Research Alert: Changing the Status Quo - Industry Leaders’ Perceptions of Gender in Family Films

by Melissa Silverstein
April 25, 2011 5:14 AM
14 Comments
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Anyone who has been to a G, PG, or PG-13 (and of course R rated films but they are not included in this study) knows that when they look up on the screen there are many more male characters than female characters with speaking roles. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has been tracking that representation and found that since 1990 that amount of female characters in these films has gone from 28.7% to 29.3%. That's not even one percentage point of improvement over almost 20 years.

And the crazy thing is that all the people in the industry (who spoke with the researchers) know that this sexism is rampant and they give reasons why.

Here are the reasons:

1- Positive Male Market Forces: This is by far the biggest reason with almost half the respondents citing this answer. You ask, what does positive male market force mean? To me it means that it is better to be a guy in the movies, That guys are perceived as more positive and powerful and are the desired consumer.

This slays me. It is so counter to all the evidence on consumer purchasing for the rest of the world. I just don't know how it is possible for one industry to have completely different attitude about female and the male consumers, but it does.

2- Male Dominated Industry: Over a third of the respondents said that the reason we see so few women on screen is that the decisions are all made by men. Duh.

3 and 4 - Male Target Audience and Males Resist Females' Stories: Twenty percent believe that the problem is that movies are made for guys and almost the same amount believe that a guy won't go see stories about a girl. (Now remember these are adults saying why they perceive family friendly movies are not gender equal). They still believe this even with the current MPAA statistics that show that men and women each buy fifty percent of the tickets, that men and boys go to the movies more than women and girls.

The women in the survey believed more strongly than the men by a wide margin -- 30 percent to 8 percent -- that stories about girls repel boys. This means that women are so much more sensitized and aware of how hard it is to put out a movie with a female lead, and men are completely oblivious and live in a bubble and don't think about gender issues at all.

5 - Negative Female Market Forces: While almost half the people believe that being a guy is better for the market, 15% believe that being a girl is worse. So if you combine the hatred for all things girls and the love for all things guys you get a whopping 65%.

6- Last, but not least - Cultural Influence: This, to me, is a cop out because we know the culture supports and enhances guys over girls.

Some good news.

• Films that employ women have better images of women on screen.

Films with one or more females in the position of director (female director present=35.1% vs. female director absent=28.8%) or writer (female writer present=36.4% vs. female writer absent=26.0%) had significantly more female speaking characters on screen than did those films with only male direction or male writing.

• People want gender equity and believe gender equity is a good thing. Of course people believe gender equity is a good thing, but it takes work to have gender equity and I wish I could believe that people were interested in doing the work.

• 95 percent of those surveyed believe that gender equity is important and one reason cited is because it reflects reality; and also half the people believe that achieving it would not be difficult I'll believe that when I see it). Yet, half say that everything hinges on whether it fits the story, which again is a total cop out based on all the research cited above.

It is great to have this research -- and kudos to Stacy Smith and her team at USC's Annenberg School of Communications for doing the work -- and great that there is someone out there holding people's feet to the fire. They will be looking at this data again in five years and maybe that will help move the dial a bit. But nothing has changed over the last 20 years so it's really hard to be an optimist on this. It's all about money for these people. If they believe they are leaving cash at the door they will change, if they don't, they won't.

This is just another great example of why we need to keep focused on feminist issues across the board including in the entertainment business.

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14 Comments

  • Mana Knight | May 15, 2011 12:38 PMReply

    @ Ruqaiyah

    You know something? Disney is more anti-dad more than anything. Killing the mother is just a way to get some tears, yet the father is almost never there or just a bad dad.

    Aladdin had no sign of a father until the (questionable) sequels. And we get a thief no less. Why are so many Disney fathers just NOT THERE, USELESS, or JUST MEAN? I mean sure, the Great Mouse Detective and the Princess and the Frog had images of positive dads, but look at how popular those films are compared to The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast.

    But then... there was the Goofy Movie! I totally forgot that film. Even though it was Goofy, he was a (kinda) decent father. SINGLE FATHER no less.

    @ everyone else who is complaining about misrepresentation

    Men are just more interesting, so they use men more. Even for women's messed up ideas of "humor" or "touching stories" by abusing them. People want entertainment, not more women or manginas crying over a "hard life" or the like.

  • outdoors | May 8, 2011 6:23 AMReply

    the word's "reactionary misogynists ",and other insults is simply a form of open dismissal, which is (and always has been) an infuriatingly lazy way of contending (or rather, not contending) with any form of criticism.

  • Capt. Kirk | May 7, 2011 4:16 AMReply

    Why is chatter the metric? How about just comparing raw screen time? There's a lot more that goes on in the average film than talk - line counts vary a lot from film to film. Why the emphasis on speaking roles? I think it's because if you look at minutes on screen, it's about even for men and women across the board, and of course that doesn't feed the beast! Men and women absolutely MUST have the exact same representation in every aspect of life as portrayed in entertainment. I personally feel that there is not nearly enough belching, farting peeing and puking by women on-screen as compared to men, and something must be done about it! I demand justice!

  • Patrice Stanton | May 7, 2011 3:31 AMReply

    Maybe movies full of Talking-Females don't get made simply because 1) movies ARE (supposed to be) about "escape", and 2) men are tired of listening to us Females talk ALL the time about way too much stuff they could give a flying 'care less' about.

    Just sayin'

  • Bigger Brother | April 28, 2011 1:45 AMReply

    80 years? So, it MUST be down to sexism then. There can be no other reason. It's so obvious, we must fix it. How about a rule that the Best Director Oscar goes to a woman in even numbered years and to man in odd numbered years.

    So Allison, let's have some examples of movies directed by women that you think should have won Oscars instead of the ones directed by men.

  • Allison | April 28, 2011 1:00 AMReply

    Yeah, no entrenched male opposition. You're talking about an industry that took over 80 years to have ONE woman win an Best Director Oscar. An industry that throws many actresses away at age 40. While women have made many stridesl, there's still a lot more work to be done!

  • Bigger Brother | April 27, 2011 7:51 AMReply

    Sorry Male Ally but hurling the old clichéd 'misogynist' insult and re-repeating often repeated lies do not make for a convincing argument. Perhaps you should come up with some new lies because the old ones are becoming boring. Women do have the same opportunities as men, it's LAW. They even have BETTER opportunities than men when divisive affirmative action is applied to enforce artificial outcomes. There is no "entrenched male opposition", that's just a cop-out used by women to excuse a lack of talent and/or commitment. The whingers would be far better off putting their efforts into improving their employability rather than poring over dubious statistics looking for reasons to blame those ‘nasty men’ for holding them back.

    But back to Hollywood; its movies do nothing for me but clearly a lot of people like what it does and pay a lot of money to enjoy its movies. This is people in a FREE society making a FREE choice on what they want to see. Hollywood is for the most part simply supplying a market to make a buck, based no doubt on much careful research. The accusation that Hollywood is sexist simply because one-eyed feminists don’t approve of the resulting (dubious) statistics is ridiculous. What are you advocating? Quotas? Regulations governing the numbers of male and female roles? Censoring of scripts? Denying Hollywood the right to run its businesses in the way it sees fit in a FREE market in a FREE society? May I remind you that Communism has been tried and it failed.

  • Male Ally | April 27, 2011 6:11 AMReply

    Great article! Bigger Brother and Dave are the kind of reactionary misogynists that keeps real progress from being made on this issue. Women clearly do not have the same opportunities as men in this business ( and in many aspects of life), so to blame them for calling the industry out on its bias is ludicrous. The truth is women are making strides despite the entrenched male opposition, and their determination and success (no matter how incremental) enrages the misogynists, but helps pave the way for more women and girls to dream bigger and push for more. Thank you Melissa for all your hard work.

  • Bigger Brother | April 26, 2011 4:09 AMReply

    And the problem is ...... ?

    So a bunch of statistics produced by a biased organisation don't come out 50/50 and that's evidence of 'sexism'? You're crazy!

    For decades now women have had every opportunity to achieve as much as men and have even been gifted concessions that are not afforded to men. If women don't take advantage of the paths cleared for them (paths often littered with male casualties), who's fault is that? 'Gender equity' is NOT important to most people. In fact most are repulsed by the feminist obsession with equality of outcomes and the accusation of 'sexism' whenever individuals' free choices result in a statistic that feminist don't like.

    What most people want is the opportunity to reach their full potential in their chosen paths. If this results in a 'gender imbalance' either way, then what business is it of a minority of charmless, whinging, man-hating, statistics obsessed feminists to condemn the outcome?

  • Carol | April 26, 2011 3:13 AMReply

    Remarks from obviously mentally-disturbed people like David explify why we still have this issue.

  • David | April 26, 2011 2:33 AMReply

    Women need to learn their place and stop worrying about stupid shit like this.

    Fact: All women are gold digging whores that date men on their ability to make money.

  • Ruqaiyah | April 26, 2011 1:11 AMReply

    it's remarkable. I remember being in love with Disney movies as a little girl, and it wasn't until I became a mom myself that I realized how sexist, and even downright anti-mom the movies are. Can you remember the last time you saw a positive maternal role in a Disney flick... for the entire movie?! Bambi's mama was killed. Nemo's mama was killed. There's a wicked step mother, a little old lady who eats children, who knows what happens to Ariel's mom in the Little Mermaid but we all know Ursula is the evil queen of the sea... the list goes on and on.

  • zbudapest | April 25, 2011 9:01 AMReply

    Dear Melissa !
    I was talking to Sue May (documentaries) and she told me, you two know each other. How very fortunate! I wanted to send a kiss to you via Sue May.
    I admire you from afar in Oakland, hoping one day to see you actually in real life.
    The gender disparity is disgusting! None of the great success stories had any spin offs. I am still hoping somebody makes an other Thelma and Luise.
    or on the small screen, a new Murphy Brown. And its NOT about money. Its about men using money as an excuse to keep women out of the industry.
    keep on writing! love top you!

  • Linn D. | April 25, 2011 5:49 AMReply

    Melissa, I think there's a typo in your 7th paragraph.

    "They still believe this even with the current MPAA statistics that men and boys go to the movies more than women and girls."

    Isn't that backwards? Don't you mean that statistics disagree with perception? Equal amounts of men and women go?

    Thanks for all your hard work!

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