Stacy Smith [ Bias Networks, Storytelling ] Today, I want to tell you about a pressing social issue. Now, it’s not nuclear arms, it’s not immigration, and it’s not malaria. I’m here to talk about movies.
Now, in all seriousness, movies are actually really important. In film, we can be wildly entertained, and we can also be transported through storytelling. Storytelling is so important. Stories tell us what societies value, they offer us lessons, and they share and preserve our history. Stories are amazing.
But stories don’t give everyone the same opportunity to appear within them, particularly not stories compartmentalized in the form of American movies. In film, interestingly enough, females are still erased and marginalized in a lot of our stories. And I learned this for the first time about 10 years ago when I did my first study on gender role in G-rated films. Since then, we’ve conducted more than 30 investigations. My team is tired. And I’ve committed my life as researcher and activist to fighting the inclusion crisis in Hollywood.
So today, what I’d like to do is tell you about that crisis. I want to talk about gender inequality in film. I want to tell you how it is perpetuated, and then I’m going to tell you how we’re going to fix it.
However, one caveat before I begin: my data are really depressing. So I want to apologize in advance, because I’m going to put you all in a really bad mood. But I’m going to bring it up at the end, and I’m going to present a silver lining to fix this mess that we’ve been in for a very, very long time.
So, let’s start with the gravity of the situation. Each year, my research team examines the top 100 grossing films in the United States. What we do is we look at every speaking or named character on-screen. Now, to count in one of my investigations, all a character has to do is say one word. This is a very low bar.
Thus far, we’ve looked at 800 movies, from 2007 to 2015, cataloguing every speaking character on-screen for gender, race, ethnicity, LGBT and characters with a disability.
Let’s take a look at really some problematic trends. First, females are still noticeably absent on-screen in film. Across 800 movies and 35,205 speaking characters, less than a third of all roles go to girls and women. Less than a third! There’s been no change from 2007 to 2015, and if you compare our results to a small sample of films from 1946 to 1955, there’s been no change in over a half of a century. Over half of a century! But we’re half of the population.
Now, if we look at this data intersectionally, which has been a focus of today, the picture becomes even more problematic. Across the top 100 films of just last year, 48 films didn’t feature one black or African-American speaking character, not one. 70 films were devoid of Asian or Asian-American speaking characters that were girls or women. None. Eighty-four films didn’t feature one female character that had a disability. And 93 were devoid of lesbian, bisexual or transgender female speaking characters. This is not underrepresentation. This is erasure, and I call this the epidemic of invisibility.
Now, when we move from prevalence to protagonist, the story is still problematic. Out of a hundred films last year, only 32 featured a female lead or colead driving the action. Only three out of a hundred films featured an underrepresented female driving the story, and only one diverse woman that was 45 years of age or older at the time of theatrical release.
Now let’s look at portrayal. In addition to the numbers you just saw, females are far more likely to be sexualized in film than their male counterparts. Matter of fact, they’re about three times as likely to be shown in sexually revealing clothing, partially naked, and they’re far more likely to be thin. Now, sometimes, in animation, females are so thin that their waist size approximates the circumference of their upper arm.
We like to say that these gals have no room for a womb or any other internal organ.
Now, all joking aside, theories suggest, research confirms, exposure to thin ideals and objectifying content can lead to body dissatisfaction, internalization of the thin ideal and self-objectification among some female viewers. Obviously, what we see on-screen and what we see in the world, they do not match. They do not match! Matter of fact, if we lived in the screen world, we would have a population crisis on our hands.
So, as soon as I recognized these patterns, I wanted to find out why, and it turns out that there are two drivers to inequality on-screen: content creator gender and misperceptions of the audience. Let’s unpack them really quick.
If you want to change any of the patterns I just talked about, all you have to do is hire female directors. Turns out, the female directors are associated with, in terms of short films and indie films, more girls and women on-screen, more stories with women in the center, more stories with women 40 years of age or older on-screen, which I think is good news for this crowd. More underrepresented —
Sorry but not sorry. More underrepresented characters in terms of race and ethnicity, and most importantly, more women working behind the camera in key production roles. Easy answer to the problems that we just talked about. Or is it? It’s actually not. 800 films, 2007-2015, 886 directors. Only 4.1 percent are women. Only three are African-American or black, and only one woman was Asian.
So why is it so difficult to have female directors if they’re part of the solution? Well, to answer this question, we conducted a study. We interviewed dozens of industry insiders and asked them about directors. Turns out, both male and female executives, when they think director, they think male. They perceive the traits of leadership to be masculine in nature. So when they’re going to hire a director to command a crew, lead a ship, be a visionary or be General Patton, all the things that we’ve heard — their thoughts and ideations pull male. The perception of director or a leader is inconsistent with the perception of a woman. The roles are incongruous, which is consistent with a lot of research in the psychological arena.
Second factor contributing to inequality on-screen is misperceptions of the audience. I don’t need to tell this crowd: 50 percent of the people that go to the box office and buy tickets are girls and women in this country. Right? But we’re not perceived to be a viable or financially lucrative target audience. Further, there’s some misperceptions about whether females can open a film. Open a film means that if you place a female at the center, it doesn’t have the return on investment that if you place a male at the center of a story does.
This misperception is actually costly. Right? Especially in the wake of franchise successes like “The Hunger Games,” “Pitch Perfect” or that small little indie film, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Our own economic analyses show that gender of the lead character doesn’t play a role in economic success in the United States. But what does? Production costs alone or in conjunction with how widely a film is distributed in this country. It’s not the gender of the lead character.
So at this point, we should all be sufficiently depressed. No change in 50 years, few female directors working behind the camera and the entertainment industry does not trust us as an audience. Well, I told you there would be a silver lining, and there is. There are actually simple and tangible solutions to fixing this problem that involve content creators, executives and consumers like the individuals in this room. Let’s talk about a few of them.
The first is what I call “just add five.” Did you know if we looked at the top 100 films next year and simply added five female speaking characters on-screen to each of those films, it would create a new norm. If we were to do this for three contiguous years, we would be at gender parity for the first time in over a half of a century. Now, this approach is advantageous for a variety of reasons. One? It doesn’t take away jobs for male actors. Heaven forbid.
Two, it’s actually cost-effective. It doesn’t cost that much. Three, it builds a pipeline for talent. And four, it humanizes the production process. Why? Because it makes sure that there’s women on set.
Second solution is for A-list talent. A-listers, as we all know, can make demands in their contracts, particularly the ones that work on the biggest Hollywood films. What if those A-listers simply added an equity clause or an inclusion rider into their contract? Now, what does that mean? Well, you probably don’t know but the typical feature film has about 40 to 45 speaking characters in it. I would argue that only 8 to 10 of those characters are actually relevant to the story. Except maybe “Avengers.” Right? A few more in “Avengers.” The remaining 30 or so roles, there’s no reason why those minor roles can’t match or reflect the demography of where the story is taking place. An equity rider by an A-lister in their contract can stipulate that those roles reflect the world in which we actually live. Now, there’s no reason why a network, a studio or a production company cannot adopt the same contractual language in their negotiation processes.
Third solution: this would be for the entertainment industry, Hollywood in particular, to adopt the Rooney Rule when it comes to hiring practices around directors. Now, in the NFL, the Rooney Rule stipulates that if a team wants to hire a coach from outside the organization, what they have to do is interview an underrepresented candidate. The exact same principle can apply to Hollywood films. How? Well, on these top films, executives and agents can make sure that women and people of color are not only on the consideration list, but they’re actually interviewed for the job. Now, one might say, why is this important? Because it exposes or introduces executives to female directors who otherwise fall prey to exclusionary hiring practices.
The fourth solution is for consumers like me and you. If we want to see more films by, for and about women, we have to support them. It may mean going to the independent theater chain instead of the multiplex. Or it might mean scrolling down a little further online to find a film by a female director. Or it may be writing a check and funding a film, particularly by a female director from an underrepresented background. Right? We need to write, call and email companies that are making and distributing films, and we need to post on our social media accounts when we want to see inclusive representation, women on-screen, and most importantly, women behind the camera. We need to make our voices heard and our dollars count.
Now, we actually have the ability to change the world on this one. The US and its content, films in particular, have captured the imaginations of audiences worldwide. Worldwide. So that means that the film industry has unprecedented access to be able to distribute stories about equality all around the world. Imagine what would happen if the film industry aligned its values with what it shows on-screen. It could foster inclusion and acceptance for girls and women, people of color, the LGBT community, individuals with disabilities, and so many more around the world. The only thing that the film industry has to do is unleash its secret weapon, and that’s storytelling.
Now, at the beginning of this talk, I said that films — that they can actually transport us, but I would like to argue that films, they can transform us. None of us in this room have grown up or experienced a storytelling landscape with fully realized female characters, none of us, because the numbers haven’t changed. What would happen if the next generation of audiences grew up with a whole different screen reality? What would happen? Well I’m here to tell you today that it’s not only possible to change what we see on-screen but I am impatient for it to get here.
So let’s agree to take action today to eradicate the epidemic of invisibility. And let’s agree to take action today to agree that US audiences and global viewers demand and deserve more. And let’s agree today that the next generation of viewers and audiences, that they deserve to see the stories we were never able to see.
FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Pete the Poet