Girls & Women Increasingly Shortchanged Onscreen

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Stay tuned for sexism. (Image: morguefile)

For years my daughter’s favorite movie was Just Visiting. The 2001 remake of a hit French comedy was packed with plenty for my little girl to adore. Magic, time travel, and plenty of humor. Some quotes from the film are still in rotation as favorite family sayings.

Although it didn’t lack for laughs, it was missing something more vital. Strong female roles. Sure, women starred in the film. Passive, pretty characters who merely gain a stronger sense of themselves through men. Well, there’s also a stereotypical witch. Don’t even get me started on that.

I’m not about to stomp my foot and decry one B movie because the women’s roles aren’t up to good-for-my-daughter standards. But when I take a look at movies available in theaters and on Netflix, foot stomping seems imperative.

In the real world girls and women have full, interesting lives. Their conversations are complex and rarely limited to attracting the “right” partner. But in the entertainment world, females are too often little more than gloss. Sexy gloss.

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Stereotyped leading ladies. (Image: Jeff Brunner

One way to gauge a female character’s presence in any movie is the Bechdel test. (You may have read our recent post applying the Bechdel test to a comic as well as a TV show.)  This method doesn’t imply that a particular movie has merit, it simply demonstrates character treatment based on gender. To pass the Bechdel test, a movie has to meet all of the following three qualifications:

  1. Have at least two female characters (with names known to the audience)
  2. who have a conversation with each other
  3. about something besides a male.

Recall the last five movies you saw. How many really pass the test?

Which movies pass the Bechdel test? (Mashup: L. Weldon)

According to the Bechdel test database, plenty of 2013 movies such The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, After Earth, Mud, Star Trek Into Darkness, Ender’s Game, The Fifth Estate, and Anchorman 2, don’t pass the test.

Kids’ movies aren’t much better. Bechdel test failures include The Croods, Monsters University, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, and Planes.

Another way to pay attention to gender disparity in movies is to simply count the number of male and female characters. We may be leaning in, but there’s less evidence on the screen. In 2012 films, only 28.4 percent of speaking characters were female. That’s actually down from 2009.

In both animated and live action family-rated films, for every female speaking character there are nearly three male characters. Crowd scenes in these movies are only 17 percent female. This ridiculous ratio of male to female characters has been the same since 1946. On screen, girls and women simply don’t warrant half the space. As Geena Davis writes in The Hollywood Reporter,

 …We are in effect enculturating kids from the very beginning to see women and girls as not taking up half of the space. Couldn’t it be that the percentage of women in leadership positions in many areas of society — Congress, law partners, Fortune 500 board members, military officers, tenured professors and many more — stall out at around 17 percent because that’s the ratio we’ve come to see as the norm?

Women and girls are also likely to be portrayed in stereotypical, often hypersexualized roles. Of the top grossing films in 2012, sexualization of characters aged 13 to 20 years old was well over 50 percent. This is an increase of 22 percent from 2009.  It seems girl power, even in today’s family films, has a lot to do with sexy clothes.

This gender disparity is more than annoying. It’s damaging. Sexualized stereotypes are linked to a slew of problems in girls as well as women including eating disorders, poor self-esteem, and depression. Girls and young women who frequently consume mainstream media content are more likely to believe that a woman’s value is based on physical attractiveness. Even very young girls are beginning to self-objectify, to think of themselves as objects to be evaluated by appearance.  Today’s kids consume a lot of media, so it’s ever more vital for parents to insure it doesn’t relentlessly reinforce those Hollywood ideals.

The good news? According to Vocativ, top grossing movies tend to score well on the Bechdel Test. In 2013, films passing the test grossed 4.22 billion dollars while films that failed brought in 2.66 dollars. We’re voting with our money, loud and clear.

In my house Just Visiting has given way to new favorites. I’ll be watching them with popcorn, a snuggly blanket, and some attitude. My foot is just itching to stomp.

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6 thoughts on “Girls & Women Increasingly Shortchanged Onscreen

  1. Laura, have you seen Frozen? Because including it in this article would have been a great idea. Also, mot including Brave, Wreck It Ralph, Mulan, and a number of other Disney Properties gives your readers a rather one- sided view of the Disney cannon.


  2. Those one line descriptions of the princesses are pretty jaded. Are they the strongest female characters? No. But they have plenty of great traits that our daughters can love and learn from. Also, Belle doesn’t save her prince with her sexuality (though she does use it to buy time), she is out on the rooftop physically helping/fighting for him. Each one of those can certainly be spun in a much more positive direction.

  3. I have to agree, the princesses shown just sort of cut off in the early 1990’s. (Though Bella, Ariel, and Jasmine were involved in their own fight for saving in the end of the movies, they weren’t just out cold on the floor the entire time.) Rapunzel (Tangled) saves him several times and in the end. Mulan saves an entire kingdom and risks execution, not in pursuit of a man, but to save her father’s life. Brave not only does she not want to get married, it’s about her relationship with her mother, and her interests revolve around nature and hunting skills, not traditional princess pursuits. Frozen features two sisters dealing with their estrangement and definitely past the Bechdel test with flying colors (spoiler alert), Anna repeatedly saves Kristoff, and does not end in a marriage.

    The early princesses things just sorta happened to them (parents died, evil people targeted them), they were very passive. In the 90’s while stories still revolved around marriage, the girls had their own minds and ideas of who they wanted to marry and denied inappropriate suitors (Bella wanted a man who appreciated her mind, Jasmine wanted a man who saw her as a person not just a way to a throne and she wanted a man who was real not a fop) and had an urge for adventure (Ariel wanted to see humans up close and explore their world, before she even got an eye on Prince Eric). Then we started getting “princesses” who marriage was definitely secondary to the storyline (if even appearing in the story).

    Technically Cinderella was NOT saved by the prince. She was saved by the mice & birds who were her friends because she was so nice to them. They are the ones who let her out so she could try on the glass slipper. The prince wasn’t even there.

  4. Frozen has two strong female leads, who talk about something other than men. However besides the two leads, the supporting cast is entirely male. Kristoff and Hans, The Duke, each generate part of the storyline. Even the snowman is made male instead of female. So yes, great heroines, but I think the greater argument is the imbalance. In Wreck it Ralph, the two female characters are wonderful, but they never talk to each other. On the flip side of things male roles are constantly given things to talk about that, in real life, my husband tells me men don’t actually talk about. Take the upcoming “That Awkward Moment” or Matt Damons classic “Beautiful Girls”- do men really talk like this? Their characters are fleshed out. The movies seem to enjoy giving men more than their share of reality.

  5. Sarah,

    You are mostly correct on the supporting cast, until you get to the trolls. Considering the storyline is set in the past (where patriarchy was the norm) it’s not surprising to me. It would have been very unusual to have a female ambassador sent by another land to the coronation and I’m pretty sure there would have been some major protests if either of the potential love interests were switched to female. It would have been nice if the queen had more lines, but they did get through the childhood scenes rather quickly. The shopkeeper could have been switched to female but not the priest.

    I think part of the problem (at least for Disney princess movies) is that they are set in a unspecified European past, so there are natural tendencies to have mostly males in the action/authority roles (kings, ambassadors, knights, court functionary). There are of course exceptions. Cinderella passes Bechdel with flying colors because its cast was so heavily female: Cinderella, the step-mother, the two step-sisters, the fairy godmother. In fact the only scenes that Cinderella really has conversations with males they are other species (mainly mice with some scolding of cat) and then towards the end, the Duke. The prince has almost no lines (he does get to sing), and the only human males with significant scenes are the King and Duke talking about finding a woman for the prince (a fail of a reverse Bechdel test?). Of course with Beauty & the Beast, I think other then Belle, the only other speaking female part was Mrs. Potts, and The Little Mermaid it was Ursula. There was no reason why Chip and Flounder couldn’t have been female children instead of sounding male.

    In movies set in the modern day there is no excuse for being heavily one gender or the other without a solid valid reason (a movie about the Navy Seals, would of course heavily feature males).

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