As a college student with a limited budget, I spend a great deal of my free time watching movies. With the development of such companies as Netflix and Red box this past time has become more widespread than ever before. However, it was not until I became involved with the WomanStats project that I began to take a closer look at the film industry’s portrayal of woman. There are over 7 billion people living on the earth today and as roughly half of those are women it would seem sensible to assume that this division would be reflected in film, that approximately half of all big screen productions would be focused on women. Regrettably, this is not the case, not even close. Even in the United States which is known for fighting on behalf of women’s equality, women are continuously underrepresented in the film industry.
According to a 2013 study by the USC Annenberg School for Communications & Journalism on the top 500 films from 2007 through 2012 only 6% of films produced in 2012 employed a balanced cast in which 45-54.9% of speaking roles went to women. Furthermore, out of the 4,475 speaking roles in the 100 films of 2012, only 28.4% of them went to women (1). Perhaps the most distressing information regarding women in film is not the vast divide between the numbers of men and women in movies, but the way in which they are portrayed.
The most common roles that women play in movies consist of those such as the romantic interest to the male lead, the stereotypical dumb blonde, a secretary/assistant to a man, or as a women searching for love herself. Movies such as Gravity, and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider staring strong female protagonists are extremely rare. In a study entitled “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World” by researcher Martha Lauzen, exec director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, it was found that out of the top 100 highest grossing domestic films of 2013, only 15% of the protagonists were female characters (2). The majority of the time, even if there are equal speaking roles for both men and women in a film, it is likely that those women with speaking parts are not major characters in the film.
Moreover, as Lauzen pointed out, these women characters are “less likely than males to have identifiable goals or to be portrayed as leaders of any kind” (2). As the aforementioned Annenberg study points out, just over a third of all women on screen (31.6%) in 2012 were hyper sexualized through being dressed in revealing sexualized attire (1).
My question is this: If women are continuingly portrayed on camera as weak sex symbols with no ambitions other than finding a man, what sort of message is this sending to the population of this country particularly that of influential young girls? Most people are aware of the vast inequality between men and women in the real world but I know I for one never gave much thought until now of how this inequality is reflected in the film industry.
In Sweden they are bringing attention to this gender inequality in the movie world and revolutionizing the way we look at women in film. In 2013 four cinemas in the country made the decision to post a different kind of rating to movies shown on their screens by listing the results of the Bechtel test (3). This test was named after American graphic artist Allison Bechtel who originally came up with the concept in her 1985 comic strip as a way to measure gender imbalance in movies (4). These new Swedish ratings are based off of the same three requirements Bechtel proposed in 1985: “1) The picture features at least two women – extra points if those women have names, rather than ‘Redhead at cocktail party’; 2) The women talk to each other; 3) And they talk to each other about something other than men” (3).
While the Bechtel test in no way indicates how good a movie is (the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy fails yet this was an extremely successful franchise) it does open up the public’s eye to just how much inequality the film industry tolerates.
Besides real life women, TV and movie characters are primary role models for America’s youth. Considering this, think of how women are typically portrayed in film; are these really the type of women we want our children idolizing? We need to get women out of demeaning man obsessed roles and show them as the hero, give little girls someone to look up to for more than just being fashionable and having a hot boyfriend.