Stereotypes on the Screen: Where Are All the Female Role Models?

What do Geena Davis, Courtney Cox, and Glenn Close have in common?

Each played high powered leading ladies on a prime-time show that got cancelled all too soon.

Davis played the first female President of the United States on ABC’s Commander in Chief, which only aired one for one season. Courtney Cox played the editor-in-chief of a sleazy tabloid in Dirt, which also only lasted for one season on FX. And Glenn Close starred in FX’s Damages playing a litigator managing her own law firm, which aired for a more respectable five seasons.

Thankfully, these days we have shows like Homeland, Scandal, and Parks & Recreation with strong women leads like Claire Danes, Kerry Washington, and Amy Poehler. Even so, females are simply not as prevalent on screen in popular media as males.

A recent study from the The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has found that women not only get fewer speaking roles, but continued to be stereotyped. Here are some of the study’s findings:

1. Screen Time

More often than not, speaking roles are designated for the men on screen with females making up only:

  • 28.3% of speaking characters in family films
  • 30.8% children’s shows
  • 38.9% prime-time programs

The norm on screen favors stories that are “extremely male centric” with boys or men in 75% or more of the speaking roles.

Even though women make up half of cinema audiences, there is currently only one female role for every three male characters in family films and children’s programming. If these trends continue, Davis predicts it will take 700 years to reach a parity of gender roles and representation in Hollywood films.

“Every time there’s a movie starring women, the media is very excited to say ‘well, this changes everything.’ That’s what happened with Thelma & Louise…and nothing changed,” says Davis.

2. Stereotypes

In addition to appearing in fewer speaking roles, women are still often stereotyped when they do appear on screen. For example, in family films, children’s shows and prime-time programs, women are far more likely to be:

  • depicited wearing sexy attire
  • showing exposed skin
  • having thin body frames
  • being referenced by other characters as being physically attractive

The emphasis placed on women to appear as “eye candy,” as opposed to main characters that drive the story line, could not be more clear. Considering that girls are watching over 7 hours of TV a day this is very troubling.

“What we’re in effect doing is training children to see that women and girls are less important than men and boys,” says Davis. “And if you add on top of that that so many female characters are sexualised, even in things that are aimed at little kids, that’s having an enormous impact as well.”

3. Occupations

When it comes to being employed in prime-time programs, 44.3% of women are shown with careers. This figure is close to reality, given that women made up 47% of the U.S. labor force in 2011.

However, when you look at family films and children’s shows, it’s one step forward and two giant steps back because in children’s entertainment, 81% of jobs are held by men. So when young girls are watching TV, they see that women are not only outnumbered, but are often silent and/or unemployed. The message is clear: women should be seen, not heard; they should be caretakers, not career women.

This is not the message we want young girls to receive. We want girls to know that their opinions have value, that there are an array of careers they can pursue, and that they can be successful as adults.

We want them to see that they can be a scientist like Mayim Bialik on the Big Bang Theory or a detective or a medical examiner like the stars of Rizzoli and Isles. We need more shows that show girls they can do and be anything. And we need them now.

What female powered TV shows or movies are you favorites?

Photo Credit: Steven Depolo

83 comments

Carmen Harris
Carmen Harris2 years ago

Thanks for the article. And yes, I wish women would stop getting sexualised, since I find very few women role models in the area of entertainment that are actually decent enough to have the word 'role model' next to their name.

april e.
april enos2 years ago

I know not everyone like the sci-fi genre but many sci-fi shows have strong female leads like the new series defiance on the syfi channel that just finished its first season there are 5 strong females vs 3 males. they are all in varicose employements but 1 (she is a housewife but not your normal housewife) 1 is the mayor 1 is a deputy 1 is the dr 1 is a madam/whore (I know I know but this is her CHOICE of employment not forced upon her) check it out its a good show with many strong women

april e.
april enos2 years ago

I know not everyone like the sci-fi genre but many sci-fi shows have strong female leads like the new series defiance on the syfi channel that just finished its first season there are 5 strong females vs 3 males. they are all in varicose employements but 1 (she is a housewife but not your normal housewife) 1 is the mayor 1 is a deputy 1 is the dr 1 is a madam/whore (I know I know but this is her CHOICE of employment not forced upon her) check it out its a good show with many strong women

Scott haakon
Scott haakon2 years ago

Then start screenwriting. Put up 100 million and see what happens. Do not just sit back and whine. Why should a studio put forth a movie just to have a female lead that people wont buy tickets. Each movie or TV series is a gamble. So you don't like it then put your money where your mouth was.

Peggy A.
Peggy A.3 years ago

Thanks for sharing

Ro H.
Ro H.3 years ago

ty

Eternal Gardener
Eternal Gardener3 years ago

Noted.

Angie B.
Angelene B.3 years ago

It's even worse for women of color.

janet T.
janet t.3 years ago

have you noticed that in really big blockbuster movies there is usually a female co-star but in the previews and trailers their names are never mentioned or listed visually???? And they always have to be much younger than the male.

Nils Anders Lunde
PlsNoMessage se3 years ago

ty