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Holiday Films: Does This Year's Crop Misrepresent Women?

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The Holiday movie season is here! And, true to form, as revealed in USC's Annenberg School's most recent study of gender in the 100 top grossing films of 2009, we will blithely consume great movies that consistently marginalize and sexualize girls and women. The male to female ratio in film hasn't changed since 1946. In the upcoming round of seventeen "Must See" Holiday Movies for families recommended by Common Sense Media, only one has a female lead character: "Breaking Dawn."

The ratings system that we rely on to define what is "appropriate" for children and teens incorporates and perpetuates deep-seated sexist values that undermine efforts to create a genuinely equitable society. Why do we pay good money to expose boys and girls to films that make sexism not just acceptable but "appropriate?"

Say you are a parent choosing between two popular movies for a 14-year-old daughter and a female friend, like I was last summer. One movie is about a girl navigating -- with intelligence, poise and wit -- the treacherous, slut-shaming waters of high school. In the end, she finds a great guy to go to dinner with. The other is a classic American success story about a brilliant young man whose idea changes the world, and in which every woman but one is crazed, materialistic or half-naked eye candy. The first is "Easy A." The second, "The Social Network."

Both movies got Motion Picture Association of America ratings of PG-13. They were also both reviewed on a website created to provide trustworthy guidance about media and what's "appropriate" for young children and teens: Common Sense Media.

Common Sense recommends both movies equally as compelling stories for 14 and up, which is also the age standard for TV ratings. "The Social Network," despite "bad role models," is a "terrific story," which, although "better for older high-schoolers ... will appeal to media-savvy tweens and young teens." Their review of "Easy A" is limited to a plot review and a description of the movie as "smart but risqué."

One of the most helpful aspects of Common Sense Media is the ratings criteria that the site provides. Let's look at two key ratings used to gauge appropriateness for children: Sex and Consumerism. "Easy A" got a four out of five rating for sex. It had many references to sex, but no actual sex. It is a story about a girl dealing with the cultural crush of good girl/bad girl morality. Olive, the protagonist, is smart, funny, kind and independent. She is never naked and never has sex. "The Social Network" got three out of five. Although there is no explicit or graphic sex, it's constantly suggested. With the exception of the very first few minutes of "The Social Network" the image of girls, women and their sexuality is horrifying.

Common Sense says that "sexuality is a major theme" of that movie. But, that's wrong. Sex is a major theme. Sex and sexuality are not the same thing. Sexuality is a capacity for sexual feelings or an indication of a person's sexual preferences. Sex, on the other hand, is intercourse, or some variant of intercourse. It has as nothing to do with feelings, proclivities, orientation or desire.

"Easy A" got a HIGHER rating for sex than for "The Social Network," which suggests that "The Social Network" was more "appropriate" for pre-teens and teens. The movie that specifically mocks a slut-shaming double standard for boys and girls and that explicitly deals with thoughtfully considered issues of teen sexuality is less appropriate than the one in which girls and women are reduced to walking orifices who occasionally have to be fed.

Now, Consumerism. "Easy A" gets a two out of five rating for consumerism, because the female protagonist accepts gift cards from major brand name stores in exchange for enhancing the reputations of boys in her school by lying about having sex with them. The consumerism that Common Sense mentions takes place in the context of culturally understood "favors" that women "traditionally" do to gain money. In fact, no actual sex is exchanged for anything at all in this movie. "The Social Network," on the other hand gets a slightly higher three out of five, because "Obviously, the movie is a huge promo for Facebook ... and other brands are also featured."

It should have gotten a ten out of five. One of the movie's leitmotifs is consumption. The consumerism score fails entirely to note that the consumption happening is actually of women -- as rewards, as status symbols, as products and as prizes. According to the portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in this movie, acquiring and consuming girls is the driving motivation for his sex-fueled, Facemash-creating late night frenzy.

"The Social Network" got a lot of flack for its treatment of women, none of which surfaced on Common Sense. But, the movie is the rule, not the exception. Its delivery was just a little blunter than most. And, its fictional misrepresentation of sex and women particularly telling. For example, the fact that in reality Mark Zuckerberg had a long-standing girlfriend was incompatible with the film's portrayal of him as someone on a glory-fueled quest for sex.

Of the movies on this year's "Must See" holiday hit list, almost all provide similar frameworks for understanding gender dynamics. Even -- most deceptively to children -- the animated ones. Think about how many movies you see where the woman, beautiful and sexy, is the source of the leading man's vulnerability and then, ultimately, his reward. Yes, some of the movies on the list, like "Hugo," avoid that trope, but given the overwhelming evidence in the Annenberg Study, not most. The rating system applied by Common Sense transmits values that promote entitlement and power in boys and subservience and sexual objectification in girls.

For parents genuinely seeking help in determining what "the third parent" teaches children, reviewing movies in this fashion is misleading, counterproductive and perpetuates outdated gender stereotypes. Common Sense Media has the right idea and is a good organization. It's just working with in a traditional framework that is hard to challenge. And, I believe that James Steyer, CEO and founder, who was interviewed for the documentary Miss Representation, genuinely wants to empower kids and parents to think critically about the world they live in. I would ask, as a parent and woman, that that idea be taken to its logical conclusions.

Among my top ten personal favorite movies are "Robocop," "Pulp Fiction" and anything in the "Matrix" series. However, as an adult, I am able to complement those with the occasional women-centric blockbusters like "Bridesmaids" and small, independent movies that win accolades at indie film festivals but don't get made and distributed in a worldwide, industrialized way because of the need in global entertainment marketing to appeal to the lowest common denominator, which turns out to be simple, violent, action films. Movies like "Juno," "Please Give" and other independent films feature women and their stories, as well as more dynamic and realistic representations of relationships between boys and girls, men and women. There are simply not enough of those choices for children and the choices we do have are sending pretty damning messages. Organizations like Geena Davis' See Jane and "Miss Representation" deserve your support if you think these issues are important.

This is not a plea for equal amounts of men and women in every film made. That's silly. It is an argument for recognizing both the value of balance in overall representation and for rating movies in a way that recognizes and deconstructs harmful gender bias as unacceptable and inappropriate. Can't we have a mainstream way of reviewing and rating for that?