Saturday 26 April 2014

Gender Disparity in Hollywood

It's pretty common for women (and men) to complain about the lack of women represented on and off screen in Hollywood and the mainstream media more broadly. Most famously, the Bechdel test challenges films to feature (1) two or more female characters that (2) talk to each other about (3) something other than a man. Only ~56.7% of films pass all 3 conditions of the test. (More data can be found here.) 

The Geena Davis Institute has found that for every one female speaking role in cinema there are three male speaking roles, crowd and group scenes contain only 17% female characters, and that the female characters that do exist are hypersexualized and heavily reliant on men. A study by Stacy L. Smith of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism further confirmed the gender disparity in Hollywood. Smith found that females comprised 29.2% of speaking characters in family films. Further, these characters were often serving as "eye candy."

This disparity is often represented among writers, directors, and producers.

But what causes this disparity and how can it be reversed?

Aaron Sorkin was recently asked about this phenomenon.
"...I've been reading a lot recently about how a female-driven movie like, say, Bridesmaids is looked at as a fluke. The success of that movie is looked at as a fluke and therefore Hollywood doesn't do it. That's a premise that suggests that studio executives have piles of scripts as good as Bridesmaids on their desks. They don't. Bridesmaids got made because it was really good. I promise you nothing but capitalism drives decision-making in Hollywood. If there's a sense that this will make money, it'll get made."
"And I think that studio executives understand that it's more than just 52% of the audience that is female. Generally, if there's a couple, a man-woman couple, it's the woman who's deciding what were seeing tonight. I think that they understand that. And the trick is there just need to be more good scripts that have the kind of characters you're looking for."
I bolded the sentence that I think is the heart of the issue here. Over the past few months, I have gained a tremendous respect for the decision-making of major corporations. This respect isn't for their impact on humanity or on the environment or for the quality of their work. It's a respect for their knowledge of what makes them money. I tend not to get involved in complaints like "Why doesn't McDonald's get a veggie burger?" or "Why aren't there more female-driven films?" because I have done enough research and seen enough of the media industry to know that it is exactly how Sorkin says: nothing but commerce. If studios get the sense that female-driven films will increase their profit, then they'll produce them. If they don't, then they won't. That's all it comes down to for them. Earlier in the year I held the belief that studios also had the desire to promote certain values over others but Brian Tomasik, along with my experiences this year, convinced me that this likely isn't the case. A studio would probably produce a film about how shady and greedy studios are if they thought that would make them money.

I begin with that premise. Hollywood has no opinion on gender disparity and simply operates as a business. But that doesn't quite answer the question. If 52% of the audience is female, why don't female-driven films sell as well? Well, for one thing both men and women prefer films with male protagonists

Sorkin also offers another possible solution. Maybe the female-driven scripts just don't exist - or the ones that do, just aren't as "good" as the male-driven scripts producers receive. ("Good" in terms of how much money they make.) I can't say whether this is true or not. But I wonder whether this disparity is rooted in the lack of working female screenwriters. A priori, we would expect men to be biased toward/more comfortable writing about men and for women to be biased toward/more comfortable writing about women. So if 87% of writers are men, we should expect to see far more male-driven scripts. Additionally, a fraction of the disparity can be accounted for by scripts trying to emulate real life situations that are dominated by men - e.g. war films, gangster movies, cop dramas. These are entire genres that make sense to be male-dominated - but that can't account for the huge difference in gender representation.

Why are 87% of screenwriters male in the first place? Here are some possible answers:

  1. Producers (mainly men) are biased toward scripts written by, for, and about males.
  2. Men are more likely to have the qualities necessary to pitch a screenplay successfully.
  3. Men are generally better at writing screenplays than women are.
  4. Women are less likely to pursue screenwriting because of existing gender disparity and a perceived inability to overcome industry bias.
  5. The types of screenplays men tend to write are generally more commercial than the types of screenplays women tend to write.
  6. Nepotism is huge in Hollywood, men are more likely to have male friends, and thus existing gender disparity is self-reinforcing.
#2 and #3 are pretty implausible but I think the other 4 factors could plausibly play into the existing disparity.

How could gender disparity be fixed?

One way would be to have more female writers. This would increase the number of scripts written about women. According to Sorkin, these scripts just don't exist but it's impossible to say whether this is true or not. We're still left with the question of how to get more female writers. Sorkin claimed there are just as many women in Hollywood as their are men capable of greenlighting a script. I have no idea whether this is true. One thing I'm confident of is that whether man or woman, no producer would willingly make less money due to their gender bias. If female scripts are not being produced, they either don't exist in huge numbers or there is a sense that audiences prefer watching male-driven films.

A second possibility is to demand that men write more scripts about women. This is slightly controversial because of the sacred views many people hold about art. To those that hold art sacred, telling writers what to write about is blasphemous. Since I think social value is more important than artistic value, I think writers should take existing gender, race, and other disparity into account when writing their scripts. Representing invisible groups could potentially be a film's main source of social value. Nevertheless, asking or expecting men to write more about women is pretty hopeless without some kind of systemic mechanism in place to facilitate this change. Changing this would have to be a very gradual process. In fact, there has been no progress in this direction during the past 20 years.

There's really nothing to say about these sorts of issues except that these major corporations know exactly what they're doing and that they aren't there to serve public interests. In a sense, it's almost ridiculous to expect Hollywood to make ethics- or art-based decisions in the first place. Hollywood studios are money-making ventures dutifully following their game plans from day one: money-making.

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