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Geena Davis Institute Asks: Where Are the Good Roles for Women?

February 24, 2012

(Laura Cronin is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her last post, she wrote about the Wikimedia Foundation's first Public Policy Initiative.)

Seejane_250As we get ready for the Academy Awards on Sunday, it's interesting to think about the relationship of pop and celebrity culture to social change.

The average foundation manager working to move the needle for a cause can only envy the ways in which celebrities are able to generate attention for their favorite issues. A short speech from a prominent figure on the red carpet is a surefire route to getting your cause trending on Twitter.

This year's Academy Award-nominated films are packed with issues that foundation and nonprofit people are concerned about: inequality, children and families, race, gender, sexual violence, politics. And I'm not just talking about documentaries.

Unfortunately, good roles for strong women are rare. That depressing fact turned Oscar (The Accidental Tourist) and Golden Globe (Commander in Chief) winner Geena Davis into an advocate. Watching television and movies with her young daughter a decade ago, Davis became concerned about the representation of women in most children's media. In 2004, the actress founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media and commissioned a study by Dr. Stacy Smith of the USC Annenberg School of Communications & Journalism which found a huge, 3:1 gender gap in roles for men and women. The study also concluded that even G-rated films transmit negative messages about girls -- messages which not only affect children in the U.S. but, given Hollywood's global reach, are exported to the rest of the world. The institute raises money for research, advocates for change, and develops educational materials that schools can use to help children think beyond stereotypes, including a recently piloted video learning series about gender and the workplace called Guess Who?

It also believes that pop culture is not just a mirror of our world but a driver of attitudes, and that positive gender portrayals break down stereotypes and broaden children's aspirations. According to the institute's executive director, Madeline Di Nonno, what children see on a screen truly matters. It shapes their emotional and social development and their beliefs. The more they see female characters who are hyper-sexualized, sidelined, or not present at all, the more boys and girls will think that's the way it's supposed to be.

So whether you stay up all night with Billy Crystal to see who gets to bring home a golden statue or turn in early, the Geena Davis Institute hopes you'll spend a few minutes thinking about how women and girls are portrayed on the silver screen.

-- Laura Cronin

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