The XX Factor

Geena Davis Institute Releases Totally Unsurprising Report About Women on TV

Did you know that Geena Davis had an institute?

Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

The Geena Davis Institute On Gender In Media has been getting a lot of positive press coverage over the last few days for its release of an absolutely unsurprising report that repeats the findings of organizations, like the Women’s Media Center: There are fewer women than men on television!

Also: Women are more often presented as sexy, while men get to be schlubby! While it’s true that these things can’t be said enough, and that Hollywood can’t be pushed too hard to change some of its basic gender dynamics, nothing in the report—which looks at the basic representation of women, their sexual presentation, and the professions female characters often work in—is strikingly new. And many of its findings, particularly on prime-time television, are framed in rigid and simplistic ways that don’t actually tell us much about how to create better female characters.

The report, “Gender Roles And Occupations: A Look At Character Attributes and Job-Related Aspirations in Film and Television,” found that primetime television has more female characters than either of the other two categories the researchers surveyed, family films and children’s shows.  In primetime, 38.9 percent of characters are women, as compared to 28.3 percent in family films and 30.8 percent in children’s shows. And 44.2 percent of prime-time programming that’s framed by a narration is narrated by women, while that is true for only 26.5 percent of family movies and 20 percent of children’s shows.

As for the question of what television is doing with the women that it’s got, the report, at its surface, is fairly dispiriting, suggesting that women are more sexualized on primetime television than they are in other media: 34.6 percent of female characters on primetime shows are shown “with exposed skin,” as opposed to 26.6 percent in family films and 17.2 percent in children’s shows. But the report doesn’t distinguish between whether that skin’s exposed because characters are at a setting like a beach or a pool where it’s perfectly reasonable for them to be wearing swim suits, or if the exposure is part of some sort of inappropriate sexual situation for the Nick Jr. crowd. Showing some skin on, say, an adult drama, seems perfectly reasonable to me.

Yes, yes, it’s absolutely unfair that women are showing more skin than men on primetime television—only 11 percent of male characters are taking their kit off, according to the report—and that women get called attractive more than men do on primetime, 11.6 percent to 3.5 percent. But I’m not sure why the solution should be to make women less sexual, rather than to be more equitable, adult, and honest about sex appeal. (Men, your straight-lady and gay audiences are badly underserved.) For instance, I wouldn’t consider it a win if networks started replacing party girls with asexual grim lady CEOs. If the goal is a more realistic portrayal of men and women on television, then let’s admit that sexuality and professional success are not mutually exclusive.

I was more prepared to agree with the study’s findings that very thin people are overrepresented in media, because duh. But the report concludes that only 37.5 percent of female characters on television have “thin bodies,” which makes me think the Institute’s idea of what a nonthin woman looks like is actually sort of terrifying to contemplate. Anyway: I’d love to see more women of all shapes and sizes (and colors) on my primetime television, but again, this is a case where I actually think seeing women who aren’t standard Hollywood tiny presented as sexual and attractive would be a win. A show like Lifetime’s Drop Dead Diva, which presents an overweight lawyer as not only incredibly good at her job, but emphasizes her gorgeous hair and skin and killer cleavage, and gives her a steady parade of love interests, is striking the exact right kind of balance. I’d like to see more of that on television, especially in shows that don’t have to make a big deal of the heroine’s weight.

On to the jobs analysis, which is also a little weird. It’s absolutely true that it’s a good thing for young girls to see female characters in positions of power, and it’s a problem that women are only 27.8 percent of televised politicians and 14 percent of corporate executives. (They are, interestingly, 100 percent of editors-in-chief.) But not all little girls are going to grow up to be corporate executives. And female characters that stand up for themselves in professions dominated by women, even if they aren’t high-status jobs or in STEM fields, shouldn’t be treated as if they don’t count. Is Roseanne, who lead a walkout at the toy factory where she worked on her titular show after being harassed and suffering through the imposition of unfair quotas by her boss, less of a role model than a scheming fashion magazine editor like Ugly Betty’s Wilhelmina? Is a smart, feminist character like housecleaner Virginia Chance (Martha Plimpton) on working-class sitcom Raising Hope less valuable than a female president?

Numbers matter, but they’re never the whole story. Having more women creating television shows is a wonderful thing, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll hire women to work with them, or even necessarily create shows that are less sexist than those produced by their sensitive male peers. The goal should not be fewer female characters who are sexy, but rather, shows that start conversations about what sexually healthy relationships look like—or why we’re attracted to things that are bad for us. I’m glad that we’re all paying more attention to the cause of women on television. I just wish this report, which is meant to provide fodder for that cause, were more thoughtful about what, in an ideal television world, female roles might actually look like.