When the first trailer for the new Ghostbusters movie came out, I pulled it up on YouTube and was excited to see women—of varied body types!—engaged as the heroes of the story. I chuckled a few times while watching it, thinking it looked like a typical summer blockbuster. And then I scrolled down to the comments section. It was a rookie mistake, but I couldn’t help it. The number of “dislikes” on the trailer was astonishing, more than a typical reboot trailer deserved. I couldn’t make sense of it until I saw the top-rated comment: “Women aren’t funny.”
Ah. There it was.
Ghostbusters is already being predicted as a flop, just like every other Melissa McCarthy movie in the past decade, despite the fact that all six of her most recent films have broken box-office records and Spy has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 94 percent. Several people have told me that the hatred directed at Ghostbusters isn’t because the protagonists are women but rather because it’s a remake of a well-known movie. But so were Jurassic World and Cinderella. I don’t know if Ghostbusters is going to be a good movie, but I do know that—like most films with female leads—it deserves more of a chance than it’s getting.
I didn’t start to become fully aware of the dearth of women in media—especially film—until a few years ago, but like an optical illusion, once I noticed it, I couldn’t stop seeing it. Just last week, I tried to start listening to a podcast, which, in an episode with six speaking characters, didn’t feature a single woman. (The story wasn’t contingent on maleness, either.)
According to last year’s annual “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World” study, 22 percent of protagonists in the top 100 grossing movies of 2015 were female (in Star Wars, Mad Max, Carol, Sicario, Spy, Brooklyn, and Room, to name a few). That is by far the highest that percentage has ever been. Just think about that. One in every five movies last year centered on a woman, and that’s the best Hollywood has ever done. In 2014, that number was only 12 percent and in 2011, it was 11 percent.
The percentage of female speaking characters, on the other hand, hasn’t really changed for decades. The number hovers right around one third (28–33%). Even in movies with ostensible female leads (like Disney princess movies), men speak three times as much as women. Women are consistently younger and more sexualized than their male counterparts and less likely to be shown actually working or having an identifiable job in the narrative.
I can say from experience that girls need female characters to look up to in film, literature, and other art media. As an avid reader and a tomboy in middle school, I didn’t really notice that there weren’t any women in the classics I was reading, but by the time I got to the last year of my English major in college, I was so desperate for female protagonists that I almost cried with relief when we read Alice Walker’s Meridian. Girls need to see themselves as protagonists—by definition, as people who drive their own plot. We’re protagonists in our own stories, not love interests or sidekicks.
We’re also not a subgenre. When a film has an all-male cast, it’s not a genre in and of itself—it’s The Revenant, or Lord of the Rings, or Dead Poets Society, film classics that everyone is expected to relate to. But when women dominate a film, it suddenly becomes niche, a “chick flick” that men don’t want to see or are outright shamed for watching. Women make up more than half of the population, but you wouldn’t know it by the way movies are marketed, or by the way television shows have been cancelled for being “too female” in narrative (the Nancy Drew pilot) and “too female” in audience (the Young Justice series).
Shannon Hale, Young Adult author of The Goose Girl and Princess Academy, has spoken up about this issue often. “The myth [is] that women only have things of interest to say to girls while men’s voices are universally important,” she says. In other words, women are expected to empathize with male narratives while men are encouraged to avoid female ones. As Hale points out, this lack of empathy from boys toward girls has drastic real-world repercussions, from career opportunities to rape culture. A study from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media reveals that (as of 2013) women only make up 17 percent of crowd scenes in movies—close to the number of female protagonists. Another study showed if there are 17 percent of women in a group, the men in the group perceive that as roughly equal. “We’re training [children] to perceive that women and girls are less important than men and boys,” Davis says.
Has this blatant sexism-by-exclusion always been the default in Hollywood? Well, yes and no. The first time I watched Hitchcock’s 1938 The Lady Vanishes, I was shocked to realize that the number of male and female characters in the film was almost exactly equal. By contrast, in 2015, we had films like Pixels—a movie in which one of the only female characters is given to a man as a literal trophy. Are we getting more sexist?
Unfortunately, we’ve always been sexist, but it wasn’t until the fall of Hollywood’s censorship board in 1966 that women were openly sexualized in film. (The board, established in 1930, called itself the “Legion of Decency.”) Before 1966, women in films for the most part had actual roles that moved the plot along. But then after the introduction of the MPAA rating system with “G,” “M,” “R,” and “X,” everything changed. As Shirley MacLaine said, “We haven’t been judges or politicians or mayors since. We can’t get out of the bedroom now.”
Progress is coming, but it’s been slow. A look behind the scenes might give a good indication of how to fix the problem. In 2015, women made up 9 percent of directors and 11 percent of writers in the top 250 films of the year. If we’re wondering why representation of women is low, it’s in part because we’re still being written by men. But here’s the flip side: Films with at least one female director were much more likely to hire female writers, editors, and cinematographers.
For the same reason that we need more female voices generally, we also need more non-white female voices. Lupita Nyong’o remembers being “teased and taunted about my night-shaded skin” and for a long time “only saw pale skin” represented on TV. Gina Rodriguez almost never saw Latinos positively portrayed in media growing up and has now taken it upon herself to play non-stereotypical roles to encourage young Latinas. Constance Wu is also focused behind the camera as well as in front of it. “What I want is to foster the Asian American writers and directors and producers and actors,” she says, “foster their stories to come into the spotlight a little bit.” Good representation matters, for the girls who want to do great things and the women who have seen people like them pushed aside and stereotyped.
As Christians, let’s remember that women—as much as men—are created in the image of a caring, complex, and intelligent God. How do we embrace that complex image? If you’re a story-creator, create against the cultural grain and support female creators. If you’re a consumer, examine the makeup of your own media consumption. Read books by female authors and thinkers, because the vast majority of what you are reading is probably male. (It was for me, at least for a long time.) And consume media created by women of color. Finally, seek out movies written and directed by women and/or films featuring female leads (like Ghostbusters).
I’m ready for more “goofy girls,” more female action heroes, and more female nemeses—just more. Women deserve as much variety in stories as we have in real life. I’m tired of having one female character in a cast of male characters pointed out as a consolation prize, or one female-led movie held up to placate me. “But you’ve got Katniss Everdeen!” they say. We do, and I’m grateful for her. But she’s not enough.
Kristen O'Neal (@Kristen_ONeal) is a New York City-based writer who loves telling and experiencing stories. You can find more of her work here.
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