Where Are The Women?

Growing up, I was obsessed with Disney princesses — Belle specifically. My three year old self looked up to her and identified with her love of reading. But every time I wanted to be Belle during playtime at Grandma Bev’s (my daycare) I wasn’t allowed because I “didn’t look like her.” My curly, unmanageable curls didn’t resemble Belle’s composed brunette hairstyles, I had tan skin while Belle’s porcelain complexion resembled snow and her brown eyes were the furthest from the blue ones that looked back at me everyday. To be honest, it made me really upset. I wanted to be Belle, but I didn’t fit the mold that she did.

Here I am now, 21 years old, empowered by the women that I see represented in media, but also disheartened at how little representation women are still receiving in the media industry. And I shouldn’t even be the one complaining. I’m a white woman who sees plenty of women that resemble me looks wise, whereas women of color are grasping at straws to receive the same amount of airtime. Now, it’s much deeper than my inability to resemble Disney princesses.

But where do we start to make a change? From square one — we need more women not only representing a full spectrum of the female identities but also creating the ideas and driving them home. According to McElfresh (2017), in 2008 a study done by a University of Texas graduate student showed that only 3.6 percent of creative directors in the advertising industry, 9.6 percent of art directors and 11.6 percent of copywriters were women. Thus the 3% Movement was created to empower women in the media industry.

“Without much upper-level representation in media, is it any surprise that women too often are shaped into believing they, as whole beings, aren’t enough?” — Diana McElfresh, St. Bonaventure University

A study conducted by Dr. Stacy Smith (2016) revealed the serious inequality that women are up against in the movie industry. “Of the 1,365 directors, writers, and producers of the 100 top-grossing films of 2015, 81% were men and 19% were women,” writes Smith. “Of the 107 directors, 92.5% were male and 7.5 were female.”

Dr. Stacy Smith’s TED Talk on the underrepresentation in Hollywood.

Some other startling statistics: across 800 films and 886 directors, only 4.1% were women, only 3 Black and 1 Asian female directors worked on the 800 films examined and only 1.4% of all composers were women from 2007 to 2015 (Smith p. 1). More recently, a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission investigation found that “studios systemically discriminated against female directors, and the numbers there–down to just 7% of the filmmakers behind the 250 highest-grossing movies of 2016, from 9% in 2015–are staggering” (Solomon, 2017).

With each passing year it seems that women are gaining more momentum in their fight for equality, but the reverse is happening. While it’s no secret that there are amazing male directors that have created films featuring iconic female roles, (Cake directed by Daniel Barnz is a personal favorite) can they really connect with how the female lead should be feeling and acting in the moment? Director Matthew A. Cherry (The Last Fall) took to Twitter to address why he thought Wonder Woman with Gal Gadot was such a success and address why women should have a greater role in directing.

Most artist’s work reflects their own experiences. We see it in music, movies, poetry — you name it. Trying to create something when you have little foundation to sympathize with the lyrics, character or words is extremely difficult. For instance I would have a general idea of what it’d be like to be a man in 2017, but would it be completely accurate? Absolutely not.

Now to address an even more staggering issue: the representation of women of color in the media industry. “In 2015, only 4 of the 107 directors were Black or African American (3.7%) and 6 were Asian or Asian American (5.6%). Across 886 directors from 2007 to 2015 (excluding 2011), only 5.5% were Black and 2.8% were Asian,” writes Smith. “Only three female leads/co leads were played by female actors from an underrepresented racial/ethnic group, the exact same number in 2014” (Smith p. 2).

When I think back on being upset about not looking like Belle, I remember that there were other female characters that I did look up to simply because I saw myself in them. But what about those little girls that didn’t have that? You may think, “looks aren’t everything, what about the actions?” And to that I would say you have a point. Young girls need strong female leads to look up to. Women who aren’t afraid to speak their mind and express who they are, rather than submitting to societal norms. Women who are sexually fluid. Women who are single moms and women who stay at home with their kids. Women who suffer from disabilities. But there’s always going to be a part of that young girl’s mind that says “but I don’t look like them.”

“There’s this body of research and a term known as ‘symbolic annihilation,’ which is the idea that if you don’t see people like you in the media you consume, you must somehow be unimportant.” — Nicole Martins, Indiana University

Martins and Kristen Harrison (University of Michigan) co-wrote a study that focused on television and its effect on children’s self esteem. They found that television made children feel good about themselves — but only if they were white boys (Boboltz and Yam, 2017). “Girls and boys of color, on the other hand, reported lower self-esteem as they watched.”

Zeba Blay, writer for the Huffington Post, wrote about how she identified with Mel B from the Spice Girls. “ I was drawn to her, not just because she was black, but because she was black and weird,” writes Blay. She was unapologetically loud and unapologetically fierce in a way that (in my mere 10 years) I had never seen a black girl have the permission to be” (Blay, 2016).

“‘Representation,’ a cultural buzzword that’s often tossed around with words like ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusivity,’ is typically thought of as this idea that when we see people who look like us on TV shows, in movies, and on the covers of magazines, it validates our own existence.” — Zeba Blay, Huffington Post

The stereotypical tropes that characters of color are often paired with also give children a skewed image of what a “typical” person should act like. “For the underrepresented, seeing a character who looks like them can have a limiting effect if that character is restricted to behaving only in certain ways, which don’t reflect the breadth of their life’s experience” (Boboltz and Yam).

Take for example the stereotypical character that is a smart Asian student. Off the top of my head I can already recall watching an episode of Glee where both Asian students (Mike Chang and Tina Cohen-Chang) discuss Mike getting an “Asian F” or an A- on a test. While Glee does a great job at breaking those stereotypes, it still plays to those stereotypes. Mike ends up deciding to become a dancer, enraging his father. Carol Kuruvilla (2016), writer for the Huffington Post, wrote about how Jess from Bend It Like Beckham was a role model for her in how she acted. “Jess wasn’t just the nerdy best friend, the submissive shy girl, or the exotic temptress (all tropes that are far too common for Asian women)” writes Kuruvilla.

Clearly, it’s important to have representation both physically and behaviorally. Both behind the scenes and on screen. Not only for the young girls who grow up admiring and modeling their actions after those on screen but for the women who grew up without them. Equality, at this point, is a dream that women are too familiar with turning into a nightmare. But the fight can’t stop now, and it never will.

“When you don’t see people like yourself, the message is: You’re invisible. The message is: You don’t count. And the message is: ‘There’s something wrong with me.’ Over and over and over, week after week, month after month, year after year, it sends a very clear message, not only to members of those groups, but to members of other groups, as well.” — Michael Morgan, former professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and author of dozens of reports on media effects