Common Sense Media helps families make “smart” media decisions by providing reviews and ratings of movies, games, apps, TV programs, books, and music. CSM is like other services that sort films into different categories such as family-friendly versus adults-only. However, they are adding what could be a controversial new rating to their catalogue: representation of gender.

Currently, CSM recommends the minimum appropriate age for each film or series as well as a five-point rating system that provides clues about the content including the severity of swearing; violence and scariness; sex; and drinking, drugs, and smoking.

Now, they are expanding their ratings to include depictions of gender roles. Films that include characters who defy gender stereotypes will be rated higher than others. For example, films targeting teens should have female characters that aren’t just into make-up, clothes, and flirting with boys.

This follows up on a recent survey CSM conducted earlier this year, which found that parents are concerned about gender stereotypes in the media. Apparently, media reinforces the idea that masculine traits and behavior are more valued in society than feminine traits and behaviors. Also, girls are told to focus more on their looks and use their bodies as sexual objects. Furthermore, media promotes sexual harassment and perpetuates the view that women are (at least) partially responsible for their own sexual assaults.

As The Economist writes:

The system is still in its infancy, but CSM has chosen dozens of films and television shows that offer progressive depictions of gender roles. “Moonlight” gets the thumbs-up for its portrayal of being young, black and gay in America. “Mulan” (1998) makes the list thanks to its “strong female character” that fights the Huns. “Bend it Like Beckham” (2003), a romantic comedy, is also praised for its determined, ambitious, football-loving protagonist, Jess. 

Turning a multifaceted issue into a simple rating is sure to be riddled with difficulties. Not only does “positive gender representation” have a multitude of interpretations; any well-made film has layered characters and plots. Sometimes they may contradict or complicate the picture. Indeed, just as violence and sex can be part of great art, so can a story be a worthy one even if it has traditional gender roles; exploring those roles can be a way to challenge them. So although the research showcased by CSM is worthwhile, reducing it to a binary rating is not.

Parents may find ratings and warnings about adult content and language helpful. However, rating a movie based on how sexist it is, is subjective and runs the risks of negatively branding quality work just because the characters – even if based on real-life – aren’t “progressive” enough.

What happens to films like “Life is Beautiful” and “Glory,” which depict the horrors and costs of war, but have few female characters and uplift the bravery and courage of men?

Pushing positive gender representation is tricky. In “The Devil Wears Prada,” Meryl Streep plays the powerful yet diabolical editor of a fashion magazine. She treated her staff like servants, but was a successful boss whose assistants went on to big careers. Would this new rating consider Streep’s character a positive or negative representation of women?

Characters are not one-dimensional and traditional gender roles are not all negative. Such a simple rating masks the important nuances that carry valuable lessons to audiences.

Another sticky issue will be how CSM tackles characters that reflect culture’s latest gender-bending categories of transgendered and “gender fluid.”

Common Sense Media may be trying to respond to their customers, but this new gender representation rating comes up short.