Seeing a female Doctor on Doctor Who makes girls feel like they can become anything they want, according to a new study from BBC America.

However the study, published earlier this month, also found that girls overwhelmingly feel that there are still not enough female role models or strong, relatable female characters in film and television.

Superpowering Girls: Female Representation in the Sci-Fi/Superhero Genre is the first in a series of studies to be conducted by BBC America and the Women’s Media Center focusing on the impact of representation on youth aged 10-19.

Both boys and girls aged 10-19, and the parents of those aged 5-9 answering on behalf of their child, completed an online survey carried out late last summer, with a total of 2,431 respondents. Every demographic group surveyed expressed a desire for more female superheroes, as well as increased representation of people on screen who looked like them.

Female Sci-Fi/Superheroes Make Girls Feel Empowered

A massive 90% of girls surveyed said that female sci-fi/superheroes are positive role models, and girls overwhelmingly agreed that their favourite female characters made them feel strong, inspired and confident.

The study also found that watching female sci-fi/superheroes made girls feel more empowered than watching male sci-fi/superheroes did for boys, with girls – particularly from ethnic minorities – strongly agreeing that female role models on screen made them feel that they could achieve anything they put their minds to.

Superpowering Girls Infographic - (c) BBC America/Women's Media Center
Superpowering Girls Infographic – (c) BBC America/Women’s Media Center

This still held true when girls were specifically asked about the new Doctor, Jodie Whittaker – the first female incarnation of the Time Lord in the show’s history. 81% of girls agreed that Whittaker’s casting made them feel that they could become anything they want.

There Are Not Enough Female Onscreen Role Models

The study revealed a significant need for female role models amongst respondents of the same gender. Two-thirds of girls said that there were not enough strong or relatable roles models of their gender, compared to approximately a third of boys quizzed about male role models in film and TV.

Superpowering Girls Infographic - (c) BBC America/Women's Media Center
Superpowering Girls Infographic – (c) BBC America/Women’s Media Center

Whittaker’s debut as the Doctor, as well as the major box office success of superhero films Wonder Woman and Black Panther, have made great strides in the journey towards increased representation. However, the study indicates more needs to be done before girls and those from minority ethnic backgrounds feel they are adequately represented onscreen.

And the study indicated that more women on screen would be welcomed by boys as well as girls. Whilst boys’ favourite sci-fi/superheroes were predominantly male – such as Batman and Spiderman – two-thirds of boys surveyed said that they enjoyed watching female superheroes just as much as males.

Confidence Gap

Superpowering Girls Infographic - (c) BBC America/Women's Media Center
Superpowering Girls Infographic – (c) BBC America/Women’s Media Center

Representation Matters

Superpowering Girls Infographic - (c) BBC America/Women's Media Center
Superpowering Girls Infographic – (c) BBC America/Women’s Media Center

“If You Can’t See Her, You Can’t Be Her”

The study confirms that onscreen representation can have a positive effect on a child’s confidence and overall self-image, as well as influence future career plans and choices.

“At this time of enormous, sweeping, social change, it’s important that television and film provide an abundance of roles and role models for diverse girls and young women,” says Julie Burton, President of the Women’s Media Center. “We know that representation matters, as evidenced by this report. Our research found that female sci-fi and superhero characters help bridge the confidence gap for girls, making them feel strong, brave, confident, inspired, positive, and motivated.”

Sarah Barnett, President of BBC America adds:  “If you can’t see her, you can’t be her. It’s time to expand what gets seen, and we hope this report will contribute to sparking change in the stories we see on screen. With greater representation of female heroes in the sci-fi and superhero genre, we can help superpower the next generation of women.”

The full study is available to read via the Women’s Media Center.

Doctor Who Series 11 continues on Sunday 21st October with Rosa, written by Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall and directed by Mark Tonderai. 

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