Women in the Media: A Real Life Game of Where’s Waldo? Erm, Wilma.

By Rachel Wilhite

Most of us are familiar with the popular children’s series, Where’s Waldo?, but did you know Waldo had a girlfriend?  The relationship was short-lived, with Wilma only appearing in two books from the series.  Also clad in the infamous red-and-white-striped sweater, Wilma was no doubt as difficult to find as her male counterpart—but why weren’t we given more chances to find her?  Sadly, the search for Wilma continues into adulthood.

In her piece, “Content Analysis of Gender Roles in Media: Where Are We Now and Where Should We Go?,” Rebecca Collins (2011) weaves together the common themes from 21 content analyses that appeared in two special issues of Sex Roles.  These themes included:

  • Women are under-represented across a variety of media.
  • If women are portrayed, they are often stereotyped or subordinate.
  • Women are sexualized in roles that are not about sex, but rather “sexy women.”

While these themes should not come as a surprise, the severity of the implications might.  From 1969 to 1978, prime time television males outnumbered females almost three to one.  Producers argued that women did not serve in societal roles that would interest the average television viewer, since men also outnumbered women in the workforce.  In 2008, the ratio of working men and women was almost equal, but the rate of female television appearances has not improved.  In 2011, small screen representation of American women still reflected life in the 1950s. 

And these numbers could be affecting women’s health.  As embarrassing as it may be to admit, many of us learn about health problems through watching television featuring health-related content.  In 2010, women comprised less than 40% of roles in fictional medical programming.  The storylines in which women appeared most often discussed women’s health issues only—not broader concerns that could affect everyone.  Unfortunately, fewer storylines about women could be the equivalent to less information for women. 

Female representation on game consoles is dismal as well.  Only 70 out of 489 (1:7) characters in best-selling video games are women.  41% of these characters wore revealing clothing and an equal number were partially or totally nude.  These games also unrealistically depict female bodies.

The lack of female representation may also affect the nature and quality of political debate surrounding gay rights.  In 2010, the ratio for female coverage of gay rights in U.S. newspapers was 3 to 1.  “Male perspectives, which are more negative toward gay persons than females,’ dominated the views expressed, and may have helped to limit support for same-sex marriage,” Collins stated.

Finally, the current ratio of men to women in top-grossing, G-rated films is 2.57 to 1.  If you can’t be what you can’t see, what does this mean for young girls across the country?  Wilma can’t be found if she wasn’t there to begin with.  Collins’ work illustrates that finding women depicted positively in the media is like finding a needle in a haystack, or in this case, a woman in a red-and-white-striped sweater.

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