men as the decision-makers.
  2. Discuss the limitations of gender roles currently presented to us: Smith and Granados give the example that “younger children who heard simple contrary statements (i.e., “The show is wrong. Lots of girls do things besides paint their nails and put on make-up”) while viewing a program showed more acceptance of females engaging in stereotypically male behaviors than did younger children hearing neutral messages while viewing the same TV program, or seeing nothing at all.
  3. Discuss misrepresentation of media in real-world arenas, too: Smith and Granados further encourage us to “count the number of women holding seats in Congress, reporting the news, or even running foreign countries. By doing such, boys and girls may become aware of gender inequalities still present in the United States and other parts of the world.


Right now, there are 535 Members of Congress. 80 percent of them are white. Only 104 are women. Is that an accurate representation of the society our elected officials exist to represent? Absolutely not. Some states represent U.S. diversity better than others. Both Senators of Washington State where I’m from (Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell) are role model-worthy women. But even they don’t fully represent the ethnic diversity of their state.


How are girls supposed to grow up confident enough to break into the old boys’ club that is Congress (or other male-dominated careers of choice) when they’re surrounded by images portraying them as the doting wife, and not the leader herself?


Photo credits: Showtime, ABC, and HBO

It’s time to change the stories that we tell boys and girls about what’s “normal.”

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