Geena Davis Examines Females in Film on a Global Scale

November 30th, 2014

Geena Davis, among others, proved that female characters with heart and soul can deliver and ultimately succeed at the all-important global box office. Is it your turn to take the baton and run with it like your life depended on it? And if you’re a writer or producer, will you accept Geena Davis’ two-step challenge?

After starring in films like Thelma & Louise, and A League of Their Own Academy Award-winning actress Geena Davis saw how audiences responded enthusiastically to projects promoting honest portrayals of compelling female characters. Additionally, as a mother of three, Geena was astonished by the deficiency of female characters in children’s entertainment as she watched TV with her kids. In response, she founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in the Media. The non-profit organization focuses on studying gender in film and television in addition to serving as an educational outreach platform to increase media literacy in children. Last December, Davis advocated two easy steps to make Hollywood less sexist after research indicated that for every one female-speaking character in family-related films, there were approximately three male characters; that crowd scenes contained approximately 17% female characters; and that the ratio of male-to-female characters had remained the same since 1946.

The first step was for writers and producers to sift through the projects they’re already working on, and immediately switch several of the male characters to female ones. “With one stroke you’ve created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they’ve had a gender switch,” Davis contended. If this exercise was practiced across the industry, this would acclimate audiences to seeing significantly more females in traditionally male roles such as plumbers, taxi drivers, politicians, scientists, techs and engineering experts. Davis argued that by exposing young girls to shows depicting more females holding such jobs, the result would be more girls growing up to pursue these jobs in the future. The second step Davis advocated was for writers to specify in the script that the story’s crowd gatherings include “half female” gatherers. “That may seem weird, but I promise you, somehow or other on the set that day the crowd will turn out to be 17 percent female otherwise,” Davis insisted.

This year, Geena’s institute investigated female characters in 120 popular films across eleven countries in a study called Gender Bias Without Borders. Being that women face considerable disparities worldwide in regards to health, finance, education, and politics; and taking into account that the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals called for a global increase in equity for women and girls across a variety of job sectors by 2015, the Davis study analyzed gender roles in films made in the United States, China, Japan, U.K., Australia, India, France, Germany, South Korea, Russia, Brazil, as well as one hybrid category with film collaborations between the U.S. and the U.K..

So what were the overall results of the study? As the researchers noted, “One unifying theme was apparent: female characters are not equal and they are not aspirational in this sample of global films.” Here are some of the facts revealed from the research.

1. The global gender ratio was equivalent to 2.24 males to every one female. In the case of protagonists, less than a quarter featured a girl or woman leading or co-leading the plot. And only 30.9% of all speaking characters went to women and girls.

2. Across the globe, the gender ratio of the filmmakers themselves revealed that 3.9 males work behind the scenes to every one female. But films with a female director or female writer had significantly more girls and women on screen than did those directed or written by men.

3. Regardless of nation, there’s a strong emphasis on appearance when it comes to female characters. Females were over two times as likely as males to be shown in sexually revealing clothing, partially or fully naked, thin, and five times as likely to be referenced as attractive.

4. Fictional females between the ages of 13 to 20 were as equally sexualized as the females in the 21 to 39-year-old age range.

5. A widespread gender disparity is apparent. That is, on screen inequity doesn’t mirror the real world roles of women in the labor force. For example, Russian films revealed 20.8% of females working in the story line; however, 49.2 women actually work. The United States’ movies showed approximately a quarter of the females on screen in the labor force while in reality closer to half of U.S. women actually work. The study emphasizes a concern for this underrepresentation of working females on screen especially “given that movies can set an agenda for the next generation entering the workforce.”

6. Female executives are rarely seen in international films. As the study states, “Across the global sample, occupational power is at odds with female participation.” For example, only 12 women were shown at the highest levels of local, state, or national governmental authority compared to 115 males. This equates to a ratio of 9.6 to one. Likewise, male roles depicting careers in law, academia, and medicine greatly outnumbered females. For example, attorneys and judges were played by men 13:1, and professors 16:1.

7. STEM jobs (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) were designated to male characters seven times as often than females. While the U.S. featured the highest number of STEM jobs in films, almost 90% of them were portrayed by males. However, in the real world about 75% of men hold these jobs in the U.S..

While women make up 50% of the world’s population, they are clearly underrepresented in film across the globe. This could be seen as a call for the male powers that be to make good on Davis’ two easy steps; it also could be seen as an opportunity for more women to find their voices and contribute important truths to the entertainment industry at large by taking matters into their own hands. Geena Davis, among others, proved that female characters with heart and soul can deliver and ultimately succeed at the all-important global box office. Is it your turn to take the baton and run with it like your life depended on it? And if you’re a writer or producer, will you accept Geena Davis’ two-step challenge?


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