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Do female characters always make good heroines for girls?

Do female characters always make good heroines for girls?

Have you ever thought about the gender messages your child is taking from the films and TV shows they watch? 

Research (PDF) (3.6 MB)🔗 shows that females are woefully underrepresented in children’s films and cartoons, by nearly three to one compared to male characters. And when female characters are present, they're more likely to be depicted as a sidekick or love interest than the hero of the story.

Female characters are overwhelmingly white, thin and conventionally attractive. They're also more likely to be shown as sexualised, which gives negative messages to both girls and boys watching. 

Children are often exposed to such characterisations from their preschool years, and the gender imbalance throughout the mass media remains in adulthood. That's why it's important for us to teach our children to question, challenge and reframe media stories, as well as how to become their own storytellers.

Parent power: mothers are female superheroes

When it comes to media literacy, mums need to capitalise on the close relationship they have with their children (even on the days when it doesn’t feel close) and be role models for the people we want them to become. 

Dr Dae Sheridan, psychotherapist and professor of human sexuality at the University of South Florida, explains, “Teaching media literacy provides a real, protective set of armour against the overt and subtle ways media can lead girls to question whether they are pretty/skinny/sexy/good enough.”

So, when watching TV with your family, try saying what's on your mind about how women are being represented. By trying to reframe media in the moment, you will be teaching your children how to critically interpret or ‘decode’ what they are seeing and hearing.

Shift the focus when you discuss female characters

Much of the media sends girls the message that their beauty is to be valued above all else. Counter this by avoiding focusing only on female characters' looks. Why not turn this into a game? Any time you greet a girl or woman in real life, or see a new female character on TV, make a comment about what she's doing instead of what she looks like.

Dr Jennifer Hartstein, an adolescence and family psychologist from New York City, says, “The messages girls receive from the media often focus on their appearance or other superficial things. As a result, girls are not being shown that they have so much more to offer beyond their looks, which can translate into depression and anxiety, and have an impact on their school performance – or their determination to be leaders or anything outside of the norm. With media literacy skills, girls are better able to push past the negative messages and find the positive ones”.

As parents, we aren’t going to approve of all the media and cultural messages our children receive. However, we can teach them to explore the world on their own terms and offer them a safe place to share the messages they're hearing. This will help them build life-long critical thinking skills and develop their own definitions of success, confidence and beauty.

The struggle to find strong female characters: seeing is believing

Parents should be aware of three important effects from the underrepresentation of women and girls in the media.

Firstly, when boys are the central figures in most adventures, girls start to see themselves as accessories in life rather than as main characters or heroines. Seeking out more stories told in girls’ voices gives them a fresh perspective and helps them imagine themselves in a variety of roles. If they can picture themselves as an astronaut, world leader, paramedic or spy, they’ll believe such roles are attainable.

Secondly, the few heroines we do see, tend to fit a narrow definition of beauty. Women of colour, in particular, are often given limited or stereotypical roles rather than being portrayed as rounded individuals. This sends strong messages about the types of women that society values and for what reasons, which links with larger cultural issues such as sexism and racism.

Finally, the female roles we see in films tend to be subservient or supportive, such as girlfriend, victim or mother. Even strong women are often depicted as merely the feisty sidekick. The roles lack layered character development and seem only to exist as attractive, one-dimensional props in the telling of boys’ stories. 

Ideally, films and TV shows would teach all of us that there are no limits to our personal stories, and no challenge we cannot rise to. Gender balance in the media would also teach our children that it's fine for both males and females to show a range of emotions and imperfections. 

The more heroines we see, the more opportunities we all have to learn from, and gain respect for, a range of female experience.

next steps

  • Help your child analyse the media around them and encourage them to rewrite the story
  • Dissect media and plots. Ask questions that retell the story your child is watching. Could the main characters be a group of girls with one tag-along guy friend, instead of the other way round? Could a woman be shown making different decisions that would depict her as empowered, rather than weak? 
  • Ask your child questions about gender balance and diversity in the media they see. Is there a balance of body sizes and physical abilities? Are any characters stereotyped or marginalised? Are the female characters inside or outside society’s beauty norms? Does the film poster give equal importance to male and female characters?
  • Give your child access to a camera, art supplies or a voice recorder and show them how to become the storyteller – and why their voice matters. Encourage them to write, create, investigate, produce and direct their own stories, with their own heroes and heroines 
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