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Shining a Light on Gender Imbalance in Media

The Bechdel Test is pretty simple. In order for a work of fiction to pass it, at least two female characters must talk to each other about something other than a man. If the women are given names, that’s a bonus for some graders.

It’s astonishing, though, how many films and television shows still outright fail this rudimentary exam. A study of 1,738 movies from 1970 through 2013 determined that only about half of the films analyzed passed the test. And many that do pass the test barely do so. Goodfellas is considered by many to pass the Bechdel test, on the strength of a portion of a scene where Karen (Lorraine Bracco) and Rosie (Illeana Douglas) talk about Florida…for about four seconds.

While the Bechdel Test has been a positive conversation-starter in the fight towards gender equality in art, it clearly doesn’t go deep enough. How much are males dominating the screen? And are the depictions of a females on screen a fully realized portrayal of a person or a mere stereotype? The Geena Davis Institute’s GD-IQ (Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient) hopes to paint a clearer picture on a film’s gender representation, and urge content creators to fight against their unconscious biases and tell stories that are truly reflective of the world.

The GD-IQ is an automated tool that is able to parse a film and calculate total speaking and screen time for characters of both gender. So far, the tool has analyzed the top 200 grossing films of 2014 and 2015. The full detailed results are worth diving into. But perhaps the most surprising-yet-not-surprising finding, and maybe the most telling, is that even in films with a female lead, male characters receive nearly the same amount of screen and speaking time than women. Among the top grossing films, the ones reaching the widest audiences, women are given short shrift.

If the GD-IQ is to be a success, it will spur upon permanent change in not what’s in front of the camera in the film industry, but a “A systemic change across all media outlets,” CEO of the Geena Davis Institute, Madeline DiNonno, said last week at the Institute’s Symposium on Gender in Media in New York.

“Whether the output is advertising, a feature film, a book or TV show, there’s a permanent evaluation that is done in terms of making sure that the characters that embody these fictional worlds are diverse and gender balanced,” Di Nonno continued. “But it has to be permanent and systemic. It can’t be ‘The Year of Women, 2017,’ and then it falls apart.”

While the GD-IQ can help bring the problem to light, it can’t solve it on its own. Awareness is key, but action matters. And it goes beyond the screen and speaking time of a woman in a piece of fiction. During one of the panel discussions at the symposium, actor Kerry Bishé (Argo, Halt and Catch Fire) talked about her desire to play realistic women, faults and all.

“As an actor, I want to see complex, fully-realized, fallible, interesting women who have interesting relationships with other women,” Bishé said. “Women don’t have to be represented as successful, pure, good, perfect people.”

While it’s not impossible for a man to write a good female character, or vice versa, equality behind the camera is crucial to achieving gender balance on screen. For the characters that Bishé wants to see on screen actually make it there, diversity at every level of the creative process—the producers, writers and directors, and even the crew—is crucial. Of the top 250 grossing films of 2014, just 17 of them were directed by women.

“We just need more women in at every level,” said Susie Nam, Chief Operating Officer of Droga5. “If you think of it as a supply chain, all those conversations that happen, who is in the room making the decision, who are the options on the table. Those conversations are telling. It’s the very subtle, nuanced day-to-day.”

The lack of screen and speaking time for women is often a result of unconscious bias. The Academy-Award winning Davis herself spoke about her experiences meeting with filmmakers, urging them to take another look at their scripts and substitute a female character in for a male one. It can be as simple as changing the male lawyer or police officer to female; all too often, characters are created to be male without any real thought given. Davis also urges content creators to pay mind to crowd scenes. Davis said large crowds in TV and movies can be filled with mostly male faces, even in films that have a female lead or female director—again, the bias is very often simply built into us.

If we fast forward to a future where gender equality has been achieved in film and television, will the world at large be any different? Or will just television and film be different? Can art spur change?

Though it’s just one example, there’s reason to believe that art can be an effective activist. During a panel on gender equality in media, Executive VP of Global Impact and Philanthropy for Sesame Workshop, Sherrie Rollins, talked about the impact that the Afghan version of Sesame Street had on the perception of young girls in the country. Earlier this year the show unveiled a new character, Zari, a young girl who goes to school and likes sports; she is portrayed as equal to the boys. Rollins noted that young Afghan boys who watched the show tested 30% higher on gender equity; they think it’s just fine for girls to go to school and do the things they want and like to do.

Transparent may be having its Zari moment. It’s difficult to quantify, or prove, that Jill Soloway’s comedy-drama is changing the perception of transgender people on the culture at large. But Caitlyn Jenner has said that watching Transparent helped her and her family through the transition phase. Soloway is committed to putting transgender actors in front of the camera and hiring transgender people for various roles behind it. It is a devoted show, both in its content and execution and as a creative operation. As the NCAA and NBA have pulled major events out of North Carolina due to the state’s “transgender bathroom” law, it’s hard to look at Transparent and ignore its cultural impact.

For Soloway, gender equality likely isn’t enough. She ended her speech at the recent Emmy awards by repeatedly shouting “Topple the patriarchy!” She’s a revolutionary. But revolutions can start small. Equality isn’t a bad first target.

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