Why women aren’t essential characters in movies
Emma Watson reimagined as the Twilight main character. Photo: via teamwerepire.deviantart.com
As a card carrying member of the feminist conspiracy (or Handbag Hit Squad, as Piers Akerman is tiresomely trying to deliver into the lexicon) I’m used to critically assessing the world around me. Occasionally this works against me - after all, as my gentle paramour says, must every brunch descend into a discussion of the politics around rape apology?
Poor timing aside, I fail to see how anyone could cast even a cursory glance over our society without scratching their heads over some of the gross inequality taking place. I’ve come to accept that monumental change won’t happen in my generation, but it distresses me to think of the kind of messages we’re reinforcing to children. Namely, that the stories of boys are universal and girls are only entitled to a third of public space - provided they behave themselves and play nice.
Don’t believe me? Consider this. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media says, we live by the myth that family films are a kind of 'haven' for girls - that in a world of sexualisation gone mad and gender inequality, girls can at least find solace in seeking out Strong Female Characters in the films and media they consume.
Arya Stark ... young heroine from from Game of Thrones.
In fact, the institute interviewed 108 content creators from the leading box office family films made between 2006 and 2009, and questioned them about female representation in these films. They confirmed their own findings: that of all the speaking roles in these films, only around 29.2% of them were female. To put that into more context, for every female who was allowed to speak in a leading box office family film made between 2006 and 2009, there were 2.42 male characters given voices. More damningly, these figures have remained fairly constant for the last 60 years.
Is this the fault of the creators and studios? The industry boasts roughly 4.8 working males behind-the-scenes to every one female, even though research shows that having at least one woman in a directorial or writing capacity leads to a more increased representation of girls on screen.
A friend of mine, Emily Maguire, runs writing workshops for children. Last year, she wrote an article called Girls On Film in which she mentioned one of her 8 year old students - a girl - who wrote a story about a fierce but heroic pirate called Jessica.
''Pirates aren't girls,'' one of her classmates protested, and several others agreed.
''What about Anamaria in Pirates of the Caribbean?'' the writer shot back. ''She's not a main one,'' came the reply. ''The main pirates are all boys.'' The main pirates are all boys. So are the main robots, monsters, bugs, soldiers, toys, cars, trains, rats and lions.
The message Emily heard that day from her kids was clear - you're allowed to include a girl in your motley group of ragtag heroes, but she'll never be one of the main ones. The documentary Miss Representation refers to this as 'symbolic annihilation' - a world where girls and women are erased because they're not seen as being central or even necessary to the story arc.
One of my favourite indicators for gender bias in the study of films is the Bechdel test. Named after Alison Bechdel, the wonderful cartoonist and author of cult classic Dykes to Watch Out For, the test is applied to a piece of pop culture and has to answer yes to the following three questions in order to pass.
1. Are there at least two female characters?
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
When you apply the test, even to your favourite films, films you would swear blind were progressive and feminist and nuanced, it's amazing how many fail. One of the most lucrative franchises of the past decade, Harry Potter, dismally fails the Bechdel test. Does this mean that we need to strike Potter off the reading list, do away with him in a book burning frenzy, lead a feminist charge against him? Of course not. It's a wonderful tale about good versus evil, morality, friendship and the quest to try and do what is right rather than what is easy.
But because it features an eponymous hero who is male - and this is key - there would never have been any question of its universal appeal. Harry Potter can be read by all people, because his gender is irrelevant. He can tell a universal tale, because the tales of men are seen to be universally interesting. Unlike stories about women, you don't need to have any kind of special qualification to read about men. You don't need any niche experience, or interest in the peripheral affairs of some strange subset of humans whose stories would probably hold very little interest for you given you don't have their weird genetic makeup. If Rowling - an author who abbreviated her name in part to remove the stigma of connecting the idea of femaleness to a book that was supposed to be for everyone - had written a book about Harriet Potter, a witch who saved the world, would it have had anywhere near as much universal appeal?
Of course not. Everyone knows that the main pirates are all boys.
In 2011, Disney Pixar released a movie about a girl trapped in a tower for 18 years with only 70 feet of golden hair to keep her company. Everyone knows this story. Everyone knows that it's called Rapunzel. But Disney Pixar announced early on that it would be changing the title of the story to the less female centric Tangled. Ed Catmull, president of Disney Animation Studios, said, "We did not want to be put in a box. Some people might assume it's a fairy tale for girls when it's not. We make movies to be appreciated and loved by everybody." [my emphasis]
What Catmull's saying here is that if you make people think it's a movie about a girl, they'll think it's a movie only FOR girls. Because why would boys be interested in watching a story that has nothing to do with them?
Of the 13 senior crew working on Tangled - the directors, the writers, the producers, the music composer and the film editor - only one was a woman, Aimee Scribner, an associate producer. With a girl as the lead protagonist, Tangled was part of the miniscule 11% of films that didn’t boast a male in the title role. But the movie also features 35 other speaking roles, only 11 of whom are female. Crucially, of the ten speaking roles with actual names, only two are female.
And Disney was so concerned that this film would appear too female centric that they not only changed the title, but repackaged the marketing to assure boys that there would be something in it for them.
I accept that lots of people will never see society with as critical a lens as I do. But I also know that people are inordinately concerned about the world being shown to their children. And when you are shown repeatedly that you are only worth taking up a certain amount of space in the cultural dialogue, that you are only entitled to a third of the speaking space of the boys, that your stories need to be repackaged to make them interesting to the people who matter, you’ll start to believe that you have no right to ask for more. You will continue to have little girls growing up, trying to find a way to be noticed that sits outside of demanding they be equal.
Because why would they think they deserve that, when everyone knows that all the main pirates are boys?
Parts of this article appeared in a speech Clementine delivered to the Wheeler Centre on the illusion of equality.