Children's films devalue women by making most characters male, says Geena Davis

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A study commissioned by a group headed by Davis has discovered male characters outnumber female characters three to one in the most successful films seen by children. The group said the disparity between men and women undermines the value of women in the eyes of young people.

"We're showing kids a world that's very scantly populated with women and female characters," said Davis, who plays the US president in the series Commander in Chief and who is perhaps best known for her role in the film Thelma and Louise, a celebration of female empowerment. She added: "It's important for what kids watch that as far as possible, they see the real world reflected, to see men and women, boys and girls, sharing the space. They should see female characters taking up half the planet, which we do."

The study was commissioned by See Jane, part of the US-based advocacy group Dads & Daughters which encourages an accurate representation of gender balance in films and television shows directed at children. Examining 101 so-called G-rated films - those with no age bar - the study found just 28 per cent of characters with speaking roles were female and 17 per cent of crowd scene characters were female. More than 80 per cent of narrators in the films were male.

The group says gender equality has progressed in many ways but that in movies and television shows produced for young people male characters still overwhelmingly dominate. Its website says: "The presence of a wide variety of female characters in our children's earliest media is essential for both girls' and boys' development."

Davis and others intend to use the findings of the study, Where the Girls Aren't, to pressure Hollywood into giving female characters equal time on screen, and to encourage parents to select shows offering balanced gender representation. Producers and directors, they said, should embrace the broader creative opportunities of having more female characters.

Researchers said they were not surprised by the findings. Other studies have found similar disparities, they said, and most people are aware of the imbalance simply by watching as they flick through the different television channels.

Stacy Smith, an associated professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg school of communication, who oversaw the study, said: "There seems to be nothing new under the sun here."

Of the 101 films, 71 per cent were animated or partly animated features. Among the films examined were Finding Nemo, The Lion King, Monsters, Inc., Chicken Run and Toy Story.

Joe Kelly, co-founder of Dads & Daughters, said he had started to think different about Toy Story. He said the film did have a positive message about two characters , Tom Hanks' Woody and Tim Allen's Buzz Light-year, overcoming their differences and working together. But he added: "I went back and realised there's only one toy that's a female character, and it's Bo Peep. She's standing at the window going, 'Oh, Woody, don't hurt yourself'."

Disney, which has the biggest share of films in the study, Paramount and Universal have all declined to comment on the findings.