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Our Girls Are Watching: 4 Strategies to Avoid Gender Stereotypes in Kids Movies

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Gender stereotypes are just as harmful as racial stereotypes. In kids movies, gender and racial stereotypes combine to create a dual conflict for Black girls.

As I have gotten older, my taste in television and movies has changed dramatically. I have little patience for programming that lack racial diversity and nuanced gender portrayals. As a Black woman and a parent, I delight in seeing my grown-up Black woman-ness on screens large and small.

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Not only does representation matter to me emotionally, but it is critically important for my MiniMocha, who is a four-year old (very curious) preschooler. As we began to enjoy a weekly movie night ritual, I noticed the incredible lack of diversity in kid’s movies. In the cruelest irony, I when screening movies, I find myself choosing between race (no representation) and gender (negative stereotypes). When I preview a movie or television program, I ask myself, which is potentially more harmful – no racial representation OR gender stereotypes? With more research, I have learned that both are harmful to young children. For this post, I’ll focus on gender stereotypes. I’ll write more on race later.

The most common stereotypical gender-themes in movies include:

Princesses (looking at you, Disney)

The “in distress” female character

A prize to be “awarded” to a male character

Inaccurate historical representations

Characters of color as “sidekicks” to the main character

Gender stereotypes apply to male characters, too. Male characters are often portrayed as fearless, problem solvers strong and brave. I used to think the gender stereotypes were not as harmful as the racial stereotypes (e.g., the Black friend as a funny sidekick), but the more I research the more I see my error.

One study I read found that because children tend to watch the same movies over and over, the content may have a stronger influence on children’s social learning about gender. This particular study, examined gender roles in five animated movies, states that “with repeated television visioning of characters engaging in gendered roles can influence their own views of themselves and others in ways that can become skewed and stereotypical. As a parent, I want MiniMocha’s entertainment to be consistent with our family’s values on race and gender equity. In my own parenting, I work hard to create a space for un-gendered play. We play with dolls and building toys, cars, trucks and trains. Recently, Mini asked me for a toolbox, because she needed a hammer to fix something. To me, these things are not distinctly male or female – but interesting toys.

Research from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media found the most equitable gender portrayals occur in TV shows aimed at the TVG audience, programs suitable for all ages with little to no sexual content, violence or strong language.

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Doc McStuffins is a Boss

Here is also why I love Doc McStuffins. She smart, thoughtful and kind. She’s brainy (check out the size of her head). The show’s creators have given her a home life that shakes up traditional gender roles – Doc’s Mom is a physician and her father is a stay-at-home dad. Love it. Now we’ve learned that Doc is getting a sibling through adoption. Can this show get any better?

Doc McStuffins in a hair bonnet. Photo Credit: Jozie Scott

Doc McStuffins in a hair bonnet. Photo Credit: Jozie Scott

Two episodes that offer valuable teaching moments for young girls:

Itty Bitty Bess Takes Flight (Season 5, Episode 11A), which features a miniature toy of Bessie Coleman, the first African American woman pilot and the first African American to hold an international pilot license. In this episode, the viewer gets a historical snapshot of Bessie Coleman. It’s beautifully done.

DOC MCSTUFFINS - "Itty Bitty Bess" - Doc and the toys help a tiny tin airplane pilot named Bess, a historical toy created in the likeness of the famous African-American female pilot, Bessie Coleman, get back into shape after her joints become rusty. Multiple Grammy and Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald ("Porgy & Bess") guest stars as Bess in this episode of Disney Junior's Peabody Award-winning "Doc McStuffins" premiering THURSDAY, JULY 23 (9:00 a.m., ET/PT) on Disney Channel. (Disney Junior) BESS

DOC MCSTUFFINS – “Itty Bitty Bess” – Doc and the toys help a tiny tin airplane pilot named Bess, a historical toy created in the likeness of the famous African-American female pilot, Bessie Coleman, get back into shape after her joints become rusty. Multiple Grammy and Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald (“Porgy & Bess”) guest stars as Bess in this episode of Disney Junior’s Peabody Award-winning “Doc McStuffins” premiering THURSDAY, JULY 23 (9:00 a.m., ET/PT) on Disney Channel. (Disney Junior)
BESS

Queen of Thrones (Season 6, Episode 4), which features Queen Amena, who leads a building task when the other toys begin calling her “bossy”. Doc quickly responds that Amena is a leader, and we are blessed with the song – She’s Not Bossy, She’s The Boss. iLive

Take a look at the television and movies that your Minis are watching and look for gender stereotypes.

Here are four gender related questions to ask as you watch movies with your children:

1. What is the numeric proportion of females to males?

2. What roles does the female character play in relation to the central conflict of the story? Is she a prize or does she contribute to resolving the story in a meaningful way?

3. How does the female character’s body look (e.g., is it overly sexual in its proportions)? How does her voice sound?

4. Is the female character longing for love? (I was shocked a how many fish and turtles long for love.)

Representation matters. As a parent, I want to affirm the brilliance strength of women and girls in every form. Kids movies are a great place to start. If you like this post, please share it.

I write for the mothers who want more choice in gender depictions for their girls

joanna-scottABOUT AUTHOR: DR. JOANNA SCOTT- I am Dr. Joanna Scott, creator of Mocha Parents, Awesome Kids. I am also a mother, researcher and racial equity consultant. I have worked with numerous organizations across the country who aspire to be more intentional about race in their organizational policies and practices. In this space, I borrow from my work and my parenting experiences living at the intersection of race and gender. I have an extensive background in public policy analysis, family counseling and years of experience as a child advocate. I hope my work mirrors my heart’s song – a deep belief in the brilliance of every Black child.

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