Hollywood’s Steep Hills: Gender Inequality and ‘Miss Representation’

Big screen big differences, small screen smaller differences; this in short sums up the findings of recent researches on gender in the media. While the gender gap for film is significantly higher than for television, there’s a marked difference in both.

Climbing the Hollywood Hills really is harder for women. For years the symbolic annihilation or marginalization of women has been a topic of research and concern, but the gap is closing at only a very slow pace. The solution offered by recent researches is a simple one: women behind the lens means women in front of it. Several recent publications have suggested that there’s a undeniable link between the number of women involved in the creative process—be it writer, director, producer or creator—and the number of female characters we all see on the big and small screen.

As USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism summed up in their third annual report on gender inequality in mainstream films, “the percentage of girls/women on screen is significantly higher when at least one female is involved in the directing or writing process” (22 November 2011). While this is certainly a powerful and important tool in working towards equality on screen, documentaries such as Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s Miss Representation also show that it often results in a reifying of the same gender binaries that have enabled the inequality in the first place. Truly radical equality involves a collapse of this binary logic of the biological essences of male and female, not an inversion of it.

Let’s start with the — literally and figuratively — hard facts. USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism analyzed the 100-top grossing films of 2009 on both quantitative and qualitative depictions of gender and gender roles, with the report appearing last week to huge media attention; The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, CNN, they all ran headlines decrying the inequality in Hollywood. And this is obviously not the first time that researchers have subjected the film industry to close scrutiny.

The results are so well-known by now that they will hardly surprise anyone, but this doesn’t make them less shocking. Statistics first: for every woman in a speaking role, there were 2.05 men. Only 16.83 percent of the films achieved a “gender-balanced cast” in which as many women as men had speaking roles. Only five of the top 100 films featured more women than men. Women over 40 are increasingly marginalized, as only 24 percent of characters in the age group of 40- to- 64 was female.

Behind the scenes the imbalance only intensifies. Just 3.6 percent of directors was female, and overall there are 4.51 men for every woman involved the productive process. When looking at 2011, there were a few female-centered films that did extremely well at the box office, Bridesmaids as the most notable example, but it’s unlikely that the overall figures have changed.

Women buy over half of all movie tickets and film-related products, . While women are not directly dismissive of certain types of films, there are certain genres (romantic comedies or “chick flicks”, but often also simply women-centered films such as Bridesmaids) that men readily categorize as “exclusively for women” and as such rarely attend. As one of the interviewees in Miss Representation observes, when one half of the population isn’t interested in the other half, there’s a problem.

However, the School’s investigation of stereotypical and sexualized portrayals is perhaps the most revealing. After all, the image of women is determined as much by how they are shown as how often they are shown. If the few female characters that are present are constantly depicted in a similar fashion, this will exacerbate unrealistic conceptions internalized by the consumers of such popular culture.

The School’s report on 2008 specifically compared the sexualization of teenage girls to that of teenage boys. No less than 39.8 percent of female teenage characters was shown in sexy clothing, with 30.1 percent exposing skin in the cleavage, midriff, or upper thigh area. Boys were only seen in sexy clothing in 7 percent of all portrayals, with 10 percent exposing skin.

Television—although the 2011 lineup is doing well with new female led shows such as Pan Am, Revenge, Hart of Dixie, and of course 2 Broke Girls and The New Girl, etcetera—also shows uneven figures when subjected to a content analysis by the Center for the Study of Women in Television in film at San Diego State University. Here, 41 percent of characters is female, but at the production level numbers fail to come up to this measure; only 15 percent of writers and 4 percent of directors is female, whereas producers (37 percent) and executive producers (22 percent) are closest—but still far removed—from the 50 percent mark.

While this type of content analysis is not without its problems—the nature of the conversations or the context obviously impact on the way in which the characters are received by the audience—it exposes a serious problem. Jennifer Siebel Newsom explored the effects of this skewed representation in the media in Miss Representation, a documentary film that can be seen on OWN and is currently making its way along college campuses and a variety of other locations across the nation.

The setup is simple: “you can’t be what you can’t see.” This goes for politics, journalism, and the media. As a young girl named Ariella poignantly states at the beginning of the documentary, what she and her classmates get from the media is that “it’s all about the body, not about the brain.” This internalization of images offered up by the media, who as Jean Kilbourne observes stimulate anxiety and insecurity about appearance to sell their products, perpetuates a pattern of symbolic inferiority. This disadvantage in the symbolic realm also ensures that girls have a hard time to envision themselves in leadership roles, which also reinforces the separation in concrete areas of life, such as politics or news casting. The montage video at the start of the documentary underlines that whether it’s Britney or Hillary Clinton, Toddlers in Tiaras or Nancy Pelosi, derogatory comments do not discriminate and are made against even the most powerful women.

Geena Davis, Academy Award winning actress and founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, shared an anecdote that can be seen as a metaphor for the current state. Waiting for a traffic light, right after the exquisite Thelma & Louise was released (1991), a car pulls up next to her. A gaggle of young women opens the sunroof, waves at her in recognition, and simply yells: “Woohoo!” This deceptively simple seal of approval signals the acknowledgement of Davis as a role model, as a visible presence, but that Davis’ Thelma is hailed as such a liberation points to the fact that the portrayal of empowered women is an anomaly. The passion of the exclamation is the result of an absence of other things to be passionate about. It’s at once a symptom of the problem itself and a way of working through it, as the identification of the women with Davis leaves them feeling empowered, euphoric almost.

Of course, as Judith Butler suggested and as hormone-driven college students will affirm according to a slightly less profound rationale, bodies do matter. But it’s not the physicality as such that divides us, it’s about how our brain conceives and is conditioned to conceive of our own bodies and those of others, and it’s this interior psychological process that translates itself into differential and unequal power structures in a variety of categories, gender and race being most notable.

The solution that Miss Representation offers is simple: women have to support other women in all areas of life. Women can look to other women for inspiration and support, but true success will only be achieved when there’s complete equity in which women can look up to both women and men based on their professional or personal merit, rather than having to strategically align themselves exclusively with other women to combat the power structures that inherently disadvantage them.

In other words, it’s crucial that women do no perpetuate the idea that there’s some a priori difference between men and women, as biological essentialism has been used to institute the inequality in the first place. The idea that women are less suited for roles in politics, journalism or the media directly stems from these bifurcated/gendered notions of capability. Jane Fonda gets at the heart of the problem when she observes that boys cannot be faulted for the inequality either, as they too received a “media education” that learns them to separate the heart from the head and see gender roles in traditional terms.

Miss Representation does not take into account that certain groups within the huge category of “women” are even further removed from representational or non-stereotypical portrayals in the media, either. Women of color are grossly underrepresented when compared to the demographic makeup of the nation, and as Rachel Maddow’s segments in the documentary show, sexual orientation also influences viewers responses. She recalls a lot of emails and letters that referenced her sexuality and her appearance in a negative way to judge her presentation skills, as such pointing towards a trend to seize upon particulars to stage a critique of women as a category.

But to get there, representations have to reflect society in terms that incorporate both male and female, young and old, black and white, working class and upper class in a truly representative fashion that corresponds to the constitutive makeup of the population. And this is where the power of documentaries such as Miss Representation lies; to beat what Caroline Heldman calls “the national epidemic of self-objectification,” the media has to be changed from within.

Miss Representation will be released on DVD (US) in February 2012.