When Disney executives show up in Los Angeles later this month for the annual Girls Leadership Conference, they’re likely to get an ear full from 10-year-old Chicagoan Willa Sachs.
“Some of those TV shows make me gag,” Willa says. She goes on to describe an episode of a Disney kids’ sitcom in which the proverbial silly girl insists on wearing her proverbial high-heeled shoes on a camping trip in the woods.
“And, of course, she’s got a wagon full of stuff, and she’s looking for a place to plug in her hair dryer. Like she didn’t know you can’t plug in a hair dryer in the woods!” Willa snorts, incredulous. “On TV, girls are completely obsessed with fashion and boys. They can’t even talk to a boy without giggling. That’s not what it’s like in real life. In real life, you can talk to a boy.”
An aspiring artist, songwriter, fashion designer and novelist—when she’s not simply a fifth-grader—Willa is this year’s winner of the Turn Beauty Inside Out poster contest, an annual competition organized by the Minnesota-based nonprofit group, Mind on the Media. The group, whose mission is to “inspire independent thinking and foster critical analysis of media messages,” was founded in 2001 as a result of a story that ran in New Moon: The Magazine for Girls and Their Dreams—an advertising-free publication edited by and for girls ages 8-14.
Willa’s winning poster, in which a pony-tailed girl with soccer ball earrings stares bright-eyed at the viewer and demands “Better Movies. Better TV!” means she goes to the yearly conference. Set for April 13-15, the meeting’s goal is for girls to agitate for fewer stereotypes and more healthy images of girls and women in all media—including movies, television, advertising and journalism. The last session is a roundtable discussion with Disney and Warner Brothers executives and actress Geena Davis.
According to Mind on the Media Executive Director Caroline Ticarro-Parker, girls spend a lot of time watching movies. And often, what they see doesn’t reflect reality.
“Girls that age, from about 10 to 14, are very impressionable,” Ticarro-Parker says. “And what they’re seeing are a lot of stereotypes. Movies about a clique of mean girls. You see movies about dads having it all and working outside the home, but when the dad works inside the home and he’s with the kids, it’s always a comedy. Why?”
That’s what Willa wants to know.
“She’s always been an independent thinker,” says her mother, Marianne Philbin. “That’s the great thing about this campaign—it encourages girls to trust their own instincts.”
Willa’s father, Sun-Times columnist Lloyd Sachs, concedes that he and his wife bring a big dose of media awareness home with them, but says Willa’s objections are her own. Who wouldn’t object to the same old joke about the ditzy girl or the vicious cheerleaders?
“There’s a stunted view of what’s permissible on kids’ TV,” Sachs says. “They can put out such garbage, but when it comes to diversity or a discussion of real concerns, they just clam up.”
Says the award-winner Willa, “I mean, it makes me mad the way they portray girls. It’s making me mad right now.” Lydialyle Gibson