We Can't Be What We Can't See

by ELENA HELMERS-WEGMAN '15

According to our parents and teachers, we are strong, smart, and capable. We can do virtually anything we put our minds to. Our opportunities are endless. According to the movies we watch, however, these opportunities are much more limited. Women are simply not as present as they should be on the big screen, and the way that they are often portrayed is even more alarming. The newest phenomenon in examining this issue is called the Bechdel Test. This test originated in Europe, and there are only 3 rules that a movie must follow in order to pass it: the movie must contain at least two women with names, these two women must talk to one another, and they must talk to each other about something other than a man. Although this seems simple, there are a substantial amount of highly-acclaimed and high-earning movies that fail when it comes to the Bechdel Test.

On-Screen Representation: Of speaking characters in films between 2007 and 2012, only 30.8% were women. This means, at best, for every 1 woman who voices her opinion in a movie, 2 men do the same. When this occurs in every film that we see, the psychological effects begin to sink in. One of them is that in our society, a man’s opinion seems more valuable than a woman’s. While this might seem a bit absurd because of how advanced we believe our country is, I encourage you to look again. Of 43 American Presidents, 43 of them have been male. Only 20% of current U.S. Senators are women. There are 435 politicians in the House of Representatives, and only 78 (18%) are women. These statistics reinforce what the movies convey. This is an issue of underrepresentation; an even bigger problem is on-screen misrepresentation.

The way that characters are portrayed in movies has a very large effect on what we expect from each gender. 26.2% of actresses get partially naked in their film, while only 9.4% of men are represented in the same manner. This makes women 3 times as likely to be sexualized on screen as men. Women in movies are also 4 times as likely as men to be costumed in sexually revealing clothing. This conveys that it is more acceptable to value a woman for just her body than it is to do the same to a man. This is called sexual objectification: viewing people solely as objects of desire, rather than as individuals with complex personalities and desires of their own. To objectify is to dehumanize, to devalue. This can happen to both men and women, although it clearly doesn’t occur in equal numbers.

Off-Screen Representation: When we trace these statistics to their roots, how they even exist in the first place becomes very clear. In general, there are 5 times as many men as women that work on the movies that Americans consume every day. 91% of directors of the top 250 movies of 2012 were male. Directors create what they know, and a male perspective is much different than a female perspective. Additionally, only 15% of writers in these films are female, also important when shaping movies’ perspectives and representation. Only 17% of executive producers are women, 25% of producers, 20% of editors, 2% of cinematographers. Namely, a woman in the director’s seat, the writer’s desk, the producer’s office, the cinema room can change our perspective, can perform better on the Bechdel test. The end result can be as significant as representing men and women in film that promotes gender equality and lessens harmful gender constructs.

What You Can Do: Interestingly enough, though, women buy 52% of the nation’s movie theater tickets. We consume more than half of an industry that doesn’t even represent us justly. One way to fix this is by spreading awareness about these drastic statistics and how they affect our society as a whole. By consciously choosing to see movies that feature a strong female lead, or a film that at least doesn’t objectify a character of either gender, consumers are holding Hollywood to higher standards. The power of social media has become quite integral in this endeavor as well. Many people on Twitter use the hash tag #NotBuyingIt in a tweet to direct awareness to the double standards or unequal representation that occurs in everyday life. You can be part of the change in film, and in life.