Largest-Ever Global Study of Gender in Film Illuminates a Persistent Sexism Problem

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (GDIGM) convened its second annual Global Symposium on Gender in Media Tuesday, issuing the full results of its inaugural study of female depictions in global popular film. The results illuminated a persistent problem with the amount of women in film and how they’re depicted.

Actor and Founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, Geena Davis, addresses the crowd at the 2nd Annual Global Symposium on Gender in Media at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington, DC.
Actor and Founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, Geena Davis, addresses the crowd at the 2nd Annual Global Symposium on Gender in Media at the United States Institute for Peace in Washington, DC.

Geena Davis opened the Symposium at the United States Institute for Peace with a brief keynote address and a few startling statistics. In her address, she pointed out that the US has only achieved 20 percent female representation in Congress and that women also make up only 16.9 percent of Fortune 500 corporate board seats. Behind the big screen, female representation hovers around 17 percent. Now, Davis has challenged her Hollywood peers to consider this: on average, females make up only 17 percent of crowd scenes in popular films, evidencing an alarming mirror-reflection of life and art, specifically, in professional spaces, and a literal practice of writing women out.

“For every one female speaker, there are three male speakers,” Davis said. Of those characters, few have jobs or hold a leadership position. In many cases, based on a predetermined set of criteria, female speaking characters are hypersexualized, heavily stereotyped, and function as “eye candy.” Davis said the media we consume not only inform our worldview, but help shape what we think of as normal manifestations of gender representation, adding that the more hours of television a child watches, the more devastating the outcomes. For male children, more television viewing corresponds to more sexist views. For the average female child, the more hours watched, the lower her self esteem.

“We’re enculturating another generation to accept that women aren’t as important as men,” Davis said.

The Institute’s founder said the data never fails to shock her Hollywood peers, who largely haven’t noticed the dearth of female representation – even at the level of crowd shots. “At this rate,” Davis remarked, “we will achieve parity (on screen) in 700 years.”

The GDIGM study, called “Gender Bias Without Borders,” is the group’s first study of global gender depictions in film and perhaps the largest ever conducted. The data evaluated 120 top grossing films in 11 of the largest box office territories in the world that were theatrically released between January 1, 2010 and May 1, 2013. The study was sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, the United Nations Office on Women, and the University of Southern California. Dr. Stacy Smith, Associate Professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said the films had to be of native origin and characters studied only needed to speak one or more words, or be a named character, to be evaluated. The research team teased out extensive demographic information about each character to build a comprehensive picture about the stereotypes being built.

The study covered Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the US, with another US-UK sample created because of frequent, successful studio collaborations between the two countries.

“No one is doing well,” Dr. Smith said. In every region, results were grim, although the United States consistently ranked as one of the worst offenders with consistently oversimplified or negligible female characterizations. Of 5,799 speaking or named characters in US films, roughly 30 percent were female. That number dropped to 23 percent when evaluating main characters. In the US, the percentage of gender-balanced casts was totally non-existent.

While women made up about 23 percent of the “workforce” in the films studied, they comprise nearly half of the actual US labor market. However, the numbers grew worse when “clout-based positions” were controlled. Of female political leaders represented on film, only 12 women were depicted as the heads of local, state/provincial, or national government authority as opposed to 115 male depictions. Of the 12 characters studied, only one represented the equivalent of highest authority – but she had no speaking role.

Of all the countries studied, movies produced in China distinguished themselves as above-average performers in representing women equitably on film. But, according to Davis, roughly 80 percent of all film consumption in the entire world is still produced by the United States. “We’re exporting these negative images of women and girls,” she said.

Dr. Smith pointed to the silver lining in the research. When women write and direct, a film is more likely to have more female representation on screen. The unfortunate reality, however, is that the more money that pours into a project, the more women are pushed out, Smith said. She used the “Twilight” franchise as an example of this aberrant phenomenon, but representatives from the world of independent cinema encouraged the difference women can make pursuing alternative routes of distribution. Participating filmmakers also encouraged the crowd to support women filmmakers and writers.

Geena Davis emphasized the will of women to change what films look like. “The change has to happen now, and it has to be dramatic.”

Media Resources: Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media; CinemaBlend 12/7/08; Center for American Progress 3/7/14; Center for American Women in Politics

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