A new rating for TV and movies to combat gender stereotypes

Actress Geena Davis, who starred as the President of the United States in the TV series Commander In Chief, said she hoped the Common Sense ratings would help increase pressure on the entertainment industry to produce more content with positive femal
Actress Geena Davis, who starred as the President of the United States in the TV series Commander In Chief, said she hoped the Common Sense ratings would help increase pressure on the entertainment industry to produce more content with positive female role models. PHOTO: ABC

NEW YORK (NYTimes) - Thirty-two years ago, cartoonist Alison Bechdel proposed a test to determine whether a movie portrayed girls and women as fully formed characters: Does it have two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man? A yes meant pass.

Now the nonprofit media watchdog group Common Sense Media is applying a new test to its ratings of movies and television shows: Do they combat gender stereotypes?

Founded in 2003, Common Sense Media provides parents with an online rating system that suggests age-appropriate shows for children, highlighting those that underscore admirable character traits like courage, empathy and perseverance.

On Tuesday it was to introduce a new metric: the portrayal of gender. At its website, a symbol with the phrase "positive gender representations" will appear with a film or TV show, meaning that reviewers judged it to prompt boys and girls to think beyond traditional gender roles.

Get The Straits Times
newsletters in your inbox

In trying to develop the new gender reviews, Common Sense examined existing research, finding that the way gender roles are portrayed in movies and television can shape career choices, self-image, tolerance of sexual harassment and dating behavior. It then surveyed parents in April and found that they were very worried about how gender stereotyping in the media could affect their children.

"When my daughter was a toddler, I was absolutely floored to see that there seemed to be far more male characters than female characters in what we're making for kids in the 21st century," said actress Geena Davis, founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and an adviser on the project. Davis said she hoped the Common Sense ratings would help guide parents, who might, in turn, increase pressure on the entertainment industry to produce more content with positive female role models. (Her daughter is now 15.)

"Everyone I encountered in the industry tried to tell me it wasn't a problem anymore, that it had been fixed," she said. "Even people making these products are sure they're gender-balanced when they're profoundly not."

Deciding how to assess television and movies for children poses complex challenges: How to strike the balance between overall quality and specific gender roles? What if a strong female character opts for a traditional role as wife and mother? And will recommendations that feature girls and boys reaching beyond traditional gender roles alienate some parents?

Betsy Bozdech, Common Sense Media's executive editor for ratings and reviews, explained the reasoning behind some of the more complex choices.

Moonlight, for example, will be given the new stamp of approval for 17-year-olds and up, despite depictions of violence, drugs and sex. "I can't think of any title that has prompted more talk about what it means to be an African-American young man, about opening up more possibilities, than that movie," she said.

Of the parents surveyed, African-Americans were the most worried about what their children watched. More than white or Latino parents, they expressed concern about boys shown as violent or aggressive, girls' obsessing about their appearance, and the way African-American girls and boys are portrayed, according to the survey, of 933 parents of children ages 2 to 17.

The reality show MasterChef Junior qualified for the seal because it counters the stereotype that cooking is for girls, said Michael Robb, Common Sense's director of research. So do such shows as Annedroids and Bones, which feature girls as engineers, computer scientists or forensic investigators. When girls see female scientists, they are more likely to express interest in so-called STEM careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Some of the ratings were clear-cut because they featured men and women in unconventional roles: Wonder Woman, Hidden Figures, A League of Their Own, Billy Elliot. But some required further parsing.

Bridesmaids did not make the cut, despite breaking barriers in the industry.

"Women can be funny on their own, they can do raunchy comedy, they don't need guys," Bozdech said. "But there wasn't necessarily an intent to push against gender stereotypes." Common Sense will also consider how transgender people are portrayed, though it has not rated such a show or film yet.