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Popular Films Still Fail to Represent Teen Girls From Underrepresented Racial and Ethnic Groups, Study Finds

The latest study from the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative finds that the "entertainment industry continues to tell stories that bear little resemblance to the reality of today’s girls and young women."


For every step forward, there’s one back. In her latest study for USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative, Dr. Stacy L. Smith and her team have dug into “the prevalence and portrayal of child and teen female characters in film,” and while there are some bright spots in the study — which examined 900 top films from 2007 to 2016 (excluding 2011), analyzing 4,730 younger characters for demographics, disability, and hyper sexualization — including parity amongst the genders, there are also a number of disheartening findings, many of them related to the depiction and representation of female characters from racial/ethnic groups, the LGBT community, or with disabilities.

The new study is part of a long line of similar examinations by the MDSC, including February’s examination of the trajectory of female directors and a recent look at the ageism that is endemic to Oscar-nominated features.

This new study — entitled “The Future Is Female” — is “focused on the demographics and hypersexualization of younger characters appearing in the 900 top films from 2007 to 2016 (excluding 2011). A qualitative investigation focused on academic pursuits, relationships, and activities of these characters in 200 films from 2015 and 2016. The results demonstrate that elementary and teenage females on screen bear little resemblance to their real-world counterparts.”

While there are good things to be found, including the discovery that the percentage of girls and female teens that appear in those films are finally equal to those that depict boys and male teens (though that parity was only achieved in 2016), perhaps most striking about the study is the revelation that younger female characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, the LGBT community, or with disabilities are still party to so-called “invisibility.”

Per the study, “of 200 movies from 2015 and 2016, 178 were missing young female Black/African American characters, 185 were missing young female Asian characters, 189 were missing young female Hispanic/Latinas, and 193 were missing a young female with a disability.” In short, they are just not being represented on screen, even as the world itself makes it clear that their stories exist and are in need of telling.

“Girls of today are dynamic and diverse,” said Dr. Smith in an official statement. “The entertainment industry continues to tell stories that bear little resemblance to the reality of today’s girls and young women.” These women and girls exist, but the most popular movies of the last ten years do not represent them, and that has not changed over the last decade.

“Invisibility is the norm for girls and female teens from diverse backgrounds,” added Dr. Smith. “When 89 percent of 200 top films from 2015 and 2016 did not feature a single Black or African-American female speaking character age 6 to 20, and 94.5 percent did not feature young Latinas, this is grounds for concern. Not only are these groups erased, but 96.5 percent of movies did not feature a female character with a disability, and younger females from the LGBT community were completely missing from the films we examined.”

Added Jacquelyn Zehner, President of the Jacquelyn and Gregory Zehner Foundation, which funded the study, “As a movement builder for the advancement of women and girls, these results reveal how much we have to do. The leaders of the next generation —our future CEOs, lawmakers, doctors, lawyers, teachers — do not see themselves or their stories told. If we do not show them what is possible, who will?”

The study also offers insights on age disparity between talent and the roles they are playing, the sexualization of these roles, and a closer examination of how academic pursuits and interests are portrayed on the big screen. You can read the full findings of the study right here.

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