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A New Rating for TV and Movies Tries to Combat Gender Stereotypes

“Everyone I encountered in the industry tried to tell me it wasn’t a problem any more, that it had been fixed,” she said. “Even people making these products are sure they’re gender-balanced when they’re profoundly not.”


Emily Deschanel in the Fox series “Bones,” which was judged by Common Sense Media to have “positive gender representations.”

Jordin Althaus/FOX

Deciding how to assess television and movies for children poses complex challenges: How to strike the balance between overall quality and specific gender roles? What if a strong female character opts for a traditional role as wife and mother? And will recommendations that feature girls and boys reaching beyond traditional gender roles alienate some parents?

Betsy Bozdech, Common Sense Media’s executive editor for ratings and reviews, explained the reasoning behind some of the more complex choices.

“Moonlight,” for example, will be given the new stamp of approval for 17-year-olds and up, despite depictions of violence, drugs and sex. “I can’t think of any title that has prompted more talk about what it means to be an African-American young man, about opening up more possibilities, than that movie,” she said.

Of the parents surveyed, African-Americans were the most worried about what their children watched. More than white or Latino parents, they expressed concern about boys shown as violent or aggressive, girls’ obsessing about their appearance, and the way African-American girls and boys are portrayed, according to the survey, of 933 parents of children ages 2 to 17.

The reality show “MasterChef Junior” qualified for the seal because it counters the stereotype that cooking is for girls, said Michael Robb, Common Sense’s director of research. So do such shows as “Annedroids” and “Bones,” which feature girls as engineers, computer scientists or forensic investigators. When girls see female scientists, they are more likely to express interest in so-called STEM careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Some of the ratings were clear-cut because they featured men and women in unconventional roles: “Wonder Woman,” “Hidden Figures,” “A League of Their Own,” “Billy Elliot.” But some required further parsing. “Bridesmaids” did not make the cut, despite breaking barriers in the industry. “Women can be funny on their own, they can do raunchy comedy, they don’t need guys,” Ms. Bozdech said. “But there wasn’t necessarily an intent to push against gender stereotypes.”


A scene from “Bridesmaids,” which did not make the cut for positive gender representations.

Suzanne Hanover/Universal Pictures

Common Sense will also consider how transgender people are portrayed, though it has not rated such a show or film yet.

While it is not clear how the ratings might translate to revenue gains or losses for shows and films that are singled out, Common Sense says it has five million unique visitors every month and reaches more than 45 million American households monthly by leasing its ratings to cable companies, including Comcast and AT&T. It will also make the ratings available to some advertisers.

All other things being equal, many advertisers would opt to advertise with a show that receives a Common Sense rating, said Patty Kerr, co-executive director of the #SeeHer initiative for the Association of National Advertisers. The initiative has enlisted 1,000 brands spending about $40 billion on advertising in the United States to improve the portrayal of women, rating ads on how accurately they portray women and spending ad dollars on shows that meet similar criteria.

Common Sense is aware that not all parents are looking to defy stereotypes, but doesn’t believe that the new rating will alienate users. In the survey of parents, which included people who use Common Sense and those who do not, some parents who identify themselves as politically conservative and might prefer traditional gender roles reported that they liked seeing portrayals of strong girls, said Olivia Morgan, Common Sense’s vice president for strategic programs. “One of the dads we talked to intends his daughter to be submissive to her husband,” she said. “But he wants her to be strong, equal to her brother, and speak for herself.”

Ms. Bozdech said the intent was to give parents information so they could make informed decisions. “If you are of the opinion that a sword-fighting soldier woman is not something you want your daughter to aspire to, you will have the information to decide whether you want her to watch it,” she said.

In general, Common Sense will use the gender seal to highlight movies and TV shows that counter stereotypes, rather than knock those that do not, Ms. Bozdech said.

“Just because a movie doesn’t get the seal doesn’t mean it’s not funny or entertaining or not worth your family’s time,” she said. “We’re just looking to call out the ones going above and beyond.”

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