Pushing Back on the Media’s Sexualization of Girls

Two actors from the hit series Game of Thrones are speaking out about Hollywood’s sexualization of young women—and their hopes that the film and television industries will diversify and offer more authentic representation for women.

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Cast as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones at 12 years old, Maisie Williams has navigated the dramatic, violent and death-filled world with grace and aplomb. After opening up to The New York Times about a range of topics from her character’s potential future and the fact that “at 12, I was fearless and didn’t care” but experienced a “dip in confidence” that she’s “slowly starting to get back again,” she opened up about the struggles of being a woman in Hollywood that she has so far been able to avoid.

“I have been really very lucky, in that I play characters who aren’t necessarily the eye candy,” she told the newspaper. “It’s hard for young actresses who still feel like scrappy teenagers, but are sort of forced to play characters who are a lot more mature, because, you know, ‘young sexy woman’ really sells in Hollywood.” When asked whether she might be the only person who makes it to the end of Game of Thrones without stripping, she laughed, “I might manage it, you know.”

In an interview with Net-A-Porter, Williams’ co-star Lena Headey, known for her lead performances in big-budget films such as the fantasy film The Brothers Grimm and the action film 300, also opened up about the pressure the show has put on women in the cast to look a certain way—and the pressure women in Hollywood all feel to look a certain way. “I’m happier now [that] I’m older,” Headey said, “playing women who aren’t expected to be beautiful. That pressure has gone for me. [Male] actors can be ‘interesting,’ but there’s a really pressure on woman to be beautiful and skinny.”

2017 has marked some encouraging changes for the representation of women in the media: the recent TCA nominees were all women and people of color, and Wonder Woman became the highest-grossing live-action female-directed film in the world. But the disparity in opportunities for women in Hollywood—behind and in front of the camera—unfortunately persists. In the top 100 grossing films in 2016, the majority of women on screen were in their 20’s and 30’s; in films with exclusively male directors or writers, female characters accounted for only 18 percent of protagonists, 30 percent of major characters and 29 percent of all speaking characters. In 2014, the Center for Study of Women in TV and Film found that female characters between 13 and 20 year were just as likely to be sexualized as those between 21 and 39, and that women and girls of all ages were more likely than boys and men to be shown in sexy attire and with some nudity and referenced as physically attractive.

“We’ve had moments like this, where women really showcase themselves and kind of break glass ceilings,” Charlize Theron said in a recent interview with Variety. “And then we don’t sustain it. Or there’s one movie that doesn’t do well, and all of a sudden, no one wants to make a female-driven film.”

The impact of media sexualization on girls and women is well-documented—and dangerous. Groups like SPARK mobilize young activists against depictions of women and girls in film, television and advertising that sacrifice girlhood in order to sell sex and damage the self-esteem and sense of self of young women. As women in Hollywood continue to wait for progress on the heels of major pushes for diversity on- and off-screen, it’s pivotal that actors like Williams and Heady stand firm in the fight for a media landscape that doesn’t put girls and young women in societal peril.

About

Micaela Brinsley recently graduated from the Performance Studies department at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Born and raised in Tokyo, Japan, she is a feminist theatre artist, activist and writer with a background in performance art and labor rights. Passionate about social justice, she is an avid conversationalist committed to making the world a more just place. She has been writing for Ms. since the summer of 2017. You can contact her at mbrinsley [at] msmagazine.com.