The film industry is notoriously sexist as it reinforces gender stereotypes via female characters and lacks both women directors and female leads. Sexism in Hollywood is nothing new, but have you ever considered the destruction caused by sexism in children's movies? Children are taught gender inequality from the time they're young just by watching gender stereotypes play out on film.
Hollywood is raising your kids. If you didn’t know that — you do now! Sexism in movies is alive and well, with films targeted at children reinforcing traditional gender roles between men and women. June Cleaver might not be cooking in pearls, but don’t be fooled; the sexist message has only been repackaged. Today the strong male superhero fights aside his perfectly coiffed woman counterpart, as she delivers amazing kicks in her black bustier and platforms.
Sitting down to watch a popular new movie with my four children (boys aged 11-16) I was shocked at how obvious the sexism was — it was right there, plain to see, big as life. But this was a movie geared to kids so why were the main characters being so blatantly stereotyped? As an active and engaged parent, I wanted to address this. (Let me interject that my family is no stranger to me pointing out the flaws and unfairness in movies — in fact, they hate it.) So when I began pointing out the blatant sexism in the opening scenes of the movie, they weren’t too thrilled. Still, it is my role as a parent to make them aware of how they are being influenced by seemingly innocuous things, such as the teenage girl posing for selfies and the male athlete needing someone else to do his homework.
Digging a little deeper I found that much research has been done on this topic, and while the list is too long to add all of them here, these are a few worthy reads for those interested in a little more science behind the sexism: Gender Representations in Children's Media and Their Influence, Girl Constructed in Two Nonfiction Texts, WATCHING GENDER: How Stereotypes in Movies and on TV Impact Kids’ Development.
Summing up the research it might surprise you to know the following, according to children's movies...
1. Boys are better than girls.
Most movie casts have at minimum a two to one ration of male to female characters, with the majority of female roles being supporting roles. This leads boys who watch movies to believe boys as better than girls. When preschool boys are watching media with superheroes they show more “male stereotyped toy play and more weapons play,” according to a study by the children's nonprofit Common Sense.
2. Sexual abuse and victim blaming should be tolerated.
Boys who watch movies are more tolerant of dating violence and sexual harassment.
3. Everybody needs to subscribe to the same notion of "perfect" physically.
Boys who watch movies are becoming more concerned about their physiques, which can lead to depression, and it’s associated behavioral components of drinking and drug use. It’s no wonder our boys are beginning to be anxious about how they look when they are bombarded with overly muscular superheroes that beat everyone up.
4. Girls are supposed to be sexy.
Girls on the other hand, are influenced to be more sexual in their behavior and dress. Additionally, girls believe that their bodies are objects that can determine their popularity, romantic life and their internal dissatisfaction with their appearance.
5. Girls aren't scientists.
Media influence on girls even extends into career choices by showing most women in traditionally female jobs. Girls are less likely to see and thus, less likely to pursue careers that involve the sciences.
6. Movie dating is the basis for real-life expectations.
Older adolescents are managing their relationships based on ideas they are being taught by the media. Girls are taught that their gender role is to be sexual and submissive, to want the ideal of love at first sight and the belief that their looks are to be used at the tool to attract men. While older boys are being modeled the opposite. They are taught that men are sex seeking and emotionally avoidant. Furthermore, they are expected to treat women as objects and are encouraged to be more aggressive in their behavior.
There is hope, however. So, parents, don’t despair. Research studies have also found that the more parents are active in challenging gender roles, the more likely kids are to accept non-stereotypic behaviors. As parents we need to discuss the issues with our children, point out the obvious (and sometimes not so obvious — like hiding women’s platform boots under long black pants) flaws in film and television. It’s especially important for parents to offer alternative examples of gender roles, such as women in strong leading roles and men who are emotionally invested in interpersonal relationships.
Don’t forget the boys. As women, we often focus on women and their portrayal in films and TV, however, it’s equally important to point out the problems with male characters too. As a mother of four boys, I attempt to point out that women don’t have to model those behaviors seen in movies and neither do men. Very few men are going to grow into tall muscle-riddled superheroes that save the day and rescue the damsel in distress. Yet, boys are continually bombarded with images of rough and tough men who through people through walls and ask questions later. I know I don’t want my boys to grow up into emotionally stunted muscle heads. I want them to be well-rounded, open-minded and curious individuals. In the end, we can only do our best, but we don’t have to let Hollywood raise our kids.
Elle Forest is a Freelance Writer, Warrior Goddess Facilitator, and Apprentice to best selling author HeatherAsh Amara. She loves teaching women and creating deep connections within a harmonious community. She lives with her four wonderful sons and fiancé. Her hobbies include repurposing, remodeling and refinishing thrift store finds.