Women are under-represented on screen, in general and particularly in active roles, just as they are under-represented in politics and boardrooms. In the top grossing films of 2013, women accounted for 15% of all propagandists, 29% of major characters and 30% of all speaking parts. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media have done studies that show that in crowd scenes, women make up only 17% of the crowd. Women are 51% of the world’s population but they are mostly absent from the world on screen. Eva Wiseman wrote about this is a recent article for the Guardian – Women are everywhere so why are we invisible on film? This is important because wiping women out of the onscreen world is a form of sexism. Making women less visible makes their concerns less important and makes them seem less valuable part of society.
When popular culture shows men being active, making big decisions and saving the world while the women are always waiting to be saved or offering support to the men, it’s easy to assume that men do the heavy lifting while women make the tea. When popular culture is one of the ways we learn how the world works and are our place in it, this message practically acts as propaganda, teaching women to know their place.
This is particularly relevant for children. A lot of the Geena Davis Institute’s research focuses on the things that children are watching. They found that in kids’ films and TV there are three male characters for every female one. Straight away, children are being feed the message that girls are less important than boys.
Even the tv shows or films that do feature women, and congratulate themselves on their diversity, generally feature one woman to every five, six, seven men. This is not an accuarate reflection of the real world. It also means the one woman has the tough job of representing all women. While the seven men can be smart or simple, sensitive or tough, angry, gentle, abrasive, bossy, etc , the one female character tends to be a two-dimensional stereotype. Women aren’t allowed to be nuanced or complicated because they are there to represent an entire gender and that doesn’t allow for subtlety.
One way to avoid these broad-stroke female characters is to put more women behind the camera, in decision-making roles, writing and directing films and tv. Hollywood is a sexist place to work, it’s an industry that clearly sees women as pretty objects to be looked at rather than human beings with ideas, opinions and ambitions. It’s not an easy place to be a woman in charge. And yet they are doing it anyway. There are an increasing number of women getting films made in the mainstream and the less commercial indie sector. Recent big screen examples include Suffragette, written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron, Miss You Already, written by Morwenna Banks and directed by Catherine Hardwicke and Pitch Perfect 2 written by Kay Cannon and directed by Elizabeth Banks.
But the numbers of films being written and directed by women is still depressingly low and there are many stories about the sexism that women have face while trying to make work for the screen. Women in Film and TV is an organisation that aims to encourage and support women working in this field. It’s a worldwide organisation with a burgeoning Irish branch. It’s a way to help see more diversity on our screens, and hopefully as a result, in life.
Another way to support women making movies is to go and see their work. The second Feminist Film Festival is happening in the New Theatre in Dublin this weekend and you can go and see lots of feature films, shorts and panel discussions. The programme includes the suitably scary horror film The Babadook for Halloween, and the Irish premier of She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, a documentary charting the U.S. women’s movement between 1966-1971. All that and the profits will go to charity!