It’s easier to gloss over inequalities and stereotypes when they’re packaged in the form of zippy dialogues and fun storylines on our screens. But the entertainment industry has a severe case of sexism that’s becoming difficult to ignore – both in underrepresentation and misrepresentation. The combined effect of the fact that women are grossly underrepresented in film and TV as well as the frequently stereotyped roles they are relegated to when they are represented make the entertainment industry incredibly problematic. It’s a fascinating topic with a lot of emerging research on it, but here’s a brief rundown of what’s wrong in television and Hollywood today to get you started and informed.
Women Behind the Camera
Have you heard about the “S**t People Say to Women Directors” Tumblr? It’s been getting attention for exposing the deeply entrenched sexism that female filmmakers deal with on a daily basis in the entertainment industry. Many of the posts submitted by anonymous users describe incredibly sexist, demeaning, and downright disgusting remarks and incidents that women have dealt with. Common experiences include condescension, sexual harassment, and humiliation by male colleagues and superiors.
These posts underscore not only the huge problem of underrepresentation in the business (only 7% of directors, 13% of writers, and 20% of producers are female), but they also paint a picture of the sexist, and in many cases hostile, environments women must endure when they break the barrier. Even high profile female directors and producers are starting to share their stories that being at the top of the industry ladder doesn’t guarantee fair treatment.
“Family Friendly” Isn’t Very Female Friendly
Just because animated films are full of princesses and innocuous storylines doesn’t exclude them from being some of the greatest offenders. Here are some statistics provided by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media: Only 11% of family films, 19% of children’s shows and 22% of prime-time programs feature girls and women in roughly half of all speaking parts. An astounding 50% of family films, 20% of prime-time programs, 39% of children’s shows are “extremely male-centric” with 75% or more of speaking parts being male.
It’s crazy to think that prime-time programming is substantially more equal than those geared towards a younger audience. “Family and kid-friendly” TV shows and films constitute some of the earliest exposures children have and as such are very influential in the formation of perceived gender roles and stereotypes. That’s why it’s so disheartening to see how poorly they fare on the equality scale.
While our screens are graced with female presidents and professors and scientists every so often, it’s still not the norm. The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film reported that while 16% of male characters were portrayed as leaders, only 5% of women were. Broken down by type of leader, males comprised 89% of business leaders, 82% of political leaders, and 81% of scientific or intellectual leaders. Even in cases where women are portrayed as powerful or successful in their careers, there’s always a consideration of her “domestic value.” There’s the “I don’t know how she does it” type with a beautiful mom who balances a fulfilling professional career while being a domestic goddess taking care of her children. But if she forgoes the “mom” part of the equation, she’s suddenly a ruthless Claire Underwood who hates children and cares only about her career. And in this case, media representation parallels reality to a T.
Hypersexualization and Race
A study by USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism revealed that 31% of women were shown with at least some exposed skin and 31.6% were depicted wearing sexually revealing clothing across the 500 top-grossing films of 2012. This clearly points to the hypersexualization of female characters in mainstream entertainment and it’s one phenomenon that men aren’t subjected to on an equal basis. Females were over five times as likely as males to be shown in sexually revealing clothing, which was defined as attire that enhances, exaggerates, or calls attention to any part of the body from neck to knees. Nearly a quarter of the females in film had particularly small waists (have you seen Disney Princesses with realistic waistlines?)
Furthermore, different races and ethnic groups deal with different sexualized stereotypes. To start off, there are way fewer roles for women of color in movies than their white counterparts: 74% of all female characters are white, 11% are black, 4% are Latina, 4% are Asian, 3% are worldly, and 4% other. Within this small sector that women of color occupy, they often play highly stereotyped, sexualized roles. Asian women are often touted as exotic figures with an aura of “Oriental mysticism” à la Lucy Liu’s classic character in Ally McBeal. Latina women are curvaceous and gorgeous and fiery like Sophia Vergara in Modern Family.
These problems cover only some of the many issues posing barriers to equal and fair representation of women in media today. If you want a more detailed dive, the Geena Davis Institute has published several of their full-length research reports and it’s a great place to start; take a look at it here.
Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.