Geena Davis’ Two Simple Steps To Make Hollywood Less Sexist

We all know Hollywood doesn’t give many leading roles to women, or even speaking roles.  What I didn’t know, but what Geena Davis’ Institute On Gender In Media has demonstrated through its data analysis, is that Hollywood persistently doesn’t even give women parity in crowd scenes.

The basics are that for every one female-speaking character in family-rated films (G, PG and PG-13), there are roughly three male characters; that crowd and group scenes in these films — live-action and animated — contain only 17 percent female characters; and that the ratio of male-female characters has been exactly the same since 1946.
It was the dearth of female characters in the worlds of the stories — the fact that the fictitious villages and jungles and kingdoms and interplanetary civilizations were nearly bereft of female population — that hit me over the head. This being the case, we are in effect enculturating kids from the very beginning to see women and girls as not taking up half of the space.

And now those two steps for adding more female characters (not lead characters, background characters):

Step 1: Go through the projects you’re already working on and change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names. With one stroke you’ve created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they’ve had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women — and it’s not a big deal?

Step 2: When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, “A crowd gathers, which is half female.” That may seem weird, but I promise you, somehow or other on the set that day the crowd will turn out to be 17 percent female otherwise. Maybe first ADs think women don’t gather, I don’t know.

And there you have it. You have just quickly and easily boosted the female presence in your project without changing a line of dialogue.

Isn’t Geena wonderful? Yep, no expensive rewriting as an excuse for producers/directors not to do this. Wonder what excuse they’ll try to use instead.

Many readers by now will have spotted that two closely parallel simple steps could be taken to improve racial/ethnic/disability diversity in films, again without changing a line of dialogue. Obviously, more gender/racial/ethnic/disability equivalence in speaking roles and leading roles would be even better, but maybe we won’t ever get that if we don’t make sure that there is more representational parity in background characters first.

Now for the inevitable grunch quotient re this story – The Hollywood Reporter placed it in its Women In Entertainment 2013 feature and again as a Guest Post in its Pret A Reporter section (Fashion, Beauty, People, Shopping) – so only Hollywood power players who don’t make a point of avoiding girl cooties will get to read it.

Categories: arts & entertainment, ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, social justice

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3 replies

  1. I was pretty cranky with the first Hunger Games movie (haven’t seen the second yet, will be very interested to see if it’s the same), for undermining the author’s very careful construction of gender parity in the books. In the novels Suzanne Collins was scrupulous about all the work referenced being performed by both men and women, and all the speaking parts being divided equally, to the point where she consciously seems to have made sure that each time there is a male character there is a corresponding female one. The movie defaulted straight back to the proportions described above. For example, the hallucination/flashback showing Katniss’s father’s death showed a group of men (conventional image of miners in our own world) being lowered in a mining cage, while the book describes people waiting to see if their husband or wife, father or mother were among those killed in the accident. The reason Katniss’s mother wasn’t down the mine was that she was an apothecary, not that she was a woman. The peacekeepers: men and women in the books, all appear to be men in the movie. Even the rioting people of District 11 were practically all men, as if women aren’t used in food production, or don’t protest. Collins was involved in the adaptation, so I don’t know why she didn’t insist they stick to that aspect of the world she invented, when it would have been such a major step for the evolution of movies.

    • I hadn’t picked that up about the Hunger Games in particular, either the strict parity in the original version (although I certainly felt it was better than most) or that the movie had “fixed” that (because hey! the gender representation was just like all the other movies we get).
      Collins’ involvement in the adaptation probably had contractual constraints on what script/production/directorial choices she was able to exercise any veto upon. I’m guessing that the casting of extras for crowd scenes probably wasn’t one of them.

      • Thinking about British TV and movies – my impression is that they tend to do a bit better than the Hollywood 17% on the gender parity of background characters and crowds, and better on racial/ethnic diversity too, but I wonder if anyone has crunched the numbers?

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