Helping Children See Gender Roles Differently

By Liz Breen

breen and davis
From Left: WGBH's VP for Children's Media Brigid Sullivan and Production Assistant Liz Breen, Winship teacher Heather Nord, actress and advocate Geena Davis, Madeline Di Nonno, Executive Director of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media and Winship principal Louise Kuhlman pose with the class at Winship Elementary School in Brighton. (Photo: Liza Voll/WGBH)

At the start of my senior year at Boston University, I had the opportunity to produce a children’s short for the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. I knew this had the potential to help my career, and that turned out to be true in ways I couldn’t have imagined initially. I thought I would be creating a video for a celebrity client that I could watch on television, and one that ultimately I could use in a portfolio to land an entry-level job out of school. However, this production changed the way I view my entire career and my role within the television industry.
The task sounds almost impossible: explain and combat gender stereotypes in media to children ages six to nine, and do this in around two minutes. After a few audible GULPS, a little bit of stressed-out pencil chewing and a lot of group brainstorming, we had our idea. We were going to build on the rise of superhero movies by focusing on real-life heroes – a nurse and a firefighter. The twist was that we would feature a male nurse and a female firefighter.
We started the filming process by interviewing two classes of second graders. I went in a little skeptical. I thought of these kids as born in the 21st century, where we have female politicians and stay-at-home dads. I didn’t expect to be giving them any surprising information. Yet the answers to some of our questions were astonishing. When describing a nurse, several of the students said matter-of-factly, “She wears dresses,” despite the fact that they have probably never seen a nurse in a dress outside of old-timey war movies or Halloween costumes. And when describing a firefighter, the children had a definite pronoun of choice: “He wears boots” or “He is fast”. Most confounding of all, when we revealed that the nurse we were featuring was a man and the firefighter was a woman, many children were shocked by this idea or even resisted the idea altogether, stating that they didn’t think the opposite gender would perform their duties as well.
Where could these children possibly be getting these stereotypes from? Certainly, many if not most had mothers who worked, so these stereotypes aren’t being reinforced in the home. Then it hit me – the media. The television and movies they watch (AKA my career).
Geena Davis
Actress Geena Davis talked about gender and media during a visit to WGBH. (Liza Voll/WGBH)
Suddenly, I felt a burden of responsibility that I had not otherwise felt. I thought I was going to school to learn to create things that people could watch, enjoy and ultimately walk away from. But it doesn’t work like that. Media is sticky, even stickier to young minds.
That weight of responsibility only grew heavier the more research I read about gender disparities behind the camera. Only 7 percent of directors, 13 percent of writers and 20 percent of producers are female. Men outnumber women in key production roles 5 to 1, and that singular female in production—that’s me.
So was I scared? I ain’t scared o’ nothin’! I felt empowered. There are fewer of me, that’s true, but that only means that my voice can carry more weight, that my viewpoints are needed that much more. Also true, I’m consistently the youngest person on my production teams nowadays, and yet I feel compelled to do more than exist on the periphery. I know that creating responsible media is in my best interest as well as the interest of future generations.
Is it a coincidence that months after this video wrapped I took a job working for public television at WGBH? Probably not, but who can say for certain? What I do know is this: I created a project that I am tremendously proud of to this day, with some of the cutest darn stop motion animation you can make out of construction paper. Most important of all, that work prompts children and adults alike to think about the media they consume. 



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