Gender representation in movies is unbalanced, writes Soraya Chemaly, and it’s sending the wrong message.
According to the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism study released today, a survey of the top 100 grossing movies of 2009 reveals that 67.8% of all speaking characters (in excess of 5000) were male. In addition, female characters, usually isolated by virtue of there just being one speaking role, were consistently depicted in sexualized ways. Twenty-three percent of women versus 7.4% of men appeared in revealing clothes or partial nudity. The fact that only 3.6% of the directors and 13.5% of the writers of these films are women is particularly telling when you consider that the ratios are substantively different depending on the gender of the story teller: in movies directed by women, 47% of characters are female versus 32%. These ratios are the same as there were in, get ready, 1946.
We have essentially made no progress in terms of our representations of gender in storytelling in the past 65 years. Really?? Really???? Damn. That’s depressing.
In the upcoming round of seventeen “Must See” Holiday Movies for families recommended by Common Sense Media only one has a female lead character—Breaking Dawn. The other sixteen feature boys or men in lead roles. A large portion of the sixteen adhere to the Smurfette Principle, first described by Katha Pollitt in The New York Times in 1991, namely that there is one female character in an otherwise all male ensemble cast. According to The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media, the ratio of boys to girls becomes more extreme as they age. In the Institute’s study of the 50 top grossing family movies, females were 32.4% of speaking roles for G rated movies. That number declined to 27.7% for PG-13 movies. Boys outnumber girls in movies three to one. In addition, as in adult movies, girl characters are consistently presented with less clothes and hyper-gendered physical characteristics, like tiny waists. Almost every movie on the list for this holiday season is told from a male perspective and reviews of these movies do nothing to systematically address the messages sent by their collective presentation.
And, given trends in the entertainment industry, this is not likely to change unless it actually gets worse. According to the Motion Picture Association, in 2009, women were responsible for more than 50% of US movie ticket sales. You might think that this would elicit some interest in the minds of the men who make movies (and yes, they are still primarily men as evidenced by the stats above.) But, the fact is, Americans, especially American women, are not the target buyer for American made movies.
American media corporations make at least half of their profits from the global distribution of their entertainment products. And what the rest of the world apparently wants is testosterone heavy action films. It’s why G and PG rated movies, increasingly popular in the US, have been outstripped by R rated movies, which are often loud, violent, fight-filled extravaganzas that don’t require complex characters or plots and can translate across multiple cultures. Cross-cultural entertainment product development, in order to work and be profitable, seeks the lowest common denominator—which it seems is male aggression, violence, and power.
It’s much tricker, not to mention subversive, to present complex characterizations of men and women that include non-traditional representations of women who are sexually liberated and empowered. Entertainers don’t want to rock the cultural boat, they just want to sell more movie tickets. So, basically, whereas a few members of international audiences might care about the travails of a small-town girl dealing with an unwanted teen pregnancy, all members of international audiences can appreciate being swept away in an asteroid-created tsunami from hell, which is why a movie like 2012 made $166 million at the US box office, but made $604 million overseas.
As a result, the US movie market gets its seasonal barrage of hyper-masculine, violent super-hero and action-hero films that do much to perpetuate out-dated, harmful hyper-gendered stereotypes of both men and women. This sexist, dumbing down of content has real ramifications in our culture as we try to develop a more balanced and genuinely equitable society.
Children are smart. They are sponges built to absorb culture. The “must see” movies that we all pay for are a major cultural force that send kids exactly the wrong message about how to be in the world. They don’t even have to sense or intuit the gender imbalances constructed in movies and games. They’re obvious. Females are isolated, peripheral, sexual and, vulnerable. Males are central, often hyper-violent and powerful. We will continue to get what we pay for and apparently will continue to get what the rest of the world will pay for. The “is” is not the same as the “aught.”
Is there not one powerful guy in Hollywood who is old enough and rich enough to do the right thing and send a different message to boys and girls? We’re smart people in a smart country. What the hell is wrong with all of us?