A recent study, amongst a series of four performed in the last decade, shows a decrease of women represented in film, along with a simultaneous increased pervasiveness of sexualization and objectification of women and girls.
The study report, entitled ”Gender Inequality in 500 Popular Films”, was conducted by four professors of the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, University of Southern California (USC), and focused on gender in 100 top grossing films from the years 2007 to 2012.
The USC study’s emphasis was on the number of speaking parts and occurrences within each film by both men and women, where content was analyzed using gender “prevalence, demographics and hypersexualization,” according to the findings of Annenberg professor Stacy L. Smith, a member of the study group and author of the report.
With a cumulative analysis of 500 films containing more than 21,000 speaking characters, the study found that male characters outnumbered female characters in those films by a rate of 2.5-to-1, with a 1-to-4 ratio of females to males in film narration roles.
With the seeming prevalence of films featuring more women in leading roles more recently, including popular, high grossing films such as “The Hunger Games” series, “The Twilight Saga”, and “Gravity”, the study findings may seem somewhat surprising.
However, these findings came as no surprise to Pasadena City College professor, Dr. Kathleen E. Green, who teaches “Women in Film” as part of her rotating curriculum in her English 49 class.
“No,” laughs Dr. Green. “I wish I’d found them surprising. Those of us who have been studying film for a long time are not at all surprised by this data. But it is very useful for people for whom numbers mean a lot. And I think it has gotten worse, and I think [Dr. Smith] shows that.”
The USC study report also showed that men outnumbered women by 5 to 1 behind the camera, which included directors, writers, and producers. The analysis revealed that “filmmaker gender is associated with how stories are told” in recent films. Spanning the 5-year sample of films, those that were helmed by women were more populated with girls and women in their characters on the screen and with reduced female sexualization.
At Pasadena City College, Dr. Green says her course “Women in Film” further examines women behind the camera, in writing, producing and directing roles, as well as their influence in reflecting women’s issues.
“Part of what we are doing is looking at the stereotypical vision of women that are represented and the stereotypical images of women that are represented,” said Dr. Green. “We are seeing if the works written and directed by women are any different, which they tend to be. And most of the things covered in [the] class are not just films that are by women, but about women’s issues.”
Additionally, in regards to the increase of hypersexualization of women and girls in film, the USC study found that females were likely to be shown in sexier clothing, or partially naked, by more than 20 percent above that of their male counterparts. In 2012, this was found to have increased in characters/actresses in ages ranging from 13 to 20, with the increase of teenaged girls featured in “alluring apparel” by 22 percent from 2009 to 2012, and girls featured with some nudity up to about 32 percent.
Over the last few decades, some other top grossing films which featured women in lead roles in front of the camera include “Charlie’s Angels,” “Miss Congeniality,” “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” and “Thelma and Louise.”
Although many of these films have had a wider audience appeal – of which many also contain women in sexualized attire, partially naked, or nude – they are often films that have commonly been labeled with the term “chick flick.”
“[That] is a term that is derogatory when it’s used an out group thing,” said Dr. Green. “But it is inherently demeaning to try to suggest that women’s issues or women’s concerns are somehow less worthy.
How this study and its information has been taken or used by those with influence in the film industry, or even that of the general public, is unclear. But the study may have given more tangible, quantitative data where there was none, and is at least available for those who find it useful.
“Its a good piece of information to have and it let’s you see broader social trends,” said Green. “If you do the same [research] – count the same things every year for 20 years – that can be very persuasive evidence. I guess the question is, ‘what does this new generation of women do with this evidence?’”
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