Let’s flip the script and increase female visibility on our screens
Published Sarasota Herald-Tribune. March 10, 2022.
All of our modern visual media – from films to news broadcasts, from Instagram to TV shows – can deeply condition us in so many ways. Our exposure to this constant stream of images and stories can inspire our aspirations, shape our hopes and dreams, affect what we wear, influence how we raise our children and so much more.
No area of life is untouched by mass media; it is the water in which we all swim.
Given the impact of this ocean of images and content, it is important for it to offer an accurate picture of real life, not one that perpetuates outdated attitudes and biases. But that just isn’t the case – especially when it comes to representations of men and women and gender.
There is a myth that gender imbalance issues in media have improved over time, that old-fashioned shows about Mom at home with the kids and Dad off to work are long gone. But statistically there has been very little change over the past six decades. So in honor of the recent annual celebration of International Women’s Day, let’s take a look at gender and the media.
Here are some facts:
• Among the most popular films in 11 countries last year, only 31% of the speaking roles were held by females – and when they did speak, their conversations overwhelmingly centered around men.
• Only 23% of the films featured female protagonists.
• Male characters were far more likely to be depicted in prestigious professions than female characters.
• Males made up 80.5% of the working characters in G-rated – or family-friendly – movies, despite the fact that in the real world, women make up 50% of the workforce.
• In traditional news coverage around the world, more than 70% of the people seen, quoted, and heard from were men – and 80% of the “experts” featured on newscasts were male.
• Female characters in film and television continue to dramatically show more skin than their male counterparts; in addition women characters often have exaggerated physical characteristics that promote both a hypersexualized image and a skewed notion of body reality.
What’s the cumulative effect of all this media imbalance? It creates an implicit bias, and it subtly shapes the assumptions we make and the conclusions we draw about others. So given these inaccurate media representations, is it any wonder that our young people are confused about roles and expectations?
Perpetuating these stereotypes plays a major role in shaping harmful attitudes of disrespect, inequity, and even violence toward women. This steady diet of one-sided media also does not equip the next generation of men, women, and non-binary people with realistic understandings of each other.
So why is our media so unbalanced? It’s because our media content is still overwhelmingly created by men in general – and by white men, specifically. While there is nothing inherently wrong with a male perspective in our media, the problems begin when that perspective is presented as the only perspective.
Last year, for example, women made up merely 17% of the directors who worked on the 250 top-grossing films, down from a historic high of 18% in 2020. And while the Academy Awards have been presented every year since 1929, just two women – Kathryn Bigelow and Chloe Zhao – have ever won the honor for best director.
We need more women creating media content. We need more women adding to this ocean that shapes us.
When women are involved in creating visual media, the product changes. When women are content creators, positive female portrayals increase, a broader swath of life experiences are revealed and the relationships depicted are more likely to reflect the actual lives lived by women.
What can you do?
First, become more aware.
Watch with a critical eye.
Do some research and take advantage of the many resources that offer guidance on gender balance issues in film and TV (for example, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media).
Finally, you can actively support the work being done by women in the film industry; after all, women-made films – and films with women as the key protagonists – are for everyone, not just for some pink-colored niche market.
We have been watching films and television made by men since, well, film and television began to exist. It’s well past time to hear from some other perspectives. It might even help us understand the world, and each other, a whole lot better.