This week, gender bias has been on my mind.
I guess it started when I (FINALLY) picked up Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a book that begins in our present culture and devolves into a dystopian society where women are once again treated as objects. They can serve one of two purposes: A) provide men sexual pleasure or B) become vessels of childbirth. I was riveted, fascinated, horrified, and yet it also made me reflect on our own culture, which still pretty much portrays women in these roles. Despite whatever Alanis Morissette sang about female identity, on TV and in movies a woman is typically still either the wife or the femme fatale.
So, this book really got me thinking. And then other recent events seemed to echo the issue of gender discrimination: the Oscar nominations, the State of the Union address, and HeForShe’s launch of a new initiative called ACTION 10X10X10 all, in their own way, highlighted the challenges women face both in America and abroad.
On Monday, I found myself glued to the TV screen for the State of the Union address. To be completely honest, I felt heartbroken when half of our nation’s representatives refused to applaud or stand for President Obama’s following statement: “Congress still needs to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work. Really. It’s 2015. It’s time.”
Watching not only Speaker John Boehner, but most (if not all) of our Republican representatives* refuse to acknowledge this statement infuriated me. It spoke volumes to how women are still perceived and what roles many people believe they should follow.
To me, it said “we don’t think you deserve it.” It said that men are better than women. It said that boys rule, girls drool. The end.
Dramatic? Yes, but so was their gesture.
Naturally, this gave me an itch to parade. So I spent the rest of the week exploring the social injustices that women still experience, on a grand scale, in America today.
I found a few:
- There is a huge disparity in how women’s opinions are valued in the workplace.
- Women make up 51% of the US population… but make up only 20% of Congress.
- Women earn less than their male counterparts in almost every occupation.
- Women make up 3% of leadership positions in the mainstream media.
- Women make up only 30% of speaking roles in movies and on television (see also here and here).
- Despite the fact that 60% of US working women are mothers, we have no national policy towards paid maternity leave, and that of the 185 countries and territories analyzed by the International Labor Organization, only one other country didn’t offer benefits to women having children (Papua New Guinea, in case you were wondering).
Let’s just say I found more discrimination than could be easily put into a list. What I began to wonder was, why do we, as a society, put up with this? Just like in The Handmaid’s Tale, it seems that our culture has taken this mantra of “this is the way it is.” But it doesn’t have to be.
I began to think about the systems of power over our culture. I began to think about Kim Kardashian.
Stay with me.
We live in a world bombarded with media. Young girls have to make sense of the 500 air-brushed-to-perfection advertisements they come across every day. To them, the cat-fights of reality tv and the superficial woes of Kim Kardashian provide a model for behavior. The Girl Scout Research Institute conducted a study that showed that 75% of teen girls believe reality tv to be unscripted, real-world experiences. To me, reality tv is something to laugh at and occasionally indulge in to turn my brain off. The idea that young girls take it seriously is frightening, especially considering the other ways that women are represented on tv and in film.
Our culture gets most of its assumptions from the media; Movies, television, the news, and even commercials, provide a model for the world—but it just so happens to be an inaccurate one when it comes to female representation.
According to the study “Gender Bias Without Borders,” only 30.9% of speaking roles in movies and television are women—despite the fact that, you know, women make up half of our world’s population. The study also revealed that female characters were twice as likely as male characters to wear sexually revealing clothing, five times as likely to receive on-screen comments about their appearance, and were less likely to portray a person with job. Real women are literally missing from the scenes. The stirring documentary, Missrepresentation, (available on Netflix!) reveals that only 16% of film protagonists are female. Translation? Stories about women are not worth telling.
And let’s go ahead and think about the protagonists we are given. I can think of two types of characters: the woman looking for love and the sexy but bad-ass female warrior. Make no mistake–both of these characterizations continue to show that the purpose of woman is to find and please a man. Don’t get me wrong. As a girl who grew up very much a tomboy, I tend to like badass female characters, but to me, most of them seem just as one-dimensional as the damsel in distress. Just an excuse to have a girl in some tight leather–a dominatrix of sorts. I mean, for every Brienne on Game of Thrones it seems like we have ten of Halle Berry’s Catwoman.
This message even continues into cartoon movies, where it is especially harmful to young girls. As Geena Davis reminds us, “Between 1937 and 2005 there were only 13 female protagonists in animated movies. All of them, except one, had the aspiration of finding romance.”
Is that one in thirteen Mulan (my favorite Disney girl)? I don’t know, but thankfully, in the past ten years since this comment, animated roles have shown progress for girls. Brave’s Merida rejected the men who came to court her and competed for her own independence, while Frozen’s Elsa struggled to understand her identity (though admittedly, her sister, Anna, was boy-craaaazy). Both movies, by the way, had female directors. Hmm…female directors create well-rounded female characters, who knew? And it’s true that we are seeing more women featured in big box office movies roles that attempt to defy female stereotypes—most recently Katniss of The Hunger Games, who is both vulnerable and strong.
But overall, movies continue to leave out women. Every movie I watch, I measure up to the Bechdel Test, which is just about as basic as it could possibly be in recognizing that women are humans. All a movie has to do to pass is have two women talk to each other about something other than men.
Wrong (according to Hollywood). I’d like to say that more movies have passed this year, but out of this year’s Best Picture Oscar noms, only TWO pass the Bechdel Test (Selma, Boyhood). TWO. But is this surprising when every nominated film this year is male-centric? Let that sink in.
In my opinion, Gone Girl and Wild more than deserve a nod, but with a 76% male Academy, I guess this is what happens.
“Hollywood is based on the assumption that women will watch stories about men, but men won’t watch stories about women.”
So what about the women behind the camera?
Well, let’s just say that recognized female film directors remain as rare as Melville’s white whale. Which brings me back to the Oscars. Am I surprised that no female directors or writers received Oscar nominations this year? Sadly, no.
Most people know that the Academy is mostly men but what is lesser known is that the individual categories can only be voted on by Academy members that are also peers in that category. Looking at it this way, the likelihood of a female nomination diminishes even further: the screenwriting branch is 81% male while the directors branch is 91%. With those blindingly unbalanced figures, it would be more newsworthy if they had recognized Ava DuVerny (Director, Selma) or Gillian Flynn (Writer, Gone Girl). After all, only four women have ever been nominated in the category of Best Director, and only one, Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), has ever taken home the statue.
The snubs reflect the reality of Hollywood, where women continue to struggle to achieve parity on a daily basis. And it’s not that women aren’t interested in directing. According to the New York Times, they are “well represented” in film schools percentages across the country. So what happens?
Sexism and money, plain and simple.
Though female directors fare pretty well in independent movies, as the amount of money needed for a film rises, it becomes more likely that it will be put into the hands of a man. According to Martha M. Lauzen’s research in “The Celluloid Ceiling,” a data-analysis of 2012’s top 250 domestic grossing films, women directors represented only 9%.
“Their [the six major studios] refusal to hire more female directors is immoral, maybe illegal, and has helped create and sustain a representational ghetto for women.”
—Manohla Dargis, “Lights, Camera, Taking Action,” New York Times
Again, in Missrepresentation, director Catherine Hardwicke described the many times she has been turned down for the job because she was told the content needed a man’s vision. So she turned to female-driven narratives instead, ultimately directing Twilight, which proved that audiences would come in droves to see a movie with a female protagonist. But when the movie became a blockbuster and smashed box office records—SURPRISE—the sequel films were immediately put in the hands of male directors.
Hardwicke bitterly reflects that even though Hollywood deems women unequipped to direct male-driven movies, males often direct films about women. When I looked into this statement, I found she was right. All of the following movies were directed by men: Sex and the City, Eat Pray Love, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Bridesmaids, Easy A, The Hunger Games, Divergent . . . the list goes on.
And for the record, let’s put the “women-can’t-direct-male-movies” idea to rest. I MEAN—Stop-Loss, Big, Zero Dark Thirty, Point Break, American Pyscho—ANYONE? But, I digress.
The point is: if more women were at the helm in movies and television, as directors and writers, our media would get closer to projecting reality and could create a healthier view of gender for young women and men to follow. It would show a world closer to our own. Perhaps it would even lead some voices to wonder why women are so underrepresented in politics.
The good news?
Women are fighting back in Hollywood. Fed up with the way Hollywood showcases gender roles to young children, Geena Davis created the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which provides research-based efforts that educate the world on gender bias occurring in the media and fight for the need to reduce gender stereotyping. Gamechanger Films also works to put out more female-driven stories by providing the funding that nearly every female director struggles to find from studios. Women in Film works to promote equal opportunities for women in media through education, scholarships, and grants. And of course, the HeForShe movement, championed by Emma Watson, is gaining ground with their campaign for both genders to embrace feminism.
And we can help too. Knowing the issue is the first step. But you can act to help accurate female representation in the media become a reality. Check back soon under the “Action” tab to find out how.
*Please Note: This was my observation during the speech and that I do not wish this blog to to be a place of Democrats vs. Republicans, but rather an exploration into the aspects of identity, diversity, and injustice in our culture, open to anyone, regardless of their political party affiliation.