Challenging underrepresentation of women in cinema

Graphic by Chukwuyem Onyibe/The Gazelle Two major film release seasons define the calendar year for Hollywood studios: the summer, from May to July, ...

Nov 23, 2013

Two major film release seasons define the calendar year for Hollywood studios: the summer, from May to July, and the winter holidays, from November to December. For the art-house film scene as well, the end of the year is the most desirable time to premiere films contending for the Academy Awards. For myself and many other students, going home for winter break is a chance to catch those recent releases that we’ve been too busy to see or weren’t screened in the country where we were studying. But how often do we think about the implications of our film choices?
The Women’s Media Center reports that in the last three years, females age 12 and above have comprised 50 to 51 percent of U.S. moviegoers. Yet female characters comprised only 33 percent of total characters in the U.S. top 100 films for 2012. This was an increase of five percent since 2002, but during the same period, female protagonists declined from 16 percent to a dismal 11 percent.
Strict gender ratios aren’t the only concern. USC Annenberg studies have shown that women are almost four times as likely as men to be shown in sexy attire, and in G-rated family films, only 19.5 percent of working characters are female. Contrast that to reality, where women make up almost 50 percent of the country’s labor force. I could go on about the relegation of women’s stories to the romantic comedy genre, the dearth of female action heroes or villains or common gendered tropes like the classic Damsel in Distress, but these are all trends we can easily recognize in our own moviegoing experiences.
Some of the gender representation problem may be due to discrepancies behind the camera. Of 2012’s top 250 grossing films in the United States, only nine percent were directed by women. Of other key behind-the-scene roles like writing and producing, women fill 18 percent. Both of these numbers have remained flat or have increased only marginally since 1998. These skewed gender images and the celluloid ceiling are unjustifiable, yet we as consumers of cinema often contribute to them with the purchase decisions we make at the movie theater and in our homes.
Earlier this month, four cinemas in Sweden made international headlines by instituting a new film rating system supported by the Swedish Film Institute that incorporates the Bechdel test for gender bias. Introduced by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in a 1985 comic strip, the test uses three criteria to evaluate a film:
1.     There must be two female characters
2.     who talk to each other
3.     about something other than a man.
The test might seem absurd, but most contemporary films still fail to satisfy all three criteria. Considering that most films in cinematic history would pass the same test if applied to men, it is a striking indication of the poor gender situation in today’s film industry. I don’t argue that the Bechdel test should be used institutionally as an indication of gender representation. It’s a very blunt instrument, but it is one useful tool among many for promoting awareness of gender gaps and evaluating the media we consume. The next time you watch a film, consider if it passes the Bechdel. You’ll find yourself applying it to more of what you watch, becoming an active social observer rather than a passive consumer.
What else can you do to support equitable, empowering gender representation for both men and women? Use your purchasing power — vote with your movie ticket. Pass up films that cling to the status quo, or at least wait until they’re released for home viewing, where studios make far less money on them. Instead, choose movies that feature female protagonists, venture beyond stereotypes and have women leading behind the scenes. Small as each of us are, our collective action has the potential to change producers’ minds about what today’s audiences want at the movies.
To get you thinking, below are some of the season’s promising picks:
Kasi Lemmons directs this adaptation of Langston Hughes’ celebrated play. The cast includes talented actress-vocalists Angela Bassett and Jennifer Hudson.
Disney’s latest animated film evolves beyond its traditional princess dynamic with not one, but two nuanced female protagonists. The film is co-directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee.
Author Suzanne Collins’ complex and courageous heroine Katniss Everdeen captivates audiences as she becomes an icon for a revolution.
Judi Dench plays the lead, Philomena, who searches for the son born out of wedlock whom she was forced to give up 50 years earlier in Catholic Ireland.
Olivia Bergen is a contributing writer. Email her at
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