Many children have access to screens and digital content from an alarmingly early age. There’s television, games, parents’ mobiles and tablets always in reach, and an ever-expanding kids' industry trying to determine a secure place for new technologies in our lives.
As a 22-year old female caught somewhere between Generations Y and Z, I’ve been tuned in to the conversation surrounding the representation of gender and gender stereotypes in digital media for a while now. It’s imperative that this conversation addresses and accounts for the youngest and most impressionable consumers - and creating digital content for children does not come without responsibility. What they see, engage with, and internalise during pre-school years helps to lay foundations for future modes of thinking, setting standards and expectations that can be difficult to reverse.
Much of the discussion surrounding gender inequality and equal opportunities focuses on discrimination, legislation, and violence, and whilst these are vital conversations to be having, they need to go hand in hand with preventative efforts to challenge early perceptions of gender. It is in this way that we raise a generation with fewer of the harmful preconceptions that many of us must now unlearn.
A study analysing TV for kids 11 and under in 2005 reported that ‘male characters occur roughly at twice the rate of female characters in television for children’ and that ‘animated programs in particular are more likely to show males’. For those that are now between the ages of 15 and 25 – myself included – this is the gender imbalance that we grew up with on screen. When misrepresentation like this is normalised during childhood, it's no wonder that it should be unwittingly perpetuated by the writers and producers of today.
The same researchers conducted an analysis of 13 female leads in G-rated films, many of which still make up the filmic diets of young children – Disney princesses, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, etc. The study revealed a pattern of lead females who were valued for their appearance, displayed short-sighted aspirations, and longed for one-dimensional love, despite avoiding the ‘damsel in distress’ trope. However, it’s not enough to simply saturate the space with traditionally ‘strong’ female characters, and we should resist the idea that only female characters who demonstrate typically masculine traits are good role models. Instead, we need to see the diversity and complexity that we afford our male characters: women and girls who are tough as well as those who are gentle, brave as well as cowardly, heroic as well as villainous.
This kind of diversity is impossible to achieve with only one female character as part of an ensemble. When a single female character has half the population to appeal to, it's easy to succumb to cheap stereotypes. Girls looking for a female on screen to identify with have fewer options, especially girls from ethnic minorities, or girls whose bodies differ from the ‘ideal’ body that the media projects – by size, shape, or even physical disability. This means they often struggle to find anyone to identify with at all.
There’s a correlation between what children see represented in their media (not just films and television, but games and even the news) and the opportunities that they believe are available to them. You might have just seen the touching image of 2-year-old Parker Curry, a young girl completely mesmerised by Amy Sherald's portrait of Michelle Obama at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. When NASA created a VR tour of their female employees’ jobs, these STEM positions become viable possibilities to young female viewers – and the inherent immersion of the technology creates a deeper connection. There’s a limited window of opportunity to expand the inclusivity of technologies like VR whilst they’re still in their early days, before their functionality is entirely coloured by the stereotypical (white, male, middle-class) early-adopters of tech.
Diverse and thoughtful representation on-screen is important for young viewers of all genders, and it’s important to remember that gender representation in digital media has just as much impact on boys as it does girls. While girls need representation to unlock possibility, boys too need to see a variety of men and women on the screen to chip away at notions of hyper-masculinity and demonstrate ways in which both male and female characters can be complex, interesting, and inspiring.
When the BBC announced that the role of the time-travelling, regenerating alien in Doctor Who would be taken over by a female actor, they received, to put it delicately, a mixed response. For many it provides an opportunity to show that female-led content has the capacity to retain a large and varied audience, and that the characteristics true to the Doctor are not dependent on the gender they present as – in the same way that they are not dictated by age, dialect, and (as we’ll hopefully see in future incarnations) race.
In his Ted Talk ‘How Movies Teach Manhood’, Colin Stokes explores the ways in which digital media often fails to provide boys with models to teach them to support, befriend, and be good allies to women. In 2011, he points out, only 11 of the top 100 grossing movies had a female lead. It’s not a perfect talk, but he raises a number of good points, including that given the high proportion of women reporting assaults by men, there’s a need to examine the kinds of stories and ideas that males – from a young age – are soaking up. He suggests that we need to seek out and support content with heroines that pass the Bechdel Test, and to nudge our sons to identify with these heroines and want to be on their team.
The representation of parents and parenting styles in children's media can be highlighted as an area that needs serious work. More often than not we see on-screen parents that submit to pre-defined parental roles based on gender: Mum does the cooking and the cleaning, Dad goes to work, etc. and children begin to internalise stereotypes from a young age. This presentation of gender roles isn’t limited to television and films, either, and has been a huge issue in the advertising industry for as long as it has existed.
Nickelodeon Australia conducted a study last year called ‘Wait Until Your Father Gets Home’ to explore the ways in which the dads of today are increasingly defying parenting-based stereotypes, often adopting a more ‘hand’s on, present, patient, and understanding’ approach to caregiving. This contradicts the type of fathers that we’re seeing in children’s and family-focused media, especially with the common ‘clueless’ or ‘bumbling’ dad trope (see: Homer Simpson, Daddy Pig, Phil Dunphy etc.)
We need content that reflects modern attitudes to parenting, showing parents who share caregiving responsibilities with an exchange of feminine and masculine parenting styles from both parties. This is paramount in tackling expectations of adult men and women from a very young age.
From a creative and production perspective, we need to see:
a) Greater complexity and diversity in the female characters we create, and
b) More female (and non-binary) characters, generally.
Of course, one way to ensure this happens is to hire more women off-screen – female illustrators, animators, writers, producers etc. A report at the end of 2016 revealed that women hold only 26% of union jobs in the animation industry, with some major companies hiring as low as 14%. If we want to tell more women’s stories, we need to be hiring and supporting women to tell them.
Parents, however, can also help shape the way that their children interact with and respond to digital media. Even something as simple as watching content with children and encouraging them to think more critically about what they’re seeing can have an enormous impact on the internalisation of any potentially harmful messages.
As we delve further into developing more immersive content for children, we have a responsibility to pave the way for this media in a way that encourages generous and unprejudiced empathy.