Women in Film and Television

On April 25th, 2021, Chloé Zhao made history as the second woman, and the first woman of colour, to win the Academy Award for Best Director, but her historic victory is a milestone that should have been passed years ago. While a few women can be commended for breaking through the glass ceiling in the entertainment industry, their influence has had limited results concerning gender parity and portrayal; women’s representation in the industry of film and television remains inadequate, both onscreen and behind the scenes.

Nomadland director Chloé Zhao, with her Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture. From Variety.

Relevant Theories

Discrimination Theory

Discrimination Theory is based on the idea that a certain group is preferred, even when the work of these group members is indistinguishable from that belonging to another group. The term “actress” itself is laden with subtle sexism, as the suffix “-ess” implies that the roles of actor and actress differ as performed by men and women. While not intentionally malicious, this difference points to inherent discrimination in the film industry. By differentiating, and preferring, male actors from female actors, the film industry shows its discriminatory tendencies. By employing these tendencies, the film industry discourages women from entering the field and thus influences decisions to hire male workers instead of female workers.

Social Cognitive Theory

Social Cognitive Theory lay the foundation for understanding audience interpretations of how gender and race are represented in film, suggesting that people develop expectations for real-world situations while consuming media. Gender stereotyping is a fundamental issue because important aspects of people’s lives, such as talents they cultivate, conceptions they hold of themselves and others, and social and occupational paths they pursue are heavily prescribed by gender stereotyping.

Cultivation Theory

Cultivation Theory reveals that representations in the media affect audiences perceptions of reality, but more passively. The theory proposes that continuous exposure to specific cultural messages will influence how the audience identifies with that message in the long term. Movie theatres in the United States had three times higher attendance than all theme parks and professional sports events combined in 2013, so it is reasonable to assert that vast numbers of movie-goers receive these messages, and that perpetuations of these themes regarding gender roles are reaching a huge audience.

Impact on Children

Gender stereotyping is an inherent problem in today’s entertainment landscape, and children are the most vulnerable recipients of negative depictions. Research by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media revealed that from 2006 to 2009, there were no female characters depicted in G-rated family films in the field of medical science, as business leaders, in the law, or in politics. 80.5% of all working characters are male and 19.5% are female, a contrast to real-world statistics of women comprising 50% of the workforce. With repeated viewings, young audiences may fail to realize this lopsided view is not, reality and believe there is no need for gender parity.

Only 36% of all major characters in 2018’s top-100 grossing movies were women; while that number is up 9% from 2002, female stars appear in far fewer films than their male counterparts and thus infrequently become movie stars. In this way, films inherently tell audiences that men are more important than women in numerous and various contexts. Even among the top-grossing G-rated family films, female characters are outnumbered by males, three-to-one, the same ratio that has existed since 1946. For decades, male characters have dominated nearly three-quarters of speaking parts in children’s entertainment, and 83% of film and TV narrators are male. These absences are unquestionably felt by the impressionable audiences, and children learn to accept the stereotypes represented.

Additionally, female characters continue to show dramatically more skin than their male counterparts and feature extremely tiny waists and other exaggerated body characteristics. This hypersexualization and objectification of female characters lead to unrealistic body ideals in very young children, cementing and often reinforcing negative body images and perceptions during the formative years.

Winx Club features unrealistic body types and unnecessarily revealing clothing. From Licensing Magazine.

Racial Representation

66% of all female characters were white, compared to 70% in 2018, 20% were Black, compared to 17% in 2018, 8% were Asian, compared to 7% in 2018, and 5% were Latina, compared to 6% in 2018. The racial representation of major female characters mirrored that for all female characters in speaking roles, as 66% of major female characters were white, 20% were Black, 8% were Asian, and 6% were Latina. This is also reflected in representation in 2019’s top 100 films: 68% of all female characters were white, 20% were Black, 7% were Asian, and 5% were Latina.

In 2018, 33 films were missing Black/African American female characters, 54 were missing Asian or Asian American female characters, 70 Latina characters, and 51 girls or women from multiracial/other backgrounds. Lack of representation of women of colour is detrimental for the same reason that lack of representation of women overall is detrimental: it’s not only disheartening not to be able to see oneself onscreen, but such depictions in media can contribute to how their real-life counterparts are treated in society, and if there are minimal depictions, they are likely to be stereotypical or misrepresentative.

The Gender Role Paradox

The popularity of “strong female heroines,” such as Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games series, leads to the impression that women are represented equally and fairly in films, but such characters commonly reject traditional gender roles. They unintentionally suggest that, because they are not like other girls, they are stronger or better. The idea that rejecting femininity makes a woman strong creates an antithesis in which other, more feminine, characters are presented as weak. The heroine is commonly violent, and places being kind in conflict with being strong. This again comes from the idea that strong women and being feminine are contradictory, with kindness often being seen as maternal.

The “strong female heroine” is harmful in the film industry because they promote choice feminism, a branch of feminism that advocates that every decision that a woman makes is inherently positive and feminist, simply because of the gender identity of the person making that choice. This extends to women’s character development and inclusion in that, with strong female characters, even if the character is underdeveloped or stereotyped, their creators are still praised for inclusion. True inclusion isn’t achieved while female characters rebel against femininity, but rather when characters rebel against stereotypical roles, including the “strong female heroine” trope.

Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games, an example of the strong female heroine trope. From Vox Magazine.

The Superhero Genre

Since the emergence of the superhero genre in the 2000's— generally the highest-grossing movies in modern-day Hollywood has been dominated by male directors. Until 2017’s Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, no woman had directed a movie released by Marvel or DC, the two preeminent comic book studios in the film industry. While this trend seems to be changing with the upcoming releases of Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey, Patty Jenkins’ sequel to Wonder Woman, Cate Shortland’s Black Widow, and Chloé Zhao’s The Eternals, the lucrative, high-budget genre has largely benefited men, leaving women to contend with small budgets and less box office influence.

In 2018, these superhero movies and other “action” films accounted for 34% of the year’s box office gross. Additionally, all nine superhero movies released in 2018 were directed by men. This disparity present in the superhero genre alone can partially explain why films directed by women do not have budgets as large as movies directed by their male counterparts. While the sample size is small, women have succeeded at the box office when placed at the helm of big-budget superhero films. Both Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, the only two modern superhero movies directed by women, have grossed over $800 million, with budgets over $120 million.

Captain Marvel (2019), directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck. From GQ Magazine.

Women in Creative Positions

In 2018, women accounted for only 8% of directors at the helm of the top-250 grossing films in the United States, down from 1998. Additionally, one in four films employed either zero women or one woman in the roles of director, writer, producer, executive producer, editor, and cinematographer. Only 1% employed ten or more women in those roles, compared to 74% of films employing ten or more men. On the top 100 grossing films of 2019, women represented 10.7% of directors, 19.4% of writers, and 24.3% of producers. In the 2019–2020 television season, women accounted for 30% of all creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers, and editors working on a broadcast network, cable, and streaming programs, but 94% of the programs had no female directors of photography, 76% had no female directors, 81% had no female editors, 73% had no female creators at all.

One of the most prominent criticisms of women in creative and executive positions is the idea that female filmmakers present more of a financial risk than male filmmakers. When faced with large budgets, studio executives tend to fall back on directors who have had box-office hits in the past. These directors are often male. This presents a paradox in which women are not hired for positions that require them to have previous jobs to prove their worth. In reality, films that employ at least one female director, executive producer, producer, and/or writer garner approximately the same domestic box office sales as do films with exclusive males in those roles. Despite this, women are rarely afforded the same resources and budgets as men.

When women are hired as directors and writers, more female characters are employed. In films with at least one female director and/or writer, women comprised 43% of all speaking characters, according to a study of gender inequality in 2018 by Ian Kinsey, which is a number much more proportionate to the U.S. population than the 32% of female speaking characters present in films with exclusively male directors and writers. This disparity shows the effect that employing female filmmakers has on gender representation.

Conclusion

Lack of representation and stereotypical portrayals harm all women, but especially young children and women of colour, who bear the brunt of their negative effects. Overcompensation for such stereotypes isn’t beneficial either— characters such as Katniss Everdeen have fallen into their own stereotype, with themes of anti-femininity. The strong female heroine trope and the messages that they commonly promote are harmful and especially destructive given their prevalence in the popular superhero genre. Until recently, the genre was overrun with male creators, which not only gave creators the power to influence large audiences, but also gave executives reason to choose male writers, directors, and editors over their female counterparts for “financial stability,” despite women achieving equal sales.

The lack of representation of women in the film and television industry cannot be justified any longer, as women continue to demonstrate their capability on and off-screen. Women deserve equity — as actors, as creatives, as executives, and as viewers — and it’s time that they receive it.

Sources

Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media — The Myths and Facts: https://seejane.org/research-informs-empowers/gender-in-media-the-myths-facts/

Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media — Gender Stereotypes: https://seejane.org/wp-content/uploads/GDIGM_Gender_Stereotypes.pdf

Common Sense Report— Watching Gender: https://wnywomensfoundation.org/app/uploads/2017/08/16.-Watching-Gender-How-Stereotypes-in-Movies-and-on-TV-Impact-Kids-Development.pdf

Epigram — The Strong Female Character Paradox: https://epigram.org.uk/2019/03/11/strong-female-character-paradox

The Role of Women in Film — Supporting the Men: https://scholarworks.uark.edu/cgi/the-role-of-women-in-film

Representations of Women in Popular Film — A Study of Gender Inequality: https://www.elon.edu/u/academics/communications/journal/wp-content/uploads/gender-inequality

Women and Hollywood — Facts and Statistics: https://womenandhollywood.com/resources/statistics/

Boxed In — Women On Screen and Behind the Scenes in Television: https://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/2019-2020_Boxed_In_Report.pdf

Sundance Institute — Women Filmmakers Initiative: https://annenberg.usc.edu/sites/default/files/MDSCI_2013_Exploring-The-Barriers.pdf

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