Girls Matter: Ensuring Art Emulates Life on Film

Here's a recent article I wrote for the April Stowe Story Labs newsletter - a subject near and dear to my heart and the Helen project... (Speaking of which, application season for the Labs is now open!)

Girls Matter: Ensuring Art Emulates Life on Film

Given the times we are living in, we all know the power of the media. It has a far-reaching influence over our social and cultural behaviors and the ways we interact with each other. It can elicit both empathy and rage. It can shape our views and opinions. In many ways, for better or worse, it can shape our identity as a country, a group, or an individual.

Much has been written about the negative impacts of popular media on body image in young girls, teens, and women. Over the years we’ve seen some efforts to counteract that.

But what about the absence of girls in popular media?

As someone who has written a screenplay focused on a 12-year-old female protagonist, and who’s been a long-time educator and mentor of numerous girls of all ages, this matters to me. 

I think girls matter, and I want them to know that. But how can they know that if they aren’t seeing themselves on screens?

I recently came across the results of a study by Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative at USC.  The study examined the prevalence and portrayal of child and teen female characters in film. It’s worthy of a deep read. Ultimately, what the study shows is young females face an invisibility crisis in film. A number of findings jumped out at me:

  • Children 5 to 19 are 20.4% of the population, yet out of 37,912 speaking characters in popular films, 12.5% were ages 6 to 20.
  • Of the top 100 films in 2016, only 8 depicted a young female lead or co-lead.
  • Young females still face stereotyping in popular films. They are less likely to be shown in an academic setting or engaging in STEM activities, and more likely to be shown with a romantic interest and engaging in stereotypical chores.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children are spending an average of seven hours a day on entertainment media. If that’s true, what message are we sending out to children, especially girls, if they aren’t truly present—present in all their shapes, sizes, personality types, challenges, triumphs, and complexities— in the media?

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, a great organization that is doing groundbreaking research on the representation of girls in media has the slogan: “If she can see it, she can be it.” But is the media really that powerful?

On a recent visit with my family I was feeling sick. My 8-year-old niece came up to me with something she grabbed out of her toy box and used it as a stethoscope to listen to my heart. She checked my pulse and asked where she should put a Band-Aid.

When I asked her where she learned how to do all of this, her answer was Doc McStuffins—the Disney cartoon heroine who doctors her ailing stuffed animals.

If she can see it, she can be it.

It reminded me of another fascinating study by The Geena Davis Institute. That study found that the year after the films The Hunger Games and Brave were released, participation in archery rose 86%, with women’s participation increasing 105% during that time. Seven in ten girls said that Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games) and Princess Merida (Brave) influenced their decision to take up archery.

I am so grateful that Stowe Story Labs and NewEnglandFilm.com saw the potential in my story about a New York City tween who’s struggling with what it means to be a girl today. By providing me with a place to develop my screenplay, and supporting me to do so, they’ve sent a message to the industry and community that girls do matter. My hope is that the studios, the independent production companies and producers, the agencies, and the distributors, will follow in their footsteps. If they do, we could potentially change the out-of-balance gender dynamics we find ourselves mired in today. And along the way, we might foster a society with more Doc McStuffins, Katniss Everdeens, and Princess Meridas.

Nicole Kempskie is a screenwriter, playwright/lyricist, and educator with a passion for writing about complex and interesting women of all ages. She has taught, written about, and presented research on women, girls, and leadership at The Paley Center for MediaNew York UniversityThe American Sociological Association’s Annual ConferenceThe Girls Leadership Institute, the flagship Young Women’s Leadership School in East Harlem, and at schools and arts institutions throughout New York City.