I’m a fan of those questions that sometimes (a lot of the time) elicit eye rolls and annoyed, “I don’t f*cking know,” on the second hour of SLU van trips as the Nalgene of the sleeping kid continues to slam into the back of the sauna/van. I like to ask people about movies, like, “if you were to be any character in Oceans 11, what would you be?” Or, “what character would you want to be in any film?” Yes, I am that person.
Consistently, I find myself debating (to more eye rolls) why women are underrepresented in these films or why the few female characters are often hypersexualized, particularly in the films that garner the most budget money, attention, and influence. The site Polygraph recently undertook a massive screenplay analysis of over 2,000 movies to break down the dialogue in terms of gender and age. The report is striking, visually illustrating a number of ways in which sexism and ageism shape film. Across drama, animation, comedy, etc. women had the most dialogue, in only 22% of the films, and two women had major speaking roles in only 18% of the films. In over 80% of the films, two out of the top three characters with the most lines were men.
Media attention has certainly shown within the past few months how Hollywood seems to be built upon stigmas, making it probably unable to budge from its white male dominated past. This, as some may argue, is not a difference of ability, it’s not for lack of paying dues, for rehearsing. It is discrimination, whether cognizant or not. It’s a systemic problem that enduringly perpetuates itself. The same opportunities for women or minorities simply do not exist in a marketplace completely erected by white males. Men are more likely than women to get distribution with the bigwigs, and big ears (looking at you Mickey Mouse), and thus women are left to independent companies with less money and clout. This results in a complete gendering of film, with action movies that bring in large crowds falling into the hands of male directors, resulting in presumptions among agents and studio executives that women-directed films are less commercial, that women can’t handle large budgets, and the completely absurd idea that women simply don’t want to make action films. Men make big-budget movies, men vote male-directed movies the best, these principles are maintained as normative, and the system perpetuates itself.
The Annenberg Report, evaluating diversity in entertainment offers some remarkable insights into how female presence in the production of a movie will markedly influence the depiction of women in the film. When a female producer is on board, female characters are much less likely to be depicted in sexually revealing clothing (26.4%, rather than 35.9%) or with nudity (25.1%, instead of 33.3%). Films that have at least one female screenwriter as part of the production team feature a higher percentage of girls and women in significant roles (34.8%) than teams that only have male screenwriters (25.9%).
So what do we do? Do we continue to argue in SLU vans until somebody vomits on you out of frustration and heat sickness? Perhaps building spaces to talk about and appreciate female film-makers outside of the dominant discourse will help. Films can prompt change, they can slither past your defenses and internalized stereotypes and really just shatter your heart. We need to make a concerted effort to ensure that a multitude of stories and voices are told from the perspective of those who have the best authority to portray them. As Ava DuVernay, the first black female director to have her film nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, once said, “time will tell … whether folks want to point and stare at the black woman filmmaker who made a certain kind of film, and pat her on the back, or if they want to actually roll up the sleeves and do a little bit of work so that there can be more of me coming through.”