A new study, Gender Bias Without Borders, was released by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media this week. Conducted by Dr. Stacy Smith and a team at USC's Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, it looks at 120 films in the 10 most profitable film markets, globally. These films, rated G, PG, or PG-13.5 or their equivalents, were compared to similar films in the U.S. A category for U.S./UK collaboration was created since it was so common. The U.S. ranks consistently low in almost every metric.
To discuss their findings, the Institute hosted its second annual Global Symposium on Gender in Media, which I attended. The primary response I had was, how is it possible that people, especially people in this industry, remain unaware of these facts and what they mean? My second was, how do we get this information to audiences who live with the effects of this bias, but are demonstrably unaware?
Studies, other studies, show that everyday sexism is invisible to most people. One form that sexism takes, including vis-a-vis media, is that people overestimate the presence of women and their speech. It happens everywhere. It's not that we think women are necessarily apparent or speaking as much as men, but that we expect them to be, relatively speaking, invisible and not speaking, so, by comparison, any appearance and speech is "too much." This says a lot about status and mainstream cultural assumptions about social roles and of power.
Despite decades of research, it is apparent that we are, as a culture, so used to women being marginal that we don't even notice. Women, as Davis points out, are only 17 percent of the people in movie crowd scenes, and yet viewers assume they are almost equally represented. That 17 percent number is super interesting, since it is also roughly the percentage of women found in leadership positions in government and business.
With very small changes, the ratio of men to women in film has remained fundamentally unchanged since 1946. As Davis put it, at this rate, "It will be 700 years before we reach parity" in U.S. media. And that parity is crucially important, not the least of which is because, as she explained, "Eighty percent of media we consume is made in the United States. We are responsible for exporting these images of girls and women to the world." It is not a pretty picture.
Twenty Facts About Gender and Film in 2014
Read them and weep.
And then share widely.
- Globally, there are 2.24 male characters for every 1 female character.
Executives at the meeting I attended, women, expressed being "startled" by the data and I had to ask, "How is that possible in 2014?" Men have disproportionate industry potential to be change agents. Where are they? The room I sat in was 90 percent women. Media and entertainment management, like most other industries', is lacking in diversity . Men with influence and the ability to raise these questions and do something about them probably strive, as individuals, to be good parents to their kids and make sure their daughters are healthy, happy, educated and ambitious. Not doing anything about this problem, from an institutional perspective, undoes all of that effort. The argument that there is some kind of benign "neutral" position is misguided. Same goes for parents.
Boys and men are done a massive disservice from these media portrayals as well. The flip side of these biased portrays contribute to inhumane, unrealistic stereotypes about masculinity based on control, violence, dominance and the active erasure of empathy as an acceptable emotion. A narrow, frequently violent, power-over-others male heroism comes at a very high price for everyone. As filmmaker Abigail Disney, a panelist, asked, along with women, there is another notable absence, "Where are the men who solve problems by thinking?"
Doing nothing perpetuates a discriminatory and harmful status quo. When progressive movie stars, the most prominent and well-paid being men, sit at a table, when liberal-minded executives review scripts, when open-minded producers are hiring -- why is this not front and center? Davis recommends two very simple steps when scripts are being reviewed: change "he" to "she" for characters and make sure crowd scenes are gender balanced.
"Film executives were raised on this media, too. Just as women are underrepresented on screen they are missing in the real world," explains Davis. These are not unrelated realities.
You may at this point be saying, "It's all about the money." Except, it's not. Films featuring women in meaningful roles make more money. What does that leave us with? Consumer education. When will we draw a line? It's not just about withholding money, but actively supporting women filmmakers and movies that feature diversity, fully dimensional female characters such as those featured in the annual Athena Film Festival.
Many made the point that, for the most part, moviegoers are unaware of the biases. Consumers are not going to theaters thinking about gender or how its representation impacts their and their children's lives, boys and girls both. Media is how we train girls and women to have low expectations and train boys to have high ones. Girls to exhibit submissiveness and self-objectification, boys to express dominance and control. This isn't a passive process.
"Filmmakers make more than just movies," explains Smith. "They make choices. The choice could be for gender equality." There is no excuse for not having this information and using it.
Researchers took pains to explain the limitations of their study and make good recommendations for improvement, further courses of inquiry and necessary steps that can be taken to address what is clearly a significant problem in our story-telling, especially for children.
What can you do? Share these facts, talk about them with educators, coaches, family, friends. Family friendly films are among the biggest problems. Talk to your kids. Don't let this everyday sexism go unremarked upon. Vote with your wallet. Tell your local theatre to improve their programming.
The representation of gender in these films shapes imaginations and identity, aspirations and ambition. These depictions teach girls and boys about how culture sees them: their worth, their relative value, the roles they "should" play. Girls and women, infinitely diverse in their interests, appearance, ambition, ability, aspirations, make up more than 50 percent of the human population, but you would never know any of this watching our top grossing films. Really, how can we continue telling these fundamentally destructive stories to children?