On Monday, the Wall Street Journal ran a special section reporting on the paper’s recent conference entitled “Women in the Economy: An Executive Task Force.” One of the taskforce members was Geena Davis, the Academy Award winning actress and more recently founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. The Journal noted that Ms. Davis, “has become an advocate of gender equality in children’s entertainment” and a critic in general of gender portrayal in film and in preschool programming.
In a Q & A session at the conference, Davis told the audience that the situation is now so dire for girls that she does not allow her own eight-year-old daughter to watch TV, “unless I’m there … and I make a running commentary the whole time to take away any negative impact.” Davis briefed the gathering on one of her institute’s most disturbing discoveries: “They found that the more hours of television a girl watches the fewer options she believes she has in life. And the more hours a boy watches, the more sexist his views become.”
Geena Davis, star of such movies as The Fly, Beetle Juice, Earth Girls Are Easy, and A League of Their Own got her big break with the 1990s classic Thelma and Louise, in which two desperately unhappy women kill a violent man, then work through their ensuing problems by driving off a cliff into oblivion. Perhaps it was a lifetime of watching television that left the women feeling they had “fewer options in life.”
Or maybe it was just a movie.
Several years ago I wrote an in depth magazine piece on the effects of television. An entire cottage industry at universities, like the University of Pennsylvania and Yale, had (and has) grown up around the belief that TV is harmful. Decades of studies have invariably concluded that television makes people, mostly children, confused, obese, fearful, anxious, and prone to violence.
I spoke to a few other sociologists working outside these universities, however, who questioned how such conclusions are drawn. Yes, it’s true that Americans view thousands of acts of violence on television each year. But they also view even more acts of good will, humor, understanding, and consideration. So why assume the worst about people? Why conclude that viewers come away fat, fearful, and ready to, say, kill a man and jump off a cliff? You could as easily conclude that viewers turn off the tube each night filled with the milk of human kindness.
The skeptic’s larger, more important point about television research, however, is this: once you control for everything else in a viewer’s life—race, income, education, etc.—what is there left for television to have an affect on? In other words, with so many factors crisscrossing any individual’s day-to-day experiences, it’s almost impossible to tease out the impact of TV. Or to paraphrase screenwriter William Goldman’s famous quotation about Hollywood, when it comes to lecturing about the effects of visual entertainment, nobody knows anything.
Geena Davis certainly seems sincere in her quest to clean up the media that made her rich and famous enough to launch her own modestly named institute, but is her science any good? Hannah Montana, iCarly, Dora the Explorer star some of the recent past’s most popular television heroines for girls. Perhaps I don’t watch enough TV—did I just say that?—but it seems every kind of CSI:Everywhere detective program spotlights a tough dame in charge, or at least an equal partner with a man. The tiresome set up of many TV and movie comedies involves the smart-as-a-whip mom putting up with a clueless bumbling dad. (When will we demand the Bumbling Dad’s Institute?)
If you are a fearful, anxious parent prone to violence, sitting on the couch munching bags of Doritos, you are far more likely to be an influence on your child’s outcome than anything oozing directly out of the TV or movie screen. You can try a “running commentary the whole time trying to take away any negative impact,” but you might just make matters worse.