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Why We Need More Wonder Women

Opinion By Alina Kwiatkowski
New research methods offer insight into disparities in screen time and storytelling roles between men and women in Hollywood.

June 2017 kicked off my first summer back from college. As soon as I got home, one of my high school friends asked me to go see the new “Wonder Woman” movie. I eagerly agreed even though I hadn’t really planned to see it in theaters. But what started as a convenient opportunity to hang out and catch up with a friend quickly turned into a profound experience I had never expected from a DC film.

I admit I was delighted with Steve Trevor’s old-fashioned charm and Patrick Morgan’s classic villainy, but these characters didn’t cultivate any sense of awe or inspiration for me. Gal Gadot’s portrayal of Wonder Woman was the exception. As an action movie featuring a strong female lead, it was a much-needed change from the overwhelming portrayal of men as the only people capable of saving the world.

As I walked away from the theater, I smiled. I thought to myself, “This is the movie I’ve waited my whole life to see.” To me, “Wonder Woman” wasn’t just a thrilling, action-packed piece of entertainment that distracted me from life’s troubles for two hours and 29 minutes. It was a thought-provoking film that artfully captured a new essence of feminine power and challenged me to reimagine my previous judgements about certain character traits.

As far as I can remember, every movie prior to “Wonder Woman” in some way taught me to view empathy as femininity’s weakness—a quality I would ultimately have to suppress to “be successful.” With the film’s portrayal of Diana, I saw another option. I saw a strong heroine unapologetically open her heart to the plights of others. I saw a woman reach her goals by combining compassion with tenacity. I saw femininity as an asset instead of a deficiency. I saw myself as an asset instead of a deficiency.

Women, and especially young girls, need a “Wonder Woman.” They need films that awaken dissatisfaction with their current internalizations of gender stereotypes. They need female characters they can idolize, not because of their beauty, but because of their intelligence, strength and tenderness. For some women and girls, it’s “Captain Marvel.” For others, it’s “Hidden Figures” or “Lady Bird,” or something else entirely. For even more, it might not yet exist.

In Hollywood and beyond, there is a lack of complex female characters who can be these necessary role models. For decades, men have dominated lead roles in all categories of films. And when women have the opportunity to fill these roles, they are allotted less screen time, given fewer lines, or portrayed as less developed one-dimensional characters who neatly fit into existing gender roles.

 

Putting a Number on Gender Representation

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is an organization that uses emerging technologies and education methods to identify, expose and change gender imbalance in the media and entertainment industry. Actress and activist Geena Davis founded the organization in 2004 after she observed stark gender disparities in children’s media.

ART BY ALINA KWIATKOWSKI

To quantify and spread awareness of gender imbalances in media, the institute developed the Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient (GD-IQ). This software detects faces in a movie, tracks the amount of time they appear on screen, and classifies the gender of each face. It follows a similar process with a movie’s audio track to measure speaking time.

The GD-IQ tool has replaced the error-prone and imprecise manual approach to viewing and scoring gender and race representation in media content. Its development and adoption have revolutionized researchers’ ability to quickly and accurately analyze representation in a show or film.

In the “See Jane 100” study, the Geena Davis Institute used GD-IQ to measure gender and racial representation in the top 100 grossing family films of 2017. According to the study, “Male characters outnumber female characters two-to-one when it comes to leads (59 percent compared to 26 percent), screen time (60.9 percent compared to 39.1 percent), and speaking time (63.7 percent compared to 36.3 percent).”

Additionally, it found that actors of color face even greater underrepresentation in movies. “Three-in-four family films (73 percent) feature white actors in the leading roles compared to just 17 percent of films with protagonists of color,” the study said.

Why does this underrepresentation matter? In 2017, Common Sense Media reported that people are not born with preconceived notions about gender roles or biases towards people of different races. Its research brief, “Watching Gender: How Stereotypes in Movies and on TV Impact Kids’ Development,” suggested mass media might be responsible for some of our deeply ingrained biases.

SOURCE: GOOGLE GD-IQ

THE GEENA DAVIS INSTITUTE QUOTIENT (GD-IQ) IS A SOFTWARE USED TO IDENTIFY CHARACTERS' GENDER AND TRACK THEIR SCREEN AND SPEAKING TIME

To quantify and spread awareness of gender imbalances in media, the institute developed the Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient (GD-IQ). This software detects faces in a movie, tracks the amount of time they appear on screen, and classifies the gender of each face. It follows a similar process with a movie’s audio track to measure speaking time.

The GD-IQ tool has replaced the error-prone and imprecise manual approach to viewing and scoring gender and race representation in media content. Its development and adoption have revolutionized researchers’ ability to quickly and accurately analyze representation in a show or film.

In the “See Jane 100” study, the Geena Davis Institute used GD-IQ to measure gender and racial representation in the top 100 grossing family films of 2017. According to the study, “Male characters outnumber female characters two-to-one when it comes to leads (59 percent compared to 26 percent), screen time (60.9 percent compared to 39.1 percent), and speaking time (63.7 percent compared to 36.3 percent).”

Additionally, it found that actors of color face even greater underrepresentation in movies. “Three-in-four family films (73 percent) feature white actors in the leading roles compared to just 17 percent of films with protagonists of color,” the study said.

Why does this underrepresentation matter? In 2017, Common Sense Media reported that people are not born with preconceived notions about gender roles or biases towards people of different races. Its research brief, “Watching Gender: How Stereotypes in Movies and on TV Impact Kids’ Development,” suggested mass media might be responsible for some of our deeply ingrained biases.

 

From 82-18 to 50-50

Peoples’ perceptions about gender and race form in early childhood. These perceptions evolve as they enter different cognitive developmental stages and take in more of their surroundings—surroundings that are becoming more heavily influenced by media.

Kimberly Casteline, a communications professor at Fordham University who teaches a course called Race, Class and Gender in Media, outlined how today’s youth absorbs information. When forming perceptions about their identity within society, children and teenagers no longer rely on explicit guidance given to them by their parents. Today’s youth relies on media.

This new relationship carries great potential because the abundance of time spent staring at screens allows children and teenagers to consume many different movies and television shows. Yet this relationship, according to Casteline, is problematic.

“All forms of media—including television, radio and film—stem from an oligopoly that continues to dominate the content we consume today,” she said. Hollywood’s blueprint for gender-limiting plotlines and characters remains a primary source of information for children and teenagers to learn about their places in society.

How can this change? Casteline thinks that to understand the tone of media content, we must first “understand the individuals creating this content.” According to the Geena Davis Institute, women make up 18 percent of key storytelling positions in films, which include directors, writers, producers, executive directors, editors and cinematographers.

With men taking up 82 percent of storytelling roles and creating films from the male perspective, it makes sense that there aren’t enough females in lead roles. It makes sense that most female characters who make the cut have limited character development. And it makes sense that there is a deficiency of inspirational female role models in media.

Skewed gender representation is not the intention of these male directors. It is the fault of pervasive gender stereotypes that have influenced male directors their whole lives and limited their imaginations when including female leads and deciding how to portray them.

Directors tend to create films that resemble the world they understand. When a woman has spent her whole life uncomfortably experiencing media infiltrated by the male gaze, she has the determination and natural ability to visualize the stark alternative. She creates the powerful heroine, the sharp mathematician or the unapologetic teenager. She creates nuanced and thought-provoking characters that allow both girls and boys to grow up seeing women in a different light.

In an interview with Variety, Greta Gerwig, the director of “Lady Bird,” expressed her optimism about the future of female directors. “I think those numbers are going to shift. And it seems like it’s going to be less and less its own category. There are just going to be…directors,” she said.

Media serves as a source of social constructs, and it is shaped by social conceptions. A shift to include more women in storytelling roles can thus have a lot of impact. And as more female directors find the opportunities to create more content, there will be more opportunities for male directors to both understand and portray the complexities of femininity.