Where in the world is Jane? New research finds strong female characters missing from children’s shows

Do you love Geena Davis? She’s putting her time, and presumably her money, into the cause of gender fairness in media.

Take a look at this delightful new PSA created by her organization, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

New research funded by the institute evaluated almost 12,000 speaking parts in film and prime time shows. What we find is that movies and tv shows intended for children and families treat female characters the worst.  Prime time shows are a little better.

Reading this, I can’t help but wonder why. Why are children’s shows particularly backward? Is this field filled with cavemen?

So I talked with Jason Tammemagi, in Ireland, who is the creator of a science show for preschoolers with a girl protagonist.  He said he’s seeing positive changes in the market he works in, which is much smaller than the US market that this research examines.

“In preschool over here, I have to say I have seen very encouraging moves to get not just female characters on screen but also varied and interesting female characters,” Tammemagi said by email. (His recent post deals with this issue.)

It’s hard to turn a ship as huge as the US market. But so often this is the way change happens – working its way from the “grassroots” level until it reaches a critical mass.

Here are more details on what the study found: Only 19 percent of children’s shows and 11 percent of family films are gender balanced – that is, having close to similar numbers of male and female characters. And many stories are “extremely” male centric, casting boys and men in 75 percent of the speaking roles, – including 50 percent of family films and 40 percent of children’s shows. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has eyes.

Meanwhile, when they do appear, females are highly sexualized and stereotyped. We’re talking big numbers – like one-third of teen girls. “Females, when they are on screen, are still there there to provide eye candy to event the youngest viewers,” the researchers write.

Why would ANY characters be portrayed as sexy in children’s shows?

There is not one speaking character who plays a powerful American female political figure across 5,839 speaking characters in 129 family films. Male characters hold 45 such positions. This is at a time when the position of Secretary of State is practically reserved for women and during a time when we had a woman Speaker of the House. (The researchers look at films from 2006 to 2009.)

Why is this? What do you think?


  1. Beautiful PSA; an issue that is sadly grossly overlooked by most parents. My one complaint is…WHY must the grown images of the young “janes” be so svelte? Isn’t that a LARGE part of media’s misrepresentation of women that young children are indoctrinated with? Why couldn’t the grown up women just be a REALISTIC representation-large/curvy/tall/short and not JUST disproportionately hourglass-y?

  2. Brilliant campaign. Totally behind this. You’re going to love our new preschool show, Driftwood Bay. Strong girl lead breaking all the traditional stereotypes. Follow us on http://www.facebook.com/driftwoodbay

  3. i just love that this PSA is geared towards children. I’m going to show my daughter tomorrow. While we need to work towards changing this, it is a long haul (because yes, apparently there are a lot of cavemen working behind the cameras who can’t imagine women outside of the stereotypes you mention). In the meantime, what can we do right now? today? tomorrow when our daughters get up? Education them. If we point these things out to our daughters at a young age (if they’re old enough to watch, they’re old enough to begin developing that critical eye), then my hope is they will be less affected by these images. We can strive in the immediate moment to teach our girls to see media representations of gender as inaccurate and unfair. That way, they will learn not to accept what the media shows them at face value, and perhaps they will be better able to imagine themselves as outside of the limiting stereotypes (and btw, we need to educate the boys too! – they need to have a more complext understanding of women than the media teaches…)

    thanks for sharing this!

    • Thanks for adding the piece about educating boys, too. They are getting the same messages that girls are getting – that girls are less capable, and exist for their sexual pleasure. I point out the disparity every time I see it – like in the latest animated film, Rise of the Guardians, with its cast of male lead characters plus one tiny female. They are teenagers now, and they say, “yeah, mom, whatever,” but I know they hear me, and I know they see these things now without my help.

  4. When feminists say “we want more Positive female characters in animation” Animation fans hear “we want more female characters who are flawless, good at everything and boring in animation”

    You should see some Shōnen manga (Japanese comics aimed at young boys) strong female characters come once in a blue moon in most of them

  5. Now that’s an interesting observation. I believe that is not what most feminists mean, but that may be what many people hear. After all, a “flawless” character isn’t a strong character. There are those, however, that do seem to want perfect female characters. I saw it in the reviews of The Hunger Games. I believe if we had MORE female characters (that aren’t merely eye-candy,) we wouldn’t be demanding that each one of them be perfect! That would be widely varied, just like the male characters.

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