Most of the male characters in children's movies are either "Casanovas, criminals or clowns," says a University of Southern California researcher who studied the movies that today's teens, tweens and children grew up watching.
The study, out today, finds that G-rated movies, even animated ones, are dominated by physically aggressive white male characters. Most films relegate women and minorities to the sidelines; minorities' roles seldom rise above "sidekicks, comic relief or villains."
Not only are they hard to find, the study suggests, but non-white males are far more often beating someone up. They're "portrayed as physically aggressive or violent" 62% of the time, compared with 37.6% for white male characters.
G-rated movie men are seldom good role models. Only 34.6% are parents, vs. 66.3% of female characters. Even fewer men (31.9%) are married or in a committed relationship, says USC researcher Stacy Smith — witness loners Aladdin and Hercules, among others.
Not so fast, says movie critic Nell Minow. Known as Moviemom, she reviews children's movies for Yahoo.com and writes a column on family and media issues for the Chicago Tribune. Minow says many kids' movies offer up tough, smart girls. In the forthcoming movie Hoot, she says, two boys and a girl "are equally involved and very strong and reliable and tough in fighting the environmental bad guys."
Though it's important to get kids to challenge what they see on screen, Minow says, the study "overplays the issue."
"It's very, very important for parents to talk to kids about whatever they see and make sure that they develop the critical faculties," she says. But some movies that might not fare well under the USC study, such as Disney's 1950 Cinderella, are still valuable.
"We don't throw out Cinderella because our views of women have changed since Cinderella was originally written," Minow says. "We say to the kids, 'Now, did Cinderella have other options? Could she have maybe said "No" to the stepmother? Could she have left?' You want to have those conversations with kids all the time."
The new study is the researchers' second to deconstruct the 101 top-grossing G-rated films from 1990 to 2004. The first, out in February, found that female roles are rare and movies with gender-balanced casts are exceedingly rare.
The research is sponsored by actress Geena Davis, who won a Golden Globe for the TV show Commander in Chief, in which she plays the first female U.S. president. Davis' group, See Jane, plans several more studies of G-rated movies.
Davis, 50, herself a mother of three, says the group is simply aiming for balance — for movies in which women and girls "have half the adventures" and are just as interesting as men.