If you watch the Academy Awards on Sunday with a girl, she may "ooh" and "ahh" over the pretty dresses.

She may be excited to see 9-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis, the youngest best actress nominee ever. If she is older, she may also be interested in the roles women nominees portray, ranging from a determined CIA agent to a first lady and a 6-year-old facing a natural disaster and possible orphanhood. She may even practice her own award speech. However, she is likely unaware of just how much media she sees in her life, how infrequently it shows women and girls in positive ways or as leaders or how rarely it is created by someone who looks like her.

Playing dress-up is fun, but the making of media and entertainment is serious business. And women continue to struggle, particularly behind the camera. Among the 2013 Oscar nominees, there are 132 men versus just 32 women. There are no women nominees in five categories, including directing, cinematography and writing (original screenplay). Only 9 percent of the top 250 grossing Hollywood films last year were directed by women, according to Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. This is the same percentage as 15 years ago.

The numbers of independent films are slightly better. A study analyzing Sundance films found that female directors are better represented in independent films shown at the festival: 24 percent from 2002 to 2012.


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So it is hardly a surprise that while exciting, diverse portrayals of girls and women exist, there are far too few of them. This trickles down all the way to girl-friendly media. From 2006 to 2009, 80.5 percent of all working characters in G-rated family films were male and 19.5 percent were female, according to The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. None of the female portrayals appeared in the fields of medical science, law, politics or as business leaders.

Hence, media literacy, the ability to evaluate and analyze media consumed, is a critical skill for every girl. But take it a step further, and media literacy becomes something more: inspiration for a girl to find her voice and create positive, realistic portrayals that reflect the diversity of girls, women and their lives. When a girl learns not only to look critically at media but also develop it in her own voice and image, she shines.

Media literacy can start with a simple conversation. The next time you watch TV or a film with a girl, discuss how girl and women characters were portrayed. What roles does she see them play? How were these different from the role played by boys or men? If she were to create a TV show or movie, what would it be about? If she were to highlight an issue important to girls in your family or community on camera, what would it be?

You can also lead by example and provide positive media role models. Support women-made movies and television shows and those featuring strong female characters. If you have an opportunity, introduce a girl you know to a woman filmmaker, producer or film student.

Lastly, empower her to take on creating her own media if she shows an interest. Encourage her to write a short script, or hand her a camera to shoot a movie with her friends. Talk about what she learns from putting her voice and vision out into the world.

Not every girl will grow up to give an award-winning performance of a complex female character or accept an Oscar for best director. But with the right education and support, she can grow up into a woman who consumes media smartly and supports diverse roles for women in front of and behind the lens.

Karen D. Kenney is executive director of Girls Inc. of the Island City.