I blame Geena Davis, the Academy Award-winning actor, for the fact that I am now counting dinosaurs. As my daughter watches her favorite television show, Dinosaur Train, I sit next to her, ticking off which dinos are male and which are female. And in case you're wondering, yes, I do feel ridiculous.
The show centers on the pteranodon family — Mom, Dad, two boys and two girls. One of the boys, Buddy, is actually a Tyrannosaurus Rex. No one's really clear on how Buddy got into the nest, and no one mentions that when he grows up, he'll probably eat all his relatives.
The dinosaur train itself conveniently travels not just across space but through time, giving the pteranodons plenty of opportunities to meet up with dinos from various eras. When the pteranodons met Laura Giganotosaurus, I was so pleased that the giganotosaurus, a really big, meat-eating creature, was cast as a female. Laura's from Argentina and has a fabulous accent. Not that my girls will grow up to be dinosaurs, but there are worse role models.
Geena Davis, in addition to being an actor, a competitive archer and fluent speaker of Swedish, is the founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Her group sponsors research on how women are portrayed in mass media, and works behind the scenes to get the television and movie industries to show more women, in a more realistic light. Davis has some tough-to-take stats on just how many female characters are missing from children's shows.
- In kids' television and movies, there are roughly three male characters for every female one – a ratio that has not changed since 1946.
- From September 2006 to September 2009, not one female character in a G-rated film was depicted as being in medical science, as a business leader, in law, or in politics.
- Some 83% of television and movie narrators are male.
- In crowd scenes, only 17% of the people in crowds are women.
As Davis says: "It almost seems like you have to go deliberately out of your way to leave out that many women."
Speaking at a conference in Atlanta, she said this imbalance has profound long-term consequences:
Every child, when they start watching shows and G-rated videos, they're seeing a hugely imbalanced picture of what the world is like. You learn from what you're exposed to. ... Only seven percent of films are gender-balanced. We're in effect training kids to see girls as less important. As not taking up half the space in the world... Everybody has been indoctrinated with this unconsciously.
Davis made me think. All it took was one very large dinosaur — Laura Giganotosaurus —for me to say, well, Dinosaur Train has positive female role models. I wondered if I'd been duped by a token strong female.
So I started counting, beginning with the "Dinosaurs A to Z" episode, which has an unusually large cast. In one half-hour episode, I counted 18 males and nine females. Not good.
Nicole Goldman, senior vice president of marketing and publicity with The Henson Company, which produces Dinosaur Train, says that while any one episode might not have a perfect gender balance, "We're trying to create a balanced world. There are a number of episodes about girl characters as well." The show has about 180 characters in all, she says, and about 100 of them are male. Tiny, one of the pteranodon sisters, is just as popular as Buddy, the T-Rex, she says. "Tiny is the strong leader on the show. Buddy is the learner."
The Henson creative team meets regularly with staff from the Geena Davis Institute, which helps everyone keep a "mindfulness" about gender balance, she adds. Those meetings also point up other problems, specifically with merchandising and licensing. "With baby toys it doesn't seem to happen, but somewhere around age four or age five, there's a pink aisle and a boys' aisle," says Goldman. "It's very challenging to create a property you want to have in both aisles."
I'm glad to know the team at Henson is taking gender balance seriously, not least because I'd hate to have to ban Dinosaur Train at my house. And if they were ever to get way out of line, well, it's good to know I'll have Laura Giganotosaurus on my side. – KW
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Photo courtesy of flickr user david shankbone