The summer movie season is upon us, and while there is an increase this year in the number of films geared toward women and featuring women in lead roles, I can't help but feel disappointed about the lack of diversity in roles for women and their absence as decision-makers in the mainstream entertainment industry. Over half the U.S. population is female, but females are grossly underrepresented and stereotyped in the film and television images we see every day.
The Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California recently published a study on gender inequality in cinema and found that of the 100 top-grossing fictional films in the U.S. in 2008, only 32.8 percent of speaking parts were given to women. That is a ratio of roughly two males for every one female onscreen. Off-camera, the study found that only eight percent of directors, 13.6 percent of writers and 19.1 percent of producers were female.
Even when females are represented in film and television, they often fit into one of several stereotypes -- the harried working mother, the neurotic but hopelessly flawed go-getter, the provocative girl next door or the damsel in distress. Unfortunately, stereotypes of women of color are often worse, as they are most often depicted as foul-mouthed criminals, prostitutes or naive and doting motherly figures. The more "empowered women" tend to be represented as vixens who manipulate men, dragon-lady executives with little or no social skills and emotionless superheroes.
Even more pervasive, these stereotypical images are impacting the views of girls in popular culture. A disturbing new trend features young women as violent characters in movies. As two film critics from the New York Times discussed in a recent article, the fact that teenage girls are depicted wielding guns while wearing schoolgirl uniforms raises the issue of the media making youth violence appear sexualized, attractive and exciting.
Young women in entertainment media are hyper-sexualized and most often paint an unrealistic portrait of how a woman should look. The Annenberg study found that in the same 100 top-grossing films, 39.8 percent of young females, in comparison with 6.7 percent of young males, were shown wearing sexually revealing attire. They were also shown partially naked more than males -- 30.1 percent compared to 10.3 percent. Our society is being inundated with these sexualized and limited representations of women in popular media. Even in animated films targeted primarily toward children, female characters are often shown in sexually revealing attire and have unrealistic body shapes.
I'm very excited about a documentary being released this fall called Miss Representation. The film takes a hard look at how women are represented and depicted in the media. If we really want girls and women in our society to envision a life of leadership and empowerment, we have to present them with images that reflect empowered women. In the words of the director of Miss Representation, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, "If you can see women as powerful figures -- if you can see women as leaders -- young girls and women and men will believe that women can be that."
Even with the release of this documentary and the movement I hope it will inspire, I don't think we can expect to see a significant shift in the media's depiction of women anytime soon. But we can make small changes on our own that I believe will impact how we, and the young women in our lives, see the roles of women in our society. We can teach girls that these movies and television shows are fun to watch, but introduce also them to more empowered, positive women role models. We can also support initiatives to create responsible and more realistic media. Street Level Youth Media in Chicago's West Town neighborhood works to educate Chicago's urban youth in media arts for use in self-expression, communication and social change. If media dictates the behavior of society, then organizations like this empower young men and women to create a society based on the social issues that affect them every day.
As leaders in the movement to empower women and girls, we need to realize that we can enjoy entertaining films and television shows and still be critical of them. We can refuse to let an industry that marginalizes and stereotypes women to become our reality. Whether a man or a woman, we can each strive for a higher standard.