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Why Girls Need to See Themselves On-screen

Photograph by Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media

"Doc McStuffins" creator Chris Nee said she met an African-American pediatrician recently who said that she measures time before "Doc McStuffins" and after "Doc McStuffins." Before the show, about an African-American girl who dreams of being a pediatrician, the doctor would walk into an exam room to meet patients and they assumed she was the nurse. After the show began airing two years ago on the Disney Channel, patients then assumed she was the doctor.

That's an example of the power that media has on children. Showing girls as doctors, lawyers and scientists can change the way that girls envision their future. This was part of the focus of the "Reel vs. Real Diversity in Hollywood" salon presented on November 11 by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

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The ratio of boys to girls on television and in G-rated movies are three to one.

Academy Award-winning actress Geena Davis created the institute after noticing how few girls were in the television shows and movies she was watching with her daughter. Davis's nonprofit institute researches the representation of women and girls in media and works with the entertainment industry to increase their numbers.

"Doc McStuffins" is not the norm for children's shows that mainly star boys. The ratio of boys to girls on television and in G-rated movies are three to one, according to the institute. Not only that, but in a recent study of 11 countries including the United States, only 30 percent of speaking parts in films were held by women even though women represent half of the population in the U.S.

Davis recalled meeting with an animation studio executive about why there weren't more female characters in children's movies. He answered that his writers didn't want to be forced to put a "message" in their films.

By having few female characters in their films they were most certainly sending out a message. "You are putting in a very powerful, negative message," Davis said.

We have a generation of women, of girls with full access to this violent debauchery and materialism, and it's shaping their perceptions of themselves.

Those messages can have an impact in the way girls see the world. Not only are there not enough women on screen, they're sometimes not portrayed in the most positive light.

Sil Lai Abrams is the founder of Truth in Reality, which works to change the way women are portrayed in media. She talked specifically about African-American women in reality shows and the level of violence. Girls are seeing women being treated badly and behaving badly. "We have a generation of women, of girls with full access to this violent debauchery and materialism, and it's shaping their perceptions of themselves."

There are scripted shows with positive portrayals of women, including the new CW show "Jane the Virgin." It's about a Hispanic woman who is accidentally artificially inseminated and becomes pregnant. It's based on a Venezuelan telenovela "Juana la Virgen." The creator, Jennie Snyder Urman, is not Latina, and after making the show she realized how lucky she was to grow up watching shows with girls that looked just like her, and that not everyone had that opportunity. Now, she's making a show with a character that all girls can look up to.

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"Little girls are going to grow up and see this woman who is not stressed about how skinny she is and that she's a fully realized human being who is going after her dreams," she said.

Nee said that it's up to creators "to find the ways that we're going to push the conventional wisdom of networks, and the things that have happened in the past are not necessarily what's happening now."

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