Feb 1 2013

GENDER FOCUS: Few Roles for Female Role Models

Fictional women leaders lag real world

Women of 113th Congress--Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Women of 113th Congress–Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

At a time when more women than ever before are serving in Congress, we still rarely see examples of female leaders holding positions of prestige and power in popular movies and TV shows.

A study published in November 2012 by USC Annenberg and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media evaluates how movies and TV portray women and men characters working in a variety of industries. The study, titled “Gender Roles & Occupations,” analyzed 11,927 speaking characters for gender roles across family films (ranging from G to PG-13), primetime TV and children’s shows.

One striking finding: In 129 family films released between 2006 and 2011, not one female speaking character played an American political figure. By contrast, male speaking characters hold more than 45 prestigious political positions in the films, from president to mayor.

Ever wonder why it’s so hard to break out of a culture that taps men as the decision makers as if by default? Perhaps it’s because we routinely see it on the big screen. These films entrench the idea that politics is a man’s world.

The woeful statistics continue. In all 129 films, not one female character with a speaking role is depicted as a doctor, lawyer, judge or CEO. While those careers still overrepresent men, women have been making much more progress in real life than in fiction; for example, women were 26 per-cent of real-world chief executives in 2010.

While family films are often marketed as “feel-good movies,” such underrepresentation doesn’t make me feel good about being a woman, and it certainly doesn’t teach their core audience of young people that women are capable, natural leaders. Like it or not, movies shape how we view and interact with the world. The more that young people see gender bias in the media, the more they internalize it as normal, maintaining the collective consciousness’s silent assignment of occupations as “feminine” and “masculine.”

Until we normalize images of women in positions of the highest power, young girls will struggle to aspire to them, boys and men will struggle to support women holding them, and women—particularly women of color—will struggle to secure them.

Susan Rice--Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Susan Rice–Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Consider the media’s portrayal of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who was a possible candidate to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of State until she stepped out of the race in early December. Rice was flogged in the media for purportedly misleading the public on the Benghazi attack on September 11, 2012. But rather than stick to policy concerns regarding her candidacy, many pundits waged an attack based on gender and race against Rice, one of the administration’s highest-ranking African-American women.

On MSNBC’s Morning Joe (11/28/12), co-host Joe Scarborough questioned whether Rice was up for the job. He didn’t ponder Rice’s actual qualifications for the gig, which are a legitimate discussion. Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian (12/11/12) and others have noted that Rice—like others in the foreign policy community—has a “long record of defending U.S. militarism and supporting the world’s worst tyrants.”

But Scarborough instead doubted her emotional stability, wondering if Rice had the “temperament” to serve as secretary of State. That’s code for “She’s a girl, so no.”

Other similar media attacks and Republican charges that Rice is “incompetent”—a racialized charge that would seldom be hurled against a white male, particularly one who was a Rhodes scholar like Rice—stacked up faster than a tween racks up text messages. Fox News (11/15/12) and the New York Times (11/17/12) both called Rice a “damsel in distress,” while Lloyd Grove of the Daily Beast (12/12/12) said Rice has a “personality disorder.” Grove defended a “strain of sexism in the attacks [against Rice]” by suggesting that she should flatter and court journalists the way her male predecessor Richard Holbrooke did.

Grove hung his “too brusque” attack on a few choice anecdotes, including the time Rice reportedly flipped off Holbrooke during a media appearance. That’s more code speak for “That’s just not ladylike.”

Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post (12/13/12) noted the sexism couched in such words and phrases, writing: “Men can have those flaws and still succeed; women find themselves marked down. This is a new, subtler sexism: Rice failed to fit the modern model of collegial, division-healing woman.”

So we witness yet again media pundits’ attempt to bring down a powerful female leader with an assault on race and gender—just as we’ve seen with Clinton herself, with Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and with dozens of others. This major disservice to the public means bigotry and stereotypes sidetrack the debate from whether Rice is too hawkish to lead this diplomatic post.

How do the media get away with it time and again? The American public has been anesthetized by films and TV shows that tell us that political office is no place for a woman—by simply not placing her there on screen.