Geena Davis has been a long-standing advocate for the analysis of media images and gender socialization. She founded the See Jane Project in 2004 and the Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media (GDIGM).
In 2005, Geena Davis and her institute partnered with the esteemed media analyst, Dr. Stacy Smith at the Annenberg School of Communication at USC. Prompted by Davis’ informal observations regarding the portrayals of gender in media directed at children, GDIGM and the research team organized under the direction of Dr. Smith watched over 5oo hours of children’s programming that summer.
Research showed that in 101 top-grossing G-rated movies released between 1990 and 2005, three out of four characters were male. Girls accounted for only 17 percent of the film’s narrators and 17 percent of the characters in crowd scenes. Only seven of the 101 movies were nearly gender-balanced, with a ratio of less than 1.5 males per 1 female character. “Although many people would argue that things seem to be getting better, our data shows that this is not the case,” says the principal investigator, Stacy L. Smith, an associate professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication, where the research was carried out.
What was revealed was not only the disparity of images between male and female characters but the typical gender socialization that continues throughout adulthood. As media analyst George Gerbner pointed out many years ago, it is not the introduction of one image or message that causes a change in one’s attitude of one’s self or the worl they inhabit that is worth noting. It is the repetitive and continuous stream of images that consistently reinforce the same values and norms from our earliest years throughout the life course. This concept is know as cultivation. Cultivation refers to the stability of these prolific messages versus the change-oriented model.
When one considers the process of cultivation in a media saturated culture, it is the seemingly benign, obvious messages that we don’t consciously take note of that constructs our sense of reality. In turn, this framework informs and shapes our expectations of who we and others should be and we consider these attitudes and behaviors as normative and natural.
Considering the work of Stacy Smith, Jackson Katz, Byron Hurt, Sut Jhally, Jean Kilbourne and many others that have actively studied gender and the media, it is not surprising that media directed at children hardly differs from media directed at adult men and women. Cartoons aimed at girls and boys carry the same messages/plots/themes/characters that “chick flicks” and “dick flicks” reinforce in adulthood.
Girls/women are encouraged to focus on beauty and relationships with men, After all, you must be beautiful to get a guy. Boys/men are encouraged to be tough, adventurous and independent. Considering the prolific and ubiquitous nature of the contemporary media, it is no surprise that young girls strive to be beautiful through more and more extreme measures. They are repeatedly told early on that girls/women must be beautiful in order to be validated in order to be considered worthy of a relationship. Boys/men are told repeatedly that real boys/men are tough and independent or they are considered weak and effeminate.
Essentialism, the notion that gendered behavior is inherent and “natural,” is not surprising considering a climate that cultivates attitudes, behaviors and expectations of girls/women and boys/men within a structured environment that provides a steady stream of images that constantly reinforce themselves. The images become unremarkable or un-noteworthy.
In this mediated cultural climate, negative sanctions in the form of derogatory names and physical punishment is also unsurprising. If gendered characteristics and their expected behaviors are sen as inevitable and natural, punishment for one’s transgression is seen as inevitable. And, that’s where the danger resides.