Looking at children's programming through a #MeToo lens

We are all familiar with the negative images of girls and women in movies and other media -- and how ubiquitous they ...

Posted: Mar 2, 2018 1:17 PM
Updated: Mar 2, 2018 1:17 PM

We are all familiar with the negative images of girls and women in movies and other media -- and how ubiquitous they are.

From the physical portrayal of women as ultra-thin, super sexy and scantily clad to the sexualized roles they often play, it's enough to make you wish you could put your daughters in a bubble to shield them.

Research shows that kids develop stereotypes at early ages

Disney Channel's "Andi Mack" tries to tackle female stereotypes head-on

Of course, you can't. Even that "Prince Charming" narrative, in which their lives are not complete until they meet the right guy and that guy decides to love them in return, is everywhere.

But what about the positive role models our girls are seeing? Certainly, the #MeToo movement has called attention to the need to create more substantial roles for women of all ages on the big and small screens and to get more women behind the scenes in director and screenwriting roles.

Even before the past six months when women's voices have been heard in ways they haven't been before, there were signs -- exciting signs -- of shifting portrayals of young women, even in children's programming.

Research shows that kids develop stereotypes at early ages. A Common Sense Media analysis of more than 150 articles, interviews and books and other research found that kids between the ages of 7 and 10 start to attribute certain qualities to women and men, such as that women are emotional and men are aggressive.

Let me say that one more time. Between 7 and 10.

Helping young girls and boys during these ages see realistic portraits of girls and boys can have enormous benefits, which brings me to "Andi Mack," Disney Channel's No. 1 show in video on demand. The show just wrapped its second season and has been renewed for a third.

Think about the storyline, which is uncharted territory for mainstream children's programming: The main character, Andi, learns that the person she thought was her older sister for 13 years is actually her mother and that the two people she thought were her parents are actually her grandparents. Andi grapples with these life-changing circumstances with the support of her two best friends: the gender-stereotype-bashing Buffy, who believes she is as strong -- or stronger -- than any of the boys, and Cyrus, who has only recently shared with his friends that he is gay.

My girls, ages 10 and 11, and I watch the show -- together -- every Friday night. We recently had a chance to sit down with the show's creator and three of its stars.

'A girl can do anything a boy can do'

TerrI Minksy, the creator and executive producer of "Andi Mack," wanted to create a show that mothers could watch with their daughters. She said she didn't create the characters with female empowerment in mind but very much was focused on the point of view of the girl, because girlhood is when girls begin to get a sense of their own power or lack thereof.

"There's always this 'you can grow up to be whatever you want,' but we haven't seen a female president in the United States. We don't see female faces when you're looking at anything where decisions are being made," said Minsky, who made the pilot with a predominantly female team.

"I just feel like it has to start with the kids as represented in the shows as having the power over their world, and hopefully that translates to people watching it without specifically calling it female power."

Sofia Wylie plays Buffy, who tries out for and makes the boys' basketball team (she also ends up tutoring the captain of the team). Sofia, 14, believes that her character can serve as an empowering role model to girls who watch.

"I would definitely say Buffy sends a message that a girl can do anything a boy can do and there's really no difference," said Sofia, also an accomplished dancer who has performed on stage with Justin Bieber and on "America's Got Talent."

"So many people say, 'Oh, yeah, boys are just like stronger,' and when a boy says that, I'm going to contain myself now," she says to laughter as she indicates how frustrated that statement makes her feel. "It's not true. If a woman wants to put their mind to something, they can be just as intelligent and just as strong physically and mentally in every way. They can be even better than a man."

Even today, in 2018, a woman who is competitive -- especially in the workplace -- may be viewed differently than a man. A man may be considered assertive, a woman aggressive. Sofia says her character tackles that double standard as well.

"People think if you're competitive, that means you're mean," she said. "No, she's competitive for a separate reason, because she's been told that she has to be strong." In one episode, we learn that Buffy feels she needs to always be strong to help her cope when her mom, who is in the military, is away during months-long deployments.

A story line with #MeToo resonance

One of the recurring storylines that also tackles gender stereotypes head-on is Andi's crush on the handsome, athletic and very popular Jonah Beck. During season one and the first half of season two, Andi is basically obsessed with Jonah. At some point, it appears they may actually be boyfriend and girlfriend in the way 13-year-olds innocently begin relationships. She makes him a bracelet. She beams when she sees him. But he never seems to truly understand Andi and never does for Andi all the things she does for him.

And then, Andi has had enough. With the support of her friends Buffy and Cyrus and her mom, Bex, she finally decides to tell Jonah that she has been obsessed with him and that she can no longer continue doing what she has been doing. It is the moment when, I would argue, many women watching (and many who have experienced #MeToo moments) ask themselves, "Why didn't I say that when I was in a similar situation?"

Lilan Bowden, who plays Bex, Andi's independent and individualistic mother, says she wishes she had "Andi Mack" when she was a girl. Instead, the shows she watched all repeated the same story line: The girl has a crush on the boy, the boy finally says he likes her back, and they get together.

"That was the message that I felt like I received over and over again: Just do the nice thing. If you're nice and you keep being nice and you don't stop being nice, eventually, you'll get what you want," Bowden said. "And to have that character to say, 'I was nice, and you didn't appreciate it because you're not nice enough back to me' was huge."

Minsky said the episode was written more as a natural progression of Andi's character and less in response to the #MeToo movement.

When Andi expresses herself to Jonah, she's the one who is in charge for the first time, said Minsky, who also created "Lizzie McGuire," a live-action and animated series that was also a Disney Channel hit.

"It's always the girl giving and embarrassing herself and putting herself out there and taking chances, and the boy's sitting back, and you don't know how he feels ... and then she finally expresses herself, and he's like 'Oh, wow, I really enjoy that you're obsessed with me,' and I kind of feel, 'yeah, I bet you did.' " (In another sign of the show's relatable nature, it tackles anxiety when Jonah has a panic attack after Andi tells him she is moving on.)

Peyton Elizabeth Lee, who plays Andi, said she, Sofia and Bowden cheered when they read that episode because it was a sign that Andi was "finally finding her voice."

"Because she's just been so caught up in 'Jonah's cute, and he's fun, and he has so many friends, and he's popular, and he's athletic and whatever,' but when it really comes down to it, he wasn't giving her enough credit for everything she was doing for him," said Peyton, 13, who has appeared on ABC's "Scandal" and "Shameless" on Showtime.

"I think she was realizing that she's worth more, so it was a really exciting thing ... where she's saying 'I was obsessed with you,' and it's Andi realizing that she doesn't need him to feel complete."

Gender equality in media? Long way to go

There is no question that we need to see more realistic and authentic female characters on television and in film.

Research commissioned by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media in 2014 shows how far we need to go. It found that the percentage of female characters in the work force in TV and film was less than 25%, when women make up just about half of the actual work force.

Fictional male judges and lawyers outnumbered female characters in those same roles 13 to 1; the breakdown of men to women was 7.6 to 1 when it came to characters in computer science and engineering.

We know that when you see it, you can be it. In a survey of 1,000 women in the United States and the United Kingdom, conducted by the Davis Institute and J. Walter Thompson and unveiled in 2017, 71% of respondents in the US and 63% in the UK said that if we saw more corporate leader characters who were women, it would make it easier for women to become leaders in the corporate sector.

Sixty-four percent of respondents in the US and the UK said that seeing more female characters as politicians would make it easier for women to succeed in politics.

Bowden, who also regularly performs improv and sketch comedy, hopes shows like "Andi Mack" are a marker for what is to come.

When she got to Hollywood and was auditioning, there was a very limited selection of roles for women, she said. "It's almost like a paying of dues where ... you're pretty much just the eye candy," she said. "I didn't want to be a model. I wanted to be an actor, but there's so many roles that are written for women where they just kind of pigeonhole you into being a model.

"This show is all these dynamic female characters that aren't relying on beauty at all, and that's not an experience I felt like I had when I was first auditioning," she said.

With surveys showing that girl confidence dips around puberty, having strong female early-teenage role models who speak truthfully and aren't afraid to stand up for what they believe can only be a positive.

"I think you can take so many things away (from the show) but just being confident in yourself," Sofia told my daughters. "I think that's the best thing about all of our characters is, we're all ourselves."

Added Peyton, "A lot of shows showcase if you're just nicer, it all works out. If you're nice, you get friends. You have a boyfriend, but it's just not like that, and you have to find that balance of being nice, but being careful. ... You have to figure out which way you want to go."

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