women in film: fewer than you think

A few months ago, I wrote about the importance of reading literature by people who do not identify as men. I should add to that: people who do not identify as straight white men. We get straight white male perspectives through literature, film, TV, music, news, and other media so pervasively that we often fail to recognize the norms we’ve been subjected to over the years and how these norms have affected our lives and our world views.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much diversity to convince us that things have gone too far in the other direction. Studies show that when women and girls are given more time than usual (though still less time than men and boys) to speak, the perception is that they are monopolizing the speaking time. Australian scholar Dale Spender notes, “The talkativeness of women has been gauged in comparison not with men but with silence. Women have not been judged on the grounds of whether they talk more than men, but of whether they talk more than silent women.”

NPR’s All Things Considered recently explored the issue of how we perceive “enough” diversity in Hollywood. Here’s a critical part of Jackie Lyden’s interview with Geena Davis, who founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in 2004:

DAVIS: We just heard a fascinating and disturbing study, where they looked at the ratio of men and women in groups. And they found that if there’s 17 percent women, the men in the group think it’s 50-50. And if there’s 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men.

LYDEN: Oh, my goodness.

DAVIS: So is it possible that 17 percent women has become so comfortable, and so normal, that that’s just sort of unconsciously expected?

LYDEN: Why else, Geena Davis, do these kinds of disparities matter?

DAVIS: What we’re, in effect, doing is training children to see that women and girls are less important than men and boys. We’re training them to perceive that women take up only 17 percent of the space in the world. And if you add on top of that, that so many female characters are sexualized – even in things that are aimed at little kids – that’s having an enormous impact as well.

These figures should make us stop and rethink our assumptions about what we’re seeing, hearing, and reading. As Davis rightly points out, what’s even more disturbing is that the women we typically see taking 17 percent of the space are sexualized, airbrushed, false-eyelashed (What’s with all the spider eyelashes worn by every single woman on screen lately?), etc. They frequently serve as the girlfriend of the main character, a byproduct of his story, a character with no agency of her own.

In 1929, Virginia Woolf wrote about this problem in fiction: “[A]lmost without exception [women] are shown in their relation to men. It was strange to think that all the great women of fiction were, until Jane Austen‘s day, not only seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex. And how small a part of a woman’s life is that.”

Alison Bechdel, the author of the magnificent graphic memoir Fun Home (a must-read that will change the way you see graphic work), devised what is known as the Bechdel Test. A film or TV show passes the test if it contains at least two female characters who talk to each other about something other than men. You can also do a version of this test to watch for people of color talking about something other than white people. It’s certainly lower than the standard we work towards, but it gives us a basic way of determining succinctly whether marginalized people are remotely represented as actual people or simply as resources for straight white men.

One way we can change this is to support movies that bust the norm. Hollywood studios usually balk at spending money on women-driven movies, and even the success of Bridesmaids and The Hunger Games didn’t change that. But The Heat, a buddy cop movie starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, crushed White House Down and opened at $40 million, enough to greenlight a sequel. If we keep supporting movies with strong, funny, determined women, we just might get more of them. And if the percentage of women in movies increases, that might have ripple effects. If women make up higher percentages of people on screen, we might notice where they are missing in our institutions.

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