Female characters still lack agency in films

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Women have made great strides in Hollywood in recent years — from women like Sofia Coppola and Ava DuVernay breaking barriers in the field of directing, to actresses like Meryl Streep and Geena Davis fighting for better female roles. The industry, however, still struggles with sexism. In fact, a recent study from the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering demonstrated this: The researchers used artificial intelligence to analyze about 1,000 film scripts. Of 7,000 characters studied, just over 2,000 were women. They also found that women were included in less than half as much dialogue than men — they had 15,000 major speaking roles compared to 37,000 for men. The study also found that when women spoke, they were mostly likely to talk about emotions, family values, and positivity, while men spoke most about achievement.

But perhaps the most upsetting aspect of the study was not just the lack of representation in terms of numbers. After examining the “centrality” of each character by mapping their relationship to other characters in the film, researchers found that most female characters could be removed from the narrative without significantly disrupting the plot. This suggests that even when women do show up in films, they don’t really have any agency. They’re still the girlfriends or love interests of the male heroes, not characters in their own right — if they were, the movie would be significantly different if they were taken out of the script.

Interestingly, the only exception to this finding was horror movies, where women are central to the plot. While horror movies are the only genre where women both appear and speak as often as men, they also, unsurprisingly for the genre, also tend to play the role of victims. According to Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, by Carol Clover, slasher movies provide the audience a point of identification with the “final girl,” or last woman standing.

The study also unsurprisingly found an issue with racism: Black characters were more likely to swear and Latinx characters were more likely to use words related to sex in the films studied — which suggests a compounded issue for female characters of color. The lack of female characters of color has been previously documented: according to a previous study from the Annenberg School, of last year’s top 100 films, 28 included Latinx female characters, 34 Asian female characters, and 53 had black female characters. While white women are most certainly impacted by sexism in the entertainment industry, women of color clearly face additional challenges.

So why has this happened? Well, perhaps the finding that of the films analyzed, seven times more writers, twelve times more directors, and three times more producers were male than female can offer some perspective. Women are simply outnumbered in the film industry, and the men in charge don’t represent them well. That women aren’t in positions to make big decisions in the industry, therefore, is a significant part of the problem with ingrained sexism in the industry. Perhaps if more films written by women were made into movies, women would have more speaking roles. Perhaps if more women were given directing jobs, they would be able to give women more time to speak. In fact, the study showed that the films written by women had percent more female characters.

Of course, it’s worth considering that improving female representation isn’t about just adding women to the top, but adding women who make meaningful change. Take Kathleen Kennedy, who, as the CEO of LucasFilms, excuses the fact that the studio she helms doesn’t hire many women directors by saying that they don’t have enough “experience.” Clearly, Kennedy doesn’t understand that women will never get the same amount of experience as men if they’re never given opportunities; it’s a catch-22. This is also probably why even the female directors who succeed still face barriers: While men can start off making indie films and end up directing a huge blockbuster like Jurassic World, women who have directed Oscar award–winning films are still called “inexperienced.”

Ultimately, women who make their ways into positions of power need to help other women. For example, Ava DuVernay hires female directors on her show, Queen Sugar. It’s not ridiculous to ask that television shows, for example, look for more women when Queen Sugar has featured only women directors, and Jessica Jones is doing the same. These women are here. They just aren’t being given the same opportunities.

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Camryn Garrett
WMC Fbomb Editorial Board Member
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