The Harmful Depictions of Women in Children’s Film and Television

A glimpse into the damaging depiction of women in children’s film and television and how this can be detrimental to building body positivity and self-worth in young girls. 

The Objectification of Women in Children’s Television

When you turn on some light-hearted cartoons for your elementary schooler, the last thing you hope to see is an oversexualized and unrealistic female character. Not only is she an unattainable ideal, but her sole purpose is to entertain the leading male. Although most characters are not as extreme as Jessica Rabbit or Lola Bunny, it is evident that practically all women in cartoons have an unattainable hourglass figure and thinness. On top of that, most of the cartoons lack any female-driven plotlines. In general, women in children’s film and television are oversexualized, seen purely as plot points for the male protagonists, and representatives of unrealistic standards of beauty.

women in children's film

How this Affects Body Positivity

The first issue to tackle is the unrealistic beauty standards that female characters create. While some may argue that this unrealistic image is common amongst all film or cartoon characters regardless of sex, the Kensington Research Institute showed that female characters were four times more likely to be depicted as underweight. Additionally, the characters that were overweight were seen as villainous, unhappy, and unintelligent. In a 2010 study by the Journal of Children and Media, this occurrence has been quantified as 87% of female cartoon characters being portrayed as extremely thin. The effects of this depiction on body positivity and self-image are seen in a 2002 study by the British Journal of Psychiatry. After television became widespread in Fiji, 11% of adolescent girls reported bulimia and the prevalence of disordered eating doubled from 13% to 29%. With studies reporting 50% of 13-year-old girls feeling unhappy with their bodies and 80% of 17-year-olds, it is irrefutable that a problem is at hand. The Family Doctor shows that children as young as three years old can have body image issues. Thus, we must reverse this negative depiction of women in the media for children and adults alike. 

How This Affects Self-Worth

Not only does this false representation of women in media cause poor body positivity, but it also causes young girls to lack empowerment and feel unworthy, as television very infrequently shows women in powerful roles. With women being portrayed as purely love interests and sexualized characters, young girls are bound to feel limited in their future and overly insecure about what the media views as a women’s best trait: attractiveness. With famous production companies such as Disney-Pixar having a majority of their films focusing solely on male protagonists, it is clear revisions must be made. 

women in film

Why Terminating This Trend Early Is Imperative 

While many may argue that children are too young to be influenced by media trends, that is simply not the case. With evidence concurring that ideas and concepts revolving around gender begin as early as elementary school, this issue must be addressed. The depiction of women in film and television exasperates misogyny, teaching young boys to view women as objects and teaching young girls that they are destined for underrepresentation and permanent inequality. Luckily, times do seem to be changing, with characters such as Moana from Moana, Elsa from Frozen, and the many strong women in The Incredibles, there is hope for a much better future.

Sydney Gilmore is a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh Honors College majoring in Neuroscience and minoring in Studio Arts and Chemistry. She is deeply passionate about issues surrounding women’s empowerment, the struggles of Asian-Americans, and women in medicine. She hopes to empower women and shed light on the current state of patriarchy and racism through her writing. In her spare time, she enjoys travel, the arts, and nature.

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