On TV and in film, an estimated one-third of fictional characters are female, despite the fact that women make up half the world’s population.
Beyond the numbers is the quality of roles. Women’s experiences are cropped, or misrepresented, to fit into the fictional worlds of TV and film. More and more actors are addressing this. Last month Viola Davis highlighted the lack of roles for women of color in her poignant Emmy acceptance speech. Our diversity and varied ambitions are being left on the cutting room floor.
Or are they? As the U.S. inches closer to its first female president, Hollywood has already given us several. Let’s take a look at these fictional heads of state. Many were not elected but began as vice presidents, propelled into office only when the president resigned (Veep), was injured (Scandal) or died (Commander-In-Chief). To my knowledge, all are white and straight. So these roles fail to capture the diversity of women, like Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Sonia Sotomayor, who play a central role in government.
Video courtesy of the Television Academy
But that’s anecdotal. Let’s examine the numbers.
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media documents women’s roles in film and on TV in the U.S. and around the world. Davis’ interest began when, while watching cartoons with her children, she noticed the dearth of female characters, and rather than sound off about her hunch, she dug deeper and initiated research. The results are electrifying because they make observations about stories and plotlines that are right under our noses.
Davis was spot on about U.S. children’s shows and films; approximately 30 percent of their fictional characters are female. What’s more, the research demonstrates an emphasis on female characters’ appearance, whereas male characters tend to be the focus of adventures. Overall, working women are vastly underrepresented in film and on TV as compared with the reality; very few are cast as executives or politicians. But perhaps most startling is that women make up less than a quarter of crowd scenes.
The institute’s most recent study, Gender Bias Without Borders, demonstrates that the problem goes beyond the U.S. It looks at 11 film industries considered to be the most profitable. On average, the study found two fictional male characters for every female one. Behind the camera, the ratio is worse: four men for every female. Women make up 20 percent of writers, 23 percent of producers and a mere 7 percent of directors.
Almost across the board the UK scored above average. In British films, there were about 7 percent more female characters than the norm, and in UK filmmaking, there were fully 20 percent more female directors. But to any Brits patting themselves on the back, the report is quick to point out:
Not one country is anywhere near representing reality; girls and women comprise fully half of humanity. Not a third. Not a quarter. Half.
So we need more quality roles for women in shows and movies. But what about the bottom line? How can actors, writers, and producers enact change in a business that’s presumably risk-averse? What’s more, U.S. movie studio heads and TV’s top executives are overwhelmingly white and male. In 2014, Cate Blanchett used her Oscar acceptance speech for best actress to criticize resistance to female-focused content, affirming:
[To] those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences, they are not. Audiences want to see them and in fact they earn money. The world is round people!
So what can be done?
Well for one, nurturing female talent behind the camera leads to more complex female stories on the silver and small screens. Meryl Streep announced earlier this year that she would provide significant funding to support female screenwriters over 40.
Also critical are Geena Davis’ efforts to shape content from within Hollywood using a blend of research, advocacy and networking. Davis is working towards more active and powerful roles for women, hence her institute’s tag line “if she can see it, she can be it.”
Fiction helps us explore and dream. Yet movies and TV shows do not portray women with the same range and force as men, thus limiting our imagination. I am not suggesting that all women be depicted as intelligent and beautiful. No, we are strong, smart and forceful, but also capable of anger, aggression and dishonesty. In other words, women should be portrayed with all of our human complexities; only then can we chip away at the stereotypes that permeate our lives and hinder progress towards real equality.