Girls – Missing and Marginalized

 As published on LinkedIn Influencers on November 17th, 2017.

I’ve been thinking a lot about girls lately, because as the lead funder and champion of last week’s SUREFIRE Girls Conference in Salt Lake City, it’s been hard not to. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the power within the younger generation; a generation emboldened by technology, striving for change, and more socially conscious than any other generation that has come before them. Today, it’s estimated that there are 1.1 billion girls in the world, and I truly believe that if we, the older generations, do everything in our power to ensure that these girls have all of the available opportunities, resources, and tools for success that we can possibly give them, these girls will change the world and change the world for the better. Last week at SUREFIRE, I saw our future leaders, innovators, and entrepreneurs in action, and with these girls at the helm, the future looks bright indeed.

However, these girls can’t do it alone, and more than anything, they need mentors, role models, and champions to help them navigate this world that is frustratingly still so far away from gender parity. Which is why the focus on girls. While sociologists are only beginning to get an idea of the traits and characteristics of Generation Z, one thing is clear: this is a generation defined by culture, creativity, and storytelling. 80% of young people say that creativity is important to their daily life, and it is estimated that fully 25% of Generation Z post original video content online on a daily basis. Young people aren’t just influencing culture, they are creating it, but you would never know this from watching traditional media, especially when it comes to young girls. In particular, a new study released last week in conjunction with SUREFIRE paints a pretty bleak picture of the landscape of young girls’ representation in feature film.

Titled The Future is Female?: Examining the Prevalence and Portrayal of Girls and Teens in Popular Movies, this study is the latest research to come from the incomparable Dr. Stacy Smith and her research team at the Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative*, and it is the first study of its kind to look specifically at the portrayal of young girls on film. When I invited Dr. Smith to speak at the SUREFIRE Conference, she had the brilliant idea to conduct this study and premiere it live at at the event. It was incredibly powerful to watch the 150+ girls respond to the results. Unsurprisingly, the results are not good. It is a story about underrepresentation, misrepresentation, and in some cases, invisibility.When considering the top 900 grossing films released since 2007 (excluding 2011):

  • Just 12.5% of speaking characters were aged 6-20 when this age bracket comprises 20.4% of the US population in 2010. Only 39.7% of these characters were female.
  • 77% of these characters were white, and when looking specifically at the films released in 2015 and 2016, 89% did not depict a single African American young girl, 92.5% did not depict an Asian American young girl, and 94.5% did not depict a Latina young girl.
  • The young girls in these movies were four times as more likely than the young boys to be depicted wearing revealing attire.
  • 31.7% of young girls were shown in an academic setting, such as in a classroom or doing homework.
  • Only 8.1% of the young female characters had defined academic interests or goals, such as going to college or learning another language, and just 7.3% had stated professional aspirations.
  • See the study for more facts and insights!

These findings go on and on, with very few bright spots in terms of parity, but it should be noted that in 2016, young girls in speaking roles comprised 48.2% of all characters aged 6-20, so we will just have to wait and see if this was just a fluke or the beginning of a new chapter on gender parity among young girls and boys in film.

Regardless, not only do young girls need role models, positive role models, they need to see more of themselves and their communities up on the big screen. When Dr. Smith spoke about female characters in animated roles, she shared that their waist size is often the same size as the circumference of their upper arms. Why? Seriously, WHY? At SUREFIRE we put up stickers on the bathroom mirrors that said, “YOU ARE AWESOME.” They did not go on to say, “but only if you are white, thin, sexually provocative, and define yourself by your relationships with males.” Unfortunately, this is still the primary messaging they receive from feature films. Enough. Seriously, ENOUGH!

Young girls are consuming pop culture at an astonishing rate, but it is clear from this study that when it comes to the film industry, pop culture is failing our young girls at almost every metric. One of the most egregious examples of this is the finding that in the top 900 grossing films of the past decade, not one single film contained a speaking role for a LGBT girl. Not one. A recent study revealed that only 48% of young people in the US aged 13-20 identified as exclusively straight, and yet in the past ten years, there were only four characters in this age bracket that identified otherwise, and not one of them was a girl.

I can only hope that the incredible work that Dr. Smith and her team continue to produce year after year will bring about not just awareness, but real action to change who is featured in film. I have seen the power of young girls and I have glimpsed the potential of this power at SUREFIRE and at the Girl Up Conference in Washington, DC. I know we have at least one feature film to look forward to in the coming year, A Wrinkle in Time, directed by the incredible Ava DuVernay. In fact, Ava created a special message for our girls which we delivered following Dr. Smith’s presentation. If you do not know Ava and her work, you must. She is talented, brilliant, and a social justice warrior. And on twitter…1.25 million followers. @ava

A quick plug, because it is going to be AWESOME, note that A Wrinkle in Timecomes out March 9th, 2018, and features an incredible cast of women, including Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, Storm Reid, and Reese Witherspoon.

Now why this story for LinkedIn? Because this is both a business issue and a social change issue. On the business side, we need to let Hollywood know that it is not ok to misrepresent our girls by using the power of our wallets. It’s easy. Simply stop buying tickets to the films that tell our girls that their only assets are their looks and their sexuality. On the social change side, this is yet another example of how females and other groups are underrepresented or misrepresented in the media and this has to change. Do you believe that it is hard to be what you cannot see? I do. So let’s all take an interest in what our films and our culture tell our girls to be.

Looking for more research on how women, girls and other underrepresented populations are represented in film and media, check out my best reports list.

*Thanks to Ann Lovell who funded this study with me.

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