If they're listening, boys hear a lot about girls. But what are they hearing?
In film and on television, boys overwhelmingly hear girls talking about boys, girls fighting with their moms, girls wanting to buy a new this or that, girls having their hearts broken by one boy or another, and ultimately about the girl who marries that one-in-a-million guy who's a good listener with a big paycheck.
What they hear are worn-out narratives supporting a narrow view of the inner lives of girls and women, the media reinforcing stereotypes that are out of tune with the accomplished and thoughtful, real-life girls growing up today: young athletes in pursuit of professional sports careers, hard-working entrepreneurs focused on reaching the C suite, or musicians toiling away for hours of practice until finally overhearing something they wrote, or performed, being hummed by a stranger on the sidewalk.
Executives who work in media are faced with many choices about which kind of narrative to amplify. Do you limply go where many have gone before, flogging the tired territory of love, lust, and what she wore? Or do you seek out and promote the harder-to-find and more complicated tales of female ambition, collaboration and achievement?
Based on what's out there, the clichéd route is the default. Just try finding a movie in today's listings that is focused on a rich female story and is available in most American cities. There was one last month, Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha, but as Linda Holmes of NPR recently pointed out, it was only available in 213 theaters, while The Internship was playing in 3,399. This, in spite of the fact that only 34 percent of Rotten Tomatoes critics gave The Internship a positive rating, while 90 percent lauded Frances Ha. Ha! And Rotten Tomatoes critics are 3:1 male. Triple Ha!
Why does any of this matter? Well, we already know that producing accurate portrayals of girls and women is great for them. Pew, Common Sense, The Geena Davis Institute, Bechdel and others publish numerous studies affirming that girls need to see girls achieve in order to believe they can do it themselves. Women need to see other women satisfied with their lives. The modeling evidence couldn't be clearer.
What's interesting however, is that boys need to see these more authentic female characters just as much, if not more than, their female counterparts. How else are they to make sense of the hard-charging generation of girls growing up around them?
Imagine if at a young age, boys saw mirrored in the media female characters who regularly displayed the intensity and introspection they observe in their moms, the ambition and savvy they see in their sisters, the grit and determination of their grandmothers, and the infinitely diverse group of individual interests and abilities displayed by the girls around them every day at school, from the athletes to the entrepreneurs to the artists. The contradiction between how girls are portrayed in media and how girls behave in real life would be minimized, leaving fewer excuses to count girls out of the race.
During a recent pickup basketball game, my 11-year-old son, playing with two other boys against a girl and her father, heard the dad exclaim, "I have to score, I have a girl on my team!" This prompted Quincy to tell the dad that "girls are good at basketball, too." The dad was dumbfounded. One-in-a-million, right? Maybe, but media execs shouldn't settle for those odds, especially when they could just as easily change them.
What boys hear does make a difference, and those of us in the media have an obligation to remember this as we create films, television shows, web series and all formats of popular culture. Everything we create and promote has a disproportionately strong impact on young people, boys included.
Boys can be potent activists for changing the way the world portrays, and thus sees, women. But we have to train them to hear all the nuance, strength, and savvy that women bring to the conversation.