Stereotypes of female leaders in film, adverts hurt girls’ ambitions

By Evelyn Makena
Friday, October 11th, 2019
Kate Maina-Vorley, Country Director, Plan International says the stereotypical portrayal of women leaders in film makes girls believe leadership is not meant for them. Photo/PD/COURTeSY

The stereotypical portrayal of women in popular films across the world perpetuates the false belief among girls that leadership is a preserve for men, a study by Plan International and Geena Davis Research Institute reveals.

Not only are storylines in the film industry dominated by men, but also in instances where women leaders such as CEOS, business owners and political representatives appear, their role is trivialised by portraying them as sex objects often shown nude or in revealing clothes, the report says.

This inaccurate portrayal of women through sexualisation and objectification of women leaders undermines girls’ ambition for leadership, hence becoming a hindrance to gender equality.

“To be it, they must see it! If what girls and young women are watching is women playing secondary roles, they will then settle for less powerful positions.

If what they view is women leaders portrayed as moody and with the inability to make good decisions, girls will believe leadership is not meant for women,” says Kate Maina-Vorley, Country Director, Plan International. 

Underlying message

Kate says that the objectification of women in films compels girls to think that their worth is pegged on their looks and not their intelligence thus influences them to forget how much more valuable they are.

The research, which analysed 56 top-grossing films from 19 countries across the globe found that women were four times more likely to be shown wearing revealing clothes than men (30 per cent compared to seven per cent). 

The study also showed that female leaders were more likely to be sexually harassed (five per cent) compared to men (one per cent). More men were shown in leadership positions (42 per cent) compared to 27 per cent of women.

 “We’ve conducted numerous studies over the years, showing entertainment media largely fails to produce high-quality portrayals of girls and women.

This has a real impact on young viewers’ ideas about themselves and the occupations they pursue,” reads an excerpt of the foreword written by Geena Davis, an American award-winning actress whose organisation was involved in the study.

Participants in the study, which included voices of 10,000 women and girls from 19 countries, said they needed more role models on the screen, arguing they wanted to see themselves in the stories to encourage and recognise their capacity for leadership.

“The underlying messages of the films analysed have changed little for decades; male characters dominate the storylines.

Girls too would feel inspired if films and music portray women and girls as intelligent and respectable rather than smart, but at the same time sexualised and objectified,” adds Kate.  

The research revealed that male characters appear twice as much and they spoke twice as many times as women.

In leadership positions, men come across as more intelligent, effective and respected while women leaders like presidents or prime ministers are portrayed as being ineffectual.

Films analysed showed the home as being the area where women best thrived in leadership. At the family level, women dominated as leaders at 18 per cent compared to men at 15 per cent.

In the report, titled Rewrite Her Story, 94 per cent of respondents believed women in leadership were treated less well on the basis of their gender.

An analysis of 108 advertisements in five countries during the study showed objectification of women was also rampant in the advertising industry.

In advertisements, beautiful women were used to selling even when their image had no correlation to the products and men portrayed as better leaders and more intelligent.

One in five of the women in these advertisements is sexualised while none of the men receives similar treatment.

An analysis of the advertisements showed there were no men in the kitchen and few women in the office creating skewed the impression that the female gender belongs at home.

Negative impact

Findings of the study brought to the fore the extent to which gender discrimination has dominated even after governments across the world took measures to do away with the stereotypes.

Despite the recognition about the role of media in shifting gender stereotypes made by 189 UN member states, 25 years ago, during the Fourth Conference on Women, the study found gender discrimination and stereotypes continued to dominate. 

Among one of the resolutions of the Beijing Declaration was to increase the number of women in media and, especially at the decision making level.

It also advocated for a shift in the traditional roles of men and women and a re-organisation of institutions such as media that shape society’s perceptions.

But 25 years later, Kate says a lot remains to be done to change the stereotypical representation of women on the screen. Ultimately, that demeaning portrayal has a negative impact on the decisions girls make.