Where are all the women in media? This query is starting to sound like a broken record among feminist bloggers and the women who work in television production and print media, but for the average consumer of media, the question is rarely asked.
Marsha Newberry never used to ask the question. She used to see it as normal that she was often the sole female producer working on a project, and she certainly never questioned the fact that only 7% of directors on film sets are female. It wasn’t until two years ago – when the financiers of a television movie meant to be “for women, by women,” asked Newberry to take stock of the number of women working behind the scenes on the project – that she realized that there might be a problem.
Newberry is a film producer with over a decade of experience in the industry, and on November 6 at the Vancouver Public Library, she participated in Gender, Sexuality and Violence: Media Representation at Media Democracy Day 2010.
Newberry presented findings from a study done by the Geena Davis Institute, a group whose mandate is to analyze the portrayal of women in family films. The panel relied strongly on lived experience as an indicator but included presentations of statistics on the instances of women in popular culture and on the ways in which those women are portrayed.
The report from Newberry showed that in a sample of 5,554 speaking characters in G, PG and PG13 rated films, 29.2% were female. As far as portrayal goes, 24% of female characters were depicted in revealing clothing, compared with 4% of men. The study also showed that women were more likely to be beautiful, show partial nudity, and have a smaller waist size.
So why is this notable? You’re probably thinking, “Duh, women are more attractive then men, so why not show this? Of course filmmakers are going to put them in revealing clothing.” But to analyze the importance of this matter, I’ll move away from statistics and turn to some anecdotal evidence that serves us well.
In response to a question regarding hyper-polarized portrayals of both masculinity and femininity in films, Newberry responded with some realities about film as a medium. Film attempts to communicate ideas in visual form, which means a filmmaker often has seconds to convey an idea that may be complex. We rely on archetypes and symbols taken from our experience. In order to portray a power dynamic, films depict one character looming over another. To portray status, we show fancy cars and jewelry. Likewise, to portray gender issues we rely on sexualization and stereotypical gender norms.
This kind of visual shorthand is pulled from society and multiplied through media, which is precisely why it is important to note who is creating this shorthand, and what cues the creator chooses to use. The same study as above found that in the 26% of films where there was a female writer, the number of female characters rose to 36.4%, a 6.2% increase above the average, showing that, when women are placed in a storytelling role, more representation occurs. Movies reflect real life, but the lack of representation behind the scenes reflects on the final product, painting a view of reality that is not entirely correct or fair to both sexes.
Media Democracy Day is an event that aims to show how diverse reality is, and how all aspects of the media, specifically mainstream news and television, don’t accurately reflect all of the voices in society. Women make up over half of the population, so why don’t women have half of the hand in writing the stories? Should we just accept the status quo and take the broken record off the proverbial record player and put on a new one?
On a final note, I want to talk about something called the Bechdel Test, which is a kind of litmus test to measure the presence of women in films. In order to pass, a film must have at least two female characters who have names. These characters need to talk to each other, and they need to talk to each other about something other than a man. Think back to the last few movies you’ve seen, and think about if they pass this simple test. Odds are, unless you’re a fan of feminist cinema, they don’t.
Societal ideas about gender roles and the place of women come from film, add to film and are reinforced by film. The media plays an enormously influential part in shaping our world view, and the systemic silencing of women is demonstrated by research such as the Geena Davis Institute study and indicators such as the Bechdel Test. The lack of women’s stories in mainstream media is dangerous because it reinforces the silencing of women’s voices.