Nowhere to be “Scene” – Gender Diveristy in Media
How do you solve a problem like gender diversity in media?
There have been countless studies every year that come up with essentially the same result, with marginal differences from year to year: women, people of colour, and the queer community are disproportionately under-represented in mainstream media. Diversity is a hot topic all around the industry. Diversity pledges get made by studios, and there is effort to meet those pledges.
Let’s clarify what diversity actually is, and what people mean when they use it?
Believe it or not, diversity doesn’t actually mean anything unless you qualify it.
Seriously. Google it.
The actual definition of diversity’ just means ‘a range of different things’. You could have diversity of school of thought, of political opinion, of social class, of body type, of nationality or religion and technically be considered diverse, even though there may not be any women, people of colour, or queer people present. Throwing the word ‘diverse’ into a press packet does not advance any dialogue surrounding any particular cause. Folks on both sides of the issue need to clarify the context in which they are speaking. You have to be specific, if you want to see a solution.
In this blog, we’re going to be focusing on the current state of gender diversity in regards to female and trans identifying characters in mass media with possible ways to improve it.
According to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (GDIDM), which has amassed the largest body of research on gender prevalence in family entertainment over the last 20 years, conducted several recent studies, one of which was an automated analysis of gender representation in popular films. This method allows for studies to reveal the depth of unconscious bias in content creators, researchers, and audiences.
Essentially, the Institute examined not only the number of female-identifying characters within the top grossing films of 2014/2015, but also their screen time and amount of dialogue with that movie’s box office gross. They found that:
The GDIGM also conducted a global study of media content in developed and under developed nations, where content creators largely perpetuate negative stereotypes of girls and women from nearly every major media producing country. In a British media specific study, they found through focus groups of mixed gender groups separated by age, they found that popular media largely perpetuated negative gender-stereotypes, and had an impact on children’s self esteem and world view.
In advertising, representation of women beyond ‘feminised’ industries is improving, due in part to efforts by the UK’s Advertising Standards Agency to limit the amount of ads that reinforce traditional gender stereotypes, in addition to inappropriate sexualization and and unhealthy body-images as ideal.
Despite these content-based efforts, the majority of advertisements feature men at a 2:1 ratio greater than women.
Women’s bodies are sexualised as a way to sell anything – food, clothes, cars – to male audiences. Regulatory agencies are stepping up to prevent more ads like these from hitting the public.
For trans people, their representational situation is far worse across entertainment and advertising. It’s fairly rare for media to feature explicitly transgender characters. However, when they are included, it is often as a punchline to a joke at the expense of their humanity. In an interview with transgender actors, Victoria Beltran felt that her experience with the lack of trans roles, and their harmful nature were discouraging.
“I don’t want to walk in and be the punchline… I want to be funny without it being about my anatomy.”
- American crime shows feature scenes in which transgender murder victims were openly mocked by the show’s lead characters while examining their bodies and crime scenes.
- Transgender characters were cast in a ‘victim’ role at least 40% of the time.
- Transgender characters were cast as killers or villains in at least 21% of the catalogued episodes and storylines.
- Anti-transgender slurs, language and dialogue was present in at least 61% of the catalogued episodes and storylines
Trans characters that appear on screen often perpetuate toxic stereotypes – that trans people are predators, is an example. Even worse, most trans characters aren’t even played by transgender actors, such as Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent, Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl, or Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club. This creates an environment where trans stories are told without an actual trans voice in the cast or creative department, which effectively silences transgender people from telling their own stories.
In light of the complexities surrounding gender representation, how can audiences and critics alike find ways to objectively analyse representation?
Thankfully, there are several types of simple, objective tests out there already. For example, the famous Bechdel test, which asks if a film has:
- More than one female-identifying character
- Who have at least one conversation with each other
- And that one conversation is not about a man.
As straightford as this is, the test fails to recognize if those female characters are well rounded, dynamic, or have a significant role in the plot. This test is really only useful to mainstream audiences after a movie has been released. It can help network executives find gender-based flaws in a script, but offers no solution as to how to solve those problems.
NEROPA stands for ‘Neutral Roles Parity’. Created by B.R. Stieve, this test is used at the development stage by the project’s casting director, director and producer. Each go through the script and mark character by their gender, as indicated by the dialogue, as female, male or neutral. Then, the roles that are marked as neutral are reviewed by the group and either marked as female, male or female-male.
By re-evaluating the gender make-up of a cast directly before auditions, casting directors practice ‘gender conscious’ casting methods instead of ‘gender blind’. This helps to prevent unconscious bias in casting because the issue is very clearly front and center.
At the end of the day, the most effective solution, across all mediums and genres, is to encourage and develop more trans and women as content creators. Creative teams with a strong female presence create more roles and positions for women, on stage, on screen, or behind the scenes.
As the NEROPA test shows, a ‘neutral’ character does not, and should not, signify a male identifying character. Casting directors like Mark Summers have, and continue to champion change and inclusivity within the industry.
Written by Hannah Paquette, currently interning at Mark Summers Casting.
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