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               In 2004, Geena Davis sat with her pre-school age daughter watching TV and movies, and they began to notice something: a lack of female characters. Davis thought, if my daughter notices, then what message does this send to all children?

Madeline Di Nonno

Since that discovery, acclaimed actress and activist Geena Davis has made it her business to evoke change in the entertainment industry. But just how does one turn the heads of media moguls and content creators, influencing them to recognize the need for gender balance in film and television, especially regarding content shown to children?

The answer: Show them the evidence.

In order to highlight the disparity, Geena dedicated herself to raising funds for the largest research project ever undertaken on gender in children’s entertainment. Disturbed by the findings of the studies, including the fact that men outnumbered women in top-grossing, G-rated films by a three-to-one ratio, she went on to establish the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (GDIGM).

Madeline Di Nonno, the Executive Director of the Institute and its programming arm, SEE JANE, brings over twenty-five years of experience in media, marketing and business development to the task. Originally from Brooklyn, NY, Madeline found herself drawn into the world of media at a young age. She speaks about her own evolution through the entertainment industry as well as her current role in promoting the Institute’s vision.

“Well, my passion and interest in entertainment actually started when I was about seventeen,” Madeline mentions. “I had an opportunity to intern at ABC, and I fell in love with it. I stayed there all the way through college, and also my first job out of Boston University was at ABC. So that was my foray into media communications and television. Interestingly enough, Geena also attended Boston University and was there at the same time, but we didn’t know each other back then.”

Madeline’s extensive background includes working for Lancôme, the Luxury Products division of L’Oreal where she entered the arena of consumer packaged goods, as well as eventually working for some boutique marketing agencies. “But then I decided that my first love was really entertainment and media, and I wanted to return to that. To make a very long story short, Universal Home Entertainment recruited me and I relocated to California. I actually helped start the marketing group there for the Home Entertainment division and then subsequently was recruited to help launch the Hallmark network with a number of other executives. Then from there, I worked with a number of independent film companies, essentially driving marketing, business development and digital media.”

So how did Madeline find herself venturing down the road of philanthropic service, eventually landing in the arena of children’s media?

“It was more of an epiphany,” she reveals, “like the time I made the decision in my career to return to entertainment. After garnering a lot of accomplishments and a lot of success, I came to that point in my life where I felt compelled to use my power for social good. The challenge for me was to balance my professional career with my passion for philanthropy, something I’ve always been involved in from the standpoint of volunteering or sitting on Boards. I began to think, maybe there’s a way to put these two together. I want to stay in my field, but how can I make a deeper contribution?”

Meanwhile, Madeline relays Geena Davis, who had been devoting her time to developing the Institute, reached a formative juncture. “Geena had made some very smart strategic decisions. She then decided that she wanted a business and entertainment executive to run the organization in order to essentially take it to the next level, and she found me. It was one of those kismet moments—just the right time and the right place.” Utilizing Madeline’s expertise, that next level involves the development of both advocacy and educational tools that will further drive the Institute’s aim for programming that targets kids eleven and under: To dramatically increase the representation of females as well as to reduce the gender stereotyping of both boys and girls.

             The Institute is a resource for the entertainment industry (media companies, animators, writers, producers, and others), the next generation of content-creators, and the public. We outreach to these individuals and companies towards supporting positive change in media, so young girls and young boys can grow up treating each other as equals.  — The Geena Davis Institute

“The Kaiser Family Foundation did a media usage report back in 2009 which states that essentially, today’s children are engaging with some type of media upwards of ten hours a day,” Madeline notes. “And that’s more time than is spent on sleeping or any other activity. So when you think about the consumption and the accessibility of media—whether good or bad—it can play a great role in having a deep and profound influence on children. The three areas that we’ve noticed are social-cultural behaviors and beliefs, self-esteem, and career aspirations and occupations. So if children, and particularly girls, aren’t seeing themselves represented, or the way that they do see themselves conveyed is marginalized, objectified, or in a very hypersexual way, then what kind of message are we sending them? And likewise, if boys don’t see girls doing interesting things, or if girls are hypersexualized, then what’s the message we’re sending to our boys who are tomorrow’s leaders, fathers and policy-makers? Also when you think about it, women comprise over fifty percent of the population, so what’s being portrayed doesn’t actually reflect the real world.”

In terms of the Institute’s theory of change as represented in the SEE JANE program, Madeline refers to Geena Davis’ strategy of targeting children eleven and under as brilliant. “That’s because when you think about the women’s movement and where we are today, and if you look at different business sectors, women fill about 17 or 18 percent of the positions. There are some exceptions here and there, but we really haven’t reached that so-called tipping point. One of our strategies is to address what our youngest children are seeing so that we can stop enculturating the next generation of content creators, policy makers, and parents with this type of gender stereotyping and messaging.”

               SEE JANE is a program of the Institute that utilizes research, education and advocacy to engage the entertainment industry and recognize the need for gender balance and varied portrayals of females and male characters into movies, TV, and other media aimed at children 11 and under. We work cooperatively and collaboratively with entertainment creators to encourage them to be leaders in creating positive change.

Fundamentally, one of the ideas behind the Geena Davis Institute is to take a comprehensive look at the media field and to influence how it’s seeded—more female characters and more women and girls portrayed in roles that enhance their view of themselves and what they can achieve—basically breaking the hold of restrictive stereotypes. The Institute presents an innovative approach, through research, education and engagement with media executives and creators, to revamp the programming content kids are viewing.

“When children get to be about ten or eleven, you have a lot of organizations doing wonderful, on the ground work,” Madeline indicates, “but they’re dealing with the effects. We want to nip the problem in the bud, so to speak. So based on that, our goal has been to work within the entertainment industry—with the leading content creators across the media sectors—and to influence how they’re shaping their content. The other founding dynamic that Geena decided upon was that we would be a research-driven institute because it’s really with the empirical data that we can make an impact and actually garner attention.”

As Madeline suggests, opinion and theory are not going to weigh heavily when dealing with business leaders who are running multi-billion dollar industries. “That’s why, first and foremost, we approach making change by using our research to present the issue to leading content creators and producers, since for the most part no one is particularly aware of the issue. It’s just been the way we’ve been seeing content for years. We also work with them to determine what their particular concerns and challenges are, and then we will make suggestions in a very collaborative way.  We’ll then come back to them six months to a year later with our new research and also to find out what’s been happening for them. Right now, anecdotally, we’re getting a lot of feedback about things that have taken place. So we believe that when we do our next quantitative analysis for 2015, we’ll actually see the needle move. We’ve only been presenting the research for a few years, so when you think about that and the fact that there are about five hundreds films alone that come out every year, including animation projects that could take four years or even ten years to make, well you can imagine . . . you have to go through a very long cycle before you can really make an impact and see the results.

In the meantime, as Madeline explains, surveys can at least give some initial data that offers insights as well as encouragement. “One of our flagship events is the Gender in Media Symposium which we do every two years. At the second one, which was held in December of 2010, we did a follow-up survey through Survey Monkey. We polled three hundred executives who were there. Our first question was, ‘Based on what you have learned, will this information influence how you perceive gender balance and stereotypes in your body of work?’ Over 90% said yes. We then asked, ‘Will you share and utilize this information with your peers?’ They responded with 98% saying yes. So that’s a way we were able to measure the effectiveness of that symposium. Another question was, ‘Would you be interested in attending the next symposium?’ It turned out that 100% said yes.”

Although the industry response is encouraging, the lack of female representation in media as well as the stereotyping and viewing of women and girls as “eye candy” has taken its toll. This substance deficiency, both in numbers and in character portrayals—often conveying women and girls as no more than romantic fanatics more interested in chasing a guy rather than a career—can’t be inspiring much confidence. In fact, we’re teaching girls and boys alike not to expect too much from a female. And since children as well as adults can’t be what they can’t see, and what they are viewing portrays women and girls as less valuable, it’s no wonder that these portrayals have been linked to depression, low self-esteem and eating disorders.

“Although we don’t have empirical data that states media’s impact directly, we know that there are a lot of correlations in terms of media making an imprint on children,” Madeline states. “In fact, that’s one of the next studies we want to do—media’s impact specifically on self-esteem, on social-cultural behaviors and beliefs, and on career choices. There are a lot of connections that can be made, especially when you look at adolescents and the perceptions they have of their body images. Also, by the time a girl reaches eighth grade, she’s fallen out of subjects like Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). Now, you can’t blame all of that on media, but it can be a great contributing force.”

GUESS WHO Video

And just how is the Geena Davis Institute turning the STEM issue on its head, giving credence to the idea that girls can enjoy, demonstrate proficiency in and master the sciences? Educational videos are proving to be a solid start. Guess Who: The Mathematician and the Baker, a video created by Hot House Productions (Boston University’s student-run video production unit) and commissioned by the Institute, stimulates awareness in both children and educators.

“The goal was to create a learning video for children to teach them about gender stereotypes in an interesting way,” Madeline states,  “as well as to sensitize and educate the next generation of content creators about our work. So we went to our alma mater, Boston University, and to Professor Garland Waller, to present the challenge for this pilot project. We told the students what we wanted to do, gave them all of our research, and basically asked them to come up with some ideas. We selected the best one, which was Guess Who. We later received e-mails from educators who saw the video who mentioned they really liked it, so it’s been very positive. Now we’re fundraising because we’d like to do more educational videos and commission them as college projects.”

Along those lines, Madeline indicates that the Institute is also allying with the Sarasota Film Festival to develop media training workshops for middle and high school students within the SFF’s educational division. “We formed a partnership with them to do an educational outreach program whereby students are going to create videos about gender stereotypes, female portrayals, and gender equality. We’re actually going to show those videos at the 2012 Sarasota Film Festival.”

Geena Davis and Deborah Taylor Tate with Girl Scouts

Also among its initiatives, the Geena Davis Institute is working with young girls directly to address the issues, linking up with them at the advocacy level. “We’re very proud of our partnership with the Girl Scouts,” Madeline remarks. “For one, our research is included in their Healthy Media for Youth Act. Also, Geena and Deborah Taylor Tate, the former FCC Commissioner, are co-chairing Healthy Media: Commission for Positive Images of Women and Girls which we kicked off in DC about a month ago. We’re really excited about that. So the Girl Scouts has been a big partner for us in the girls’ movement.

               The Healthy Media for Youth Act takes a three-pronged approach to promote healthy media messages about girls and women. First, the bill creates a competitive grant program to encourage and support media literacy programs and youth empowerment groups. The bill also facilitates research on how depictions of women and girls in the media affect youth. Finally, it establishes a National Task Force on Women and Girls in the Media, which will develop voluntary standards that promote healthy, balanced, and positive images of girls and women in the media for the benefit of all youth.

“There are other organizations that we’re involved with as well, such as SPARK, which was created by Deborah Tolman who is a wonderful colleague and a brilliant researcher,” Madeline mentions. “In essence, we look to partner with organizations that are on the ground and reaching young girls.”

Madeline’s passion and enthusiasm for the Institute’s work and her drive to promote gender equity in children’s programming prompts the question: Has she ever personally confronted some of the issues she’s working with today? How did she handle entering the world of entertainment media during a time when it had to have been much more of a man’s world?

“Well, one of the things I did was to always look for women business leaders that I could model myself after,” Madeline conveys. “I literally would track people’s careers the way people would track celebrities. In fact, they were my celebrities. Actually, it was interesting for me. When I was seventeen, I started interning at ABC for several executives, mostly men. A few of them really shaped how I modeled myself, one actually being Bob Iger, who is now the president and CEO of the Walt Disney Company. I found that he had such a wonderful management style—the way that he interacted with people, how he treated them, his decorum—he was someone who really influenced me. Also, one of my first bosses at ABC, a woman by the name of Anne Marie Riccitelli, was one of the most dynamic women I had ever met. She was not only a great mentor to me then, she still is now. So I was really fortunate to be able to find some people who were exceptional.”

Madeline also mentions that good mentoring can make a tremendous difference in how women handle the process. “In the earlier generations that came before me, the strategy was to be better than the men or to be like them. And that made it really hard for the following generation of women to get mentoring. During my generation and for those who’ve come after, there’s been more of an openness and willingness to mentor and really bring women along. Personally, one of the things that I’ve done with people that I’ve hired is to keep in mind both their professional goals and objectives and their personal goals and objectives. I’ve always made sure that while they were performing their duties, I was also bringing them along from a personal development standpoint.”

Although her own experiences were by and large positive, Madeline credits self-confidence and the ability to create options as helpful in confronting circumstances tinged by gender bias or stereotyping. “I definitely encountered situations—certainly I’ve come across some during the interviewing process or with a coworker—where there were issues,” Madeline remarks. “But I happen to have a very strong personality and come from a background where both my parents had careers. So I had a lot of self esteem and a very strong sense of self. I was able to deal with that type of thing by creating options.”

Madeline’s natural confidence and ability to take the big picture into account keeps her optimistic about the industry’s accountability. She believes that those in the entertainment arena are open to seeing and discussing real evidence which supports the need for change, especially when it affects children’s perceptions of themselves and their world.

“First of all, most of these industry people are parents,” Madeline states. “So they’re shocked by the data. It’s not something they’ve reviewed before now. In many cases, they’ve actually said, ‘We’ll start to examine these scripts. We’ll examine the process more. Although we do look at diversity, we’ve never considered gender part of the diversity issue.’ And so both male and female executives are very receptive because everyone wants to do the right thing for kids.”

And The Geena Davis Institute is providing the research data, informing and educating media professionals through several studies conducted by Dr. Stacy Smith of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

  • Key Findings of Changing the Status Quo: Industry Leaders’ Perceptions of Gender in Family Films
  • Key Findings of Gender Disparity On Screen and Behind the Camera in Family Films
  • Key Findings of Gender Stereotypes: An Analysis of Popular Films and TV

Dr. Stacy Smith and Geena Davis

“Actually, the study that we published recently, Changing the Status Quo, was the first time we did qualitative research and the first time anyone asked industry professionals what they thought. All of the previous studies we’ve done have been quantitative—the stats and the numbers. What was really heartening about this study was that when we asked people if gender equality was possible, their answer was Yes. And when we asked them to discuss how important it was to achieve gender balance on screen, the industry felt that this was a very important issue and that it wouldn’t be difficult to implement. That was very inspiring.”

But what about behind the camera? Has there been an increase in the number of women directing, writing, or producing?

“Unfortunately, that really hasn’t changed very much,” Madeline informs. “During the time period that we looked at for one of our studies, Gender Disparity On Screen and Behind the Camera in Family Films, which spanned a three year time frame from 2006 through 2009, only 7% of the directors were female, 13% were writers and 20% were producers. The numbers are a little bit higher on the TV side. But what we did notice for the first time is that the presence of women behind the scenes seems to matter. So films that contained one or more females in the positions of director or writer had a 10% uptick with regard to influencing and depicting more female speaking characters on screen.”

Yet many of those on-screen personas are still lacking in substance. “One of the areas that we’re really paying attention to is career occupations and aspirations,” Madeline relays. “We’re finding that there’s great concern about girls dropping out of STEM-related areas in education or within occupations. Although we haven’t published the study yet, we took a look at career occupations in G-rated films, and essentially what we found is that there were no females that were portrayed in any type of career whatsoever,” Madeline noted. “So when we think about our youngest children not seeing girls reflected in any type of profession, that’s disturbing.”

It’s also bizarre. Why present such a limited vision? Since media has a powerful affect on popular culture, it’s essential that we see more images of women and girls in diverse and powerful positions. How then does media that leans toward stereotyping and oversexualizing females affect gender equity on a global level?

The Geena Davis Institute, partnering with UNIFEM (now part of UN Women), is addressing the issue, taking a look at women’s empowerment internationally—especially how media portrayals are affecting the Millennium Development Goal of Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality (MDG 3).

“Approximately 80% of media that’s consumed overseas is made in the U.S,” Madeline states. “That means we’re exporting these gender stereotypes and portrayals around the globe. That’s why we need to look at media’s impact on social change. With regard to addressing MDG 3, we work with the UN to bring a gender focus to the situation and to raise awareness as much as possible.”

               The images and portrayals of girls and women are transported through American films and programming throughout the world and therefore exert a great influence on shaping cultures  — Geena Davis, World’s Women at the Centre of Achieving the MDGs

Geena Davis’ partnership with the United Nations is a monumental effort to create a new blueprint regarding the way media portrays women and girls—increasing their presence and offering more empowering images which recognizes and confirms their value. Yet, we don’t have to be celebrities or involved in UN initiatives to meet the challenge. We can all make a difference, whether we’re involved in the entertainment industry directly or we’re a concerned parent. Madeline points out that we can become advocates in our own right and contribute to the change.

“If someone is a content creator, they can use a gender lens when they’re creating characters and story lines. Anyone who can control the words on the page is important,” Madeline emphasizes. “If you’re outside of the industry . . . well, clearly we’re looking for evangelists. So if you’re is in a position of authority and have an opportunity to mentor or create a mentoring program in your organization, we believe that would be of great value as well as an opportunity to move women up the ranks. If you’re a parent, we would suggest you use your critical thinking. Watch what your children are watching.”

That simple directive holds the key. As one of television’s icons, Fred Rogers (Mister Rogers) once stated, I’m not for censorship, but I’m certainly for self-censorship when it comes to producing or purveying products to America’s children. I think that for people who make anything for children, their first thought should be: Would I want my child to see, hear or touch this? And if the answer is no, just don’t make it.

Well, you can’t get more definitive than that. So perhaps it’s time for the entertainment industry to do an about face and take a good look at the messages it’s sending our children. As Madeline Di Nonno has clearly assessed, content that empowers girls and women will allow for a quantum leap in arenas far beyond entertainment. We can create media that disenfranchises and marginalizes or develop content that transforms and revolutionizes. How we use our creative power, and to what end, is up to us.

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All photos used by permission.

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