Where Are All The Women In Film, TV, Books, And Games?

Each time a child plays male-dominated games, learns a womanless history, or watches gender-imbalanced movies, he or she learns that girls and women are worth less.

Last week, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media released the findings of its latest research. Conducted in partnership with the USC Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, the new studyGender Bias Without Borders, compared films in the world’s top 10 film markets. It was pretty dismal.

  • Globally, there are 2.24 male characters for every 1 female character. Female characters only comprise 22.5% of the global film workforce, whereas male characters form 77.5%.
  • Out of a total of 5,799 speaking or named characters 30.9% were female, 69.1% male.
  • Films for children had similar ratios, with only 29.2% having female protagonists.
  • Less than a quarter of films surveyed (23.3%) had a female lead or co-lead.

This is just a sliver of the findings, some of which also look at qualitative aspects of representations. For example, female characters are five times more likely to have their appearance commented on.

Most notably, too, is the way in which work is shown. Men are much more likely to appear as attorneys and judges (13 to 1), academics (16 to 1), doctors and medical practitioners (5 to 1).

Similarly, in politics, only 12 female characters among the reviewed films were shown as powerful leaders. Out of 115 roles, only three females were ultimate leaders—one was an animated elephant, one never spoke.

It’s in STEM fields, however, that the imbalance in U.S. films was egregious. In the U.S., women make up 24% of the STEM workforce. The ratio of men to women on film? Seven to one.

These representations matter. As lead researcher Stacy Smith explained, “Filmmakers make more than just movies. They make choices. The choice could be for gender equality.”

That’s also true of editors. As I’ve written here before, children’s books remain gender imbalanced, are frequently filled with stereotypes, and struggle with racial and ethnic diversity. They do not tell stories that meet a pluralistic society’s needs.

Turns out, as annual VIDA counts show, there are problems in adult books and magazines as well. The one place where this pattern may have been substantively disrupted is on television, where diversity is improving, at least in front of the screen, and female characters are drawn in complex ways. Even that, however, is a questionable suggestion.

But there is a lot more to media that we don’t often think of and that affects how children think about gender and gender roles.

Writing last year about “The Year [She] Stopped Reading Men,” Anna Szymanski explained, “Young girls are still sitting in classrooms where teachers say “great American novel” when what they really mean is “great novel by a white guy who probably thought women weren’t smart enough to become doctors.”

Studies, like this one from Penn State, show that highlighting differences in gender makes children more likely to engage in gender profiling and the use of stereotypes. What happens when the biases aren’t implicit, but obvious and unexplored?

When my kid was doing homework on a school computer, and had to go to Live Science, Net Nanny, the “keep kids safe” computer gatekeeping software used by many schools, screened out ads for breast pumps but left “Penis Size Matters in Bed.” Net Nanny also routinely removes feminist websites, probably because many of them use words like “vagina” and “abortion.”

What children see on their school walls and the textbooks they use in classrooms can be, generally speaking, as imbalanced as the other media they consume. Books about girls and women, about masculinized dystopias, remain threatening and problematic in so many communities.

Banned Books week just finished, and books about and by female characters and authors were disproportionately represented. In an anecdotal variant on that theme, a high school in my neighborhood recently took Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaiden’s Tale off of their high school reading curriculum because parents complained. While it wasn’t “banned” it was eliminated with no chance of parental debate.

As Szymanski explained, “I’m not arguing that women shouldn’t read Tolstoy. Of course they should. But they probably shouldn’t have to wait until their junior year of college before encountering a syllabus with more than one woman.”

We are taught to have listener and viewer biases that make us think there is parity where there is none. Listener bias results in most people thinking that women are dominating conversation when men are hogging the floor. Viewer biases have the same effect. Although women make up only 17% of crowd scenes in Hollywood films, viewers think it is 50%.

Which brings us to gaming. I’m not even going to talk about videos games filled with killing, blood, gore, and rape. EA Sports just released the newest version of its massively popular FIFA Soccer. This is a fictional world in which women play no part, even though soccer is one of the world’s fastest grown sports for girls, and even after FIFA, the sport’s governing body, just announced it is doubling its investment in developing female players.

Not only is there no option to be a woman player, or to build a team that includes a woman, or to have, say, a womens’ World Cup Tournament (where at least there is “real” world critical mass), but there also appears to be no girls or women in the stands as fans (not even the paltry 17% of movie crowd scenes).

Even more ridiculous, however, is that there are no women managers of teams. A huge part of this game, if you want to pursue it, is in the managing of teams. Boys who play the game are learning that they don’t have to include women in the worlds they dominate.

Most fathers I know are trying their hardest to be good dads and spouses, spend time with their kids, provide for their families, and keep them fed, healthy, and safe. Many are co-parenting in unprecedented ways. What does it say when fathers play these games? I doubt men are going to stop playing video games because they exclude women or treat them like sex toys. But what do daughters and sons learn when they don’t even talk about it?

It’s not just dads. Moms still spend more time with children and at schools.

“Women endorse sexist beliefs, at least in part, because they do not attend to subtle, aggregate forms of sexism in their personal lives,” wrote Julia C. Becker and Janet K. Swim, the authors of this study about the invisibility of sexism. “Many men not only lack attention to such incidents, but also are less likely to perceive sexist incidents as being discriminatory and potentially harmful for women.”

These statistics are genuinely deplorable, but they aren’t new. The ratio of men to women in film has remained fundamentally unchanged sine 1946. As Geena Davis put it while introducing the study findings, at this rate, “It will be 700 years before we have gender parity.”

To paraphrase educator Myra Pollack Sadker: Each time a child plays male-dominated games, learns a womanless history, or watches gender-imbalanced movies, he or she learns that girls and women are worth less.

The overwhelming impression that these biases don’t exist, or that all people have equal access to power, or that there is a meritocracy that exists in a cultural vacuum, is a kind of propaganda enabled by a national fetishization of the individual who can, if properly empowered, achieve anything. We have to move from ignorance to awareness, then awareness to action. It’s an ethical and societal failure that we are still having these conversations.

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.

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