Girls & Women Increasingly Shortchanged Onscreen

sexism in movies, family movies sexist, hypersexualized girls in movies,
Stay tuned for sexism. (Image: morguefile)

For years my daughter’s favorite movie was Just Visiting. The 2001 remake of a hit French comedy was packed with plenty for my little girl to adore. Magic, time travel, and plenty of humor. Some quotes from the film are still in rotation as favorite family sayings.

Although it didn’t lack for laughs, it was missing something more vital. Strong female roles. Sure, women starred in the film. Passive, pretty characters who merely gain a stronger sense of themselves through men. Well, there’s also a stereotypical witch. Don’t even get me started on that.

I’m not about to stomp my foot and decry one B movie because the women’s roles aren’t up to good-for-my-daughter standards. But when I take a look at movies available in theaters and on Netflix, foot stomping seems imperative.

In the real world girls and women have full, interesting lives. Their conversations are complex and rarely limited to attracting the “right” partner. But in the entertainment world, females are too often little more than gloss. Sexy gloss.

female movie stereotypes, princess stereotypes,
Stereotyped leading ladies. (Image: Jeff Brunner thesocietypages.org/socimages/2009/10/25/disney-princesses-deconstructed)

One way to gauge a female character’s presence in any movie is the Bechdel test. (You may have read our recent post applying the Bechdel test to a comic as well as a TV show.)  This method doesn’t imply that a particular movie has merit, it simply demonstrates character treatment based on gender. To pass the Bechdel test, a movie has to meet all of the following three qualifications:

  1. Have at least two female characters (with names known to the audience)
  2. who have a conversation with each other
  3. about something besides a male.

Recall the last five movies you saw. How many really pass the test?

Which movies pass the Bechdel test? (Mashup: L. Weldon)

According to the Bechdel test database, plenty of 2013 movies such The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, After Earth, Mud, Star Trek Into Darkness, Ender’s Game, The Fifth Estate, and Anchorman 2, don’t pass the test.

Kids’ movies aren’t much better. Bechdel test failures include The Croods, Monsters University, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, and Planes.

Another way to pay attention to gender disparity in movies is to simply count the number of male and female characters. We may be leaning in, but there’s less evidence on the screen. In 2012 films, only 28.4 percent of speaking characters were female. That’s actually down from 2009.

In both animated and live action family-rated films, for every female speaking character there are nearly three male characters. Crowd scenes in these movies are only 17 percent female. This ridiculous ratio of male to female characters has been the same since 1946. On screen, girls and women simply don’t warrant half the space. As Geena Davis writes in The Hollywood Reporter,

 …We are in effect enculturating kids from the very beginning to see women and girls as not taking up half of the space. Couldn’t it be that the percentage of women in leadership positions in many areas of society — Congress, law partners, Fortune 500 board members, military officers, tenured professors and many more — stall out at around 17 percent because that’s the ratio we’ve come to see as the norm?

Women and girls are also likely to be portrayed in stereotypical, often hypersexualized roles. Of the top grossing films in 2012, sexualization of characters aged 13 to 20 years old was well over 50 percent. This is an increase of 22 percent from 2009.  It seems girl power, even in today’s family films, has a lot to do with sexy clothes.

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This gender disparity is more than annoying. It’s damaging. Sexualized stereotypes are linked to a slew of problems in girls as well as women including eating disorders, poor self-esteem, and depression. Girls and young women who frequently consume mainstream media content are more likely to believe that a woman’s value is based on physical attractiveness. Even very young girls are beginning to self-objectify, to think of themselves as objects to be evaluated by appearance.  Today’s kids consume a lot of media, so it’s ever more vital for parents to insure it doesn’t relentlessly reinforce those Hollywood ideals.

The good news? According to Vocativ, top grossing movies tend to score well on the Bechdel Test. In 2013, films passing the test grossed 4.22 billion dollars while films that failed brought in 2.66 dollars. We’re voting with our money, loud and clear.

In my house Just Visiting has given way to new favorites. I’ll be watching them with popcorn, a snuggly blanket, and some attitude. My foot is just itching to stomp.

Laura is the author of a poetry collection titled Tending and Free Range Learning, a handbook of natural learning. She lives on a small farm notable only for its lovestruck goose.