Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Where the Girls Aren't

The title refers to the marked gender disparity in G-rated films. As the bar graphs show, there's about a 3 to 1 ratio of male characters to female in G-rated movies . . . The study came out of a program founded by Geena Davis, who noticed that the films she was watching with her 4-year old daughter contained precious few female characters. I can't link directly to the study, but you can find it if you click on 'Research' under 'Our Work' in the left-hand column of the SeeJane.org homepage, then click on the 'Where the Girls Aren't' pdf link. The list of films studied can be found in the 'Press' section. As you'll see, the majority are animated. The study covers the top-grossing 101 G-rated films released from 1990 through 2004, both live-action and animated. Thinking briefly about the animated films of this year, I'm sure the roles are just as skewed. See Jane's stated goal is "to engage professionals and parents in a call to dramatically increase the percentages of female characters -- and to reduce gender stereotyping -- in media made for children 11 and under. See Jane founder, Academy Award winner Geena Davis, says, 'By making it common for our youngest children to see everywhere a balance of active and complex male and female characters, girls and boys will grow up to empathize with and care more about each others' stories.'" I think the numbers are startling, especially when you note that the male:female ratio is even worse in crowd scenes, where it becomes greater than 5:1. But I do have a question: Is there any correlation between the gender ratio of the characters (especially of the leads) and the success of the films? If it turns out that family films with balanced portrayals of males and females do just as well as those with predominantly male characters, then we as filmmakers have no excuse. But if it turns out that films with tons of male characters are significantly more likely to sell tickets and DVD's, then I'm not sure how you get producers to go against their economic interests.

15 comments:

klahd said...

Haven't the suits been claiming that "Boy films do better than girl films" for like, twenty plus years? I feel like most kid pictures push boys over girls, because kids action films are bigger money makers and no one wants to take the risk of making females into action leads, regardless of whether or not the film is for children or adults. For every 'Lilo and Stitch' you get ten 'Titan A.E.'s. All characters, whether they are male or female are treated as types (especially in animated films), and each gender is only allowed to play specific types. (When's the last time -besides 'Tarzan'- that you saw a female sidekick?) And female characters usually get maternal/love interest "voice of reason roles" or villains. I think if Geena Davis wants to improve this situation she needs to make some financially successful films with strong female roles and hope that the pencil pushers take notice.

Benjamin De Schrijver said...

I think it's pretty easy to know why. In the past, how many animation (feature film) directors have been women? Exactly. So what stories do you think the directors relate to better, or what stories do they come up with, or what stories do they want to tell? And it's not just directors... I bet that in every part of production from story to animation the men will be the larger group. The complaint has been really general in film for years, if not forever in film history. Men write the stories, and men like to write their women as their dreamgirls. As a result, many actresses complain there aren't enough *realistic* complex female roles written.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the fact is that girls are pretty much trained to see things from a male POV from the get-go(I know a lot of guys will say, "uh-uh", but it's true, my friends). Women are 50% of the population, but they aren't 50% of ANY influence on the popular culture, period. I identified with whatever the main character was as a kid--be it male or female...I really had no other choice(I'm not just talking about animation). The prevailing thought is that yes, "boys won't watch girls but girls WILL watch boys"--yet no one's really tested that out as far as I know, and then of course theere's the HUGE success of the the "Princess" franchises. It seems to me that, exactly as Ben's put it, since it's guys who write/conceive/direct 99% of the material, and they are working with 90% other guys, they don't tend to project their ideas into a "girl" main character, but a male one. It'd have to be a deliberate, concerted effort to pitch a story that's all about a female--athough personally IO don't see why--in "Toy Story", for instance, Woody couldn't have at least been owned by a girl(I had "male" toys as a kid)--or why Woody himself, or Buzz, couldn't have been girl characters rather than boy characters. Look how taken for granted it was that so many of the animal characters, in that film and others, were male? It's not the result of any deliberate plan of exclusion at all, I'm sure of that! But it has the odd effect f creating an entire wold of male heroes, and very few female ones--and the ones that are female are made a big deal of(rather than taken for granted as the guys are). How many female lead animated characters in american animation can you name?

Kevin Koch said...

Lot's of good points. I suspect the last two posters have it right -- that a lot of the gender bias isn't really out of economic concern, but out of unconscious tendencies by mostly male creators/writers/directors/designers. Which begs the question, what do we do about it?

klahd said...

I don't know, I think economics is plays a much bigger part. And I don't think these tendencies are unconscious at all. The reason that the powers-that-be are making no effort to capture the voice of women in film is because they don't believe they will profit from it. The fact that there aren't enough women as directors, producers, etc. is a huge factor, but there would probably be more if studios were actively pursuing successful girls entertainment.

It's a vicious cycle.

Kevin Koch said...

Until I can see some convincing numbers, I'm not willing to blithly agree that the economics are so simple as female characters = more likely failure. I suspect that's far less true than most people assume.

Sarah said...

An old (and possibly out of date) rule in the book world was that kiddie lit with a male protagonist generally got read by boys and girls alike while kiddie lit with a female protagonist generally got read by girls.

Children didn't necessarily buy themselves the books, of course, so this could reflect the limits of adult imagination as well as the actual tastes of the kids.

Maybe this is connected with a disparity I've seen in parenting-advice forums. Lots more people seem to be actively worried when a boy exhibits girly tastes than vice versa. Sometimes the parents are bothered; sometimes it's just outsiders, but grandparents come up a lot too.

Parents and grandparents who feel this way— even if it's just a little bit this way— may well shy away from things that encourage their boy to identify with a girl. Grandma may not even realize that's the reason why she immediately thought she'd like to take Jenny to see _Pocahantas_ while she never considered taking Johnny to see it.

Overall, I'm intensely curious to know if having "too many" girl characters in a kid movie does in fact correlate with a drop in the number of boys taken to see it.

Ken Roskos said...

The cure is going to be tough. A good dose of Joseph Campbell would be part of the treatment. There are characters like Scheherezad, and the goddess myths that aren't part of our national subconscious. To get the U.S. to look beyond its cultural borders will be a challenge at any rate.

Hayao Miyazaki, and to some extent Sylvain Chomet (the Triplets of Belleville) have had success with female characters. You could say these films were made for a smaller, more sophisticated market. That is, if you consider the cultures beyond U.S. borders a "small market". We need more time for their films to seep into our society.

On the home front, the only female artists I can think of (with a little help from the internet) are Faith Hubley, and even though she's a puppeteer, Jane Henson. Also, Lily Tomlin had an animated character years ago, and I think Carole King did the songs for a Maurice Sendak animated TV special back in the 80's.

But I think most of the posters on this board are correct: The only animated female characters that come to mind are Betty Boop, Wonder Woman, She-Ra, the Power Puff Girls and Wilma Flintstone. They all had their run, but they were created for shorts, comics and TV, and it seems that all of them were created by men. More subtle female artists and financiers have to find a foothold somehow.

Fred Seibert said...

Steve, (and everyone),

It's all about who makes the films. I know it's convenient to slag the 'system' and executives (accuractely) ridiculous biases, but in the end, it's about the filmmakers.

This real disparity is on its way to becoming a non-issue. Our Frederator shorts programs over the last 15 years have been a bellweather for a number of trends and this is one I've been tracking carefully.

Between 1992 and 1999 we took over 5000 artist/creator pitches, with less a dozen having any women involved. Out of 99 pictures greenlit for production, 1 (actually half, it was a wife/husband team) had a woman creator.

But. In the last two years we've seen about 1000 pitches to greenlight 39 shorts. We've gone ahead on 8 shorts with 10 women creators. All in all an increase of 200%.

My own observation is that the stranglehold the original generation of animators held on the business was loosened by the industry downturn in the 80s. The rise of The Simpsons and indie studios like Klasky-Csupo (others too, of course) introduced loads of new blood into the system. More women, blacks, Hispanics, and other formerly 'undesireables' came in into key creative positions faster than ever before.

We'll never be the same. And it'll make the business better, stronger, richer. Hurray for everyone!

Girl characters are on the way Geena.

Kevin Koch said...

Thanks for that great (and wonderfully specific) information, Fred. It's good news. By the way, I think your math is off. By my calculations, you described an increase of 2,030.77%! Yowie!

RedDiabla said...

I think there are a lot of reasons why there aren't more female protagonists in mainstream movies. Below are some of my ramblings.

First off, I don't buy the "well, the guys(who are the majority of the industry) are only gonna tell guy stories because that's what guys know" POV, because you guys have daughters, sisters, mothers and cousins, and I bet you can find stuff they do to be pretty damn fascinating, unique, and interesting enough to tell a story about. You could pitch stuff based on the women you know in your lives.

Buuuuuut...

A few years ago I was talking with an executive at a big studio who was pushing me to pitch stuff to the studio. I was told flat out that studios won't buy properties with female leads(unless they're superheros or uber-treacly)because boys won't watch such shows. Well. Scratch that for me, then.

Also, I hate focus groups. And having to worry about every little legal loophole. And big-studio deals where the money involved makes the project such a risk that it's watered down to be palatable to the lowest common denominator possible. I know that's not gender-based, but it's still a hurdle for me.

Also...

It seems that society doesn't really like funny women. Society likes pretty women. Pretty women can occasionally be funny, but not too funny. Funny women are relegated to "minor best friend" roles in movies. So in cartoons, where everything is generally a caricature, you're not gonna have too many funny women/girls running around.

And then...

Women aren't really taught to be "in charge", because if we do that, then we're b*****s. There's a lot of societal pressures with women as authority figures. Add that to the general artist's insecurity in themselves, and you may not get an overwhelming amount of women pitching their ideas to a big studio.

All this is just off the top of my head. More thoughts may come later.

Geena Davis said...

I was told to check out the TAG blog, and I'm very glad I did. You all have very keen observations, and raised questions we are looking to answer as well. Allow me to jump into the discussion...

The aspect of our research that most interests me is the quantity of female characters. Several of you -- Klahd, RedDiabla and anonymous, discussed the difficulties in getting a film made with a female main character; with rare exceptions (Mulan, Pocahontas, etc.) that has been true. And we sometimes see films where the female and male stars are more or less equal co-leads (Beauty and the Beast, Lilo and Stitch, etc...). What concerns me about the majority of animated films is that in the "world" of the film -- the fantasy environment that's been created, whether it's toys or animals or whatever -- is usually a world with very few females in roles of ALL sizes. Women and girls, as we know, take up roughly half the space in the real world (a tiny bit more than 50%, but who wants to quibble?); they also share the theater seats equally for animated films.

Yet female secondary and tertiary characters are actually more scarce than female leads! If you think about some of the most popular G-rated films, you'll realize there are few, if any, female characters in group or crowd scenes. (The study, as Kevin noted, found only 17%.)

My theory -- and it's only a theory -- is that "girls will watch stories about boys but boys won't watch stories about girls" is not a product of our genetic makeup, so much as the cultural message kids are getting. From the very beginning, from their very first G-rated films and pre-school TV shows, with rare exceptions kids are seeing worlds where the male characters make up most of the population; where female characters are highly stereotyped, sidelined, or simply not there. Wouldn't our youngest boys and girls get a message from a steady diet of that? And mightn't they grow up into adult women who will watch stories about men, and men who won't watch stories about women?

There will always be and should always be films that are aimed at and appeal more to one gender than the other. But the majority of animated films are seen by girls and boys equally; our hope at See Jane is that someday a studio's output of G-rated films will, when averaged, resemble gender parity; that a child's video library would generally reflect gender equity.

As for Kevin's question about economics, our study can't answer that, specifically -- it wasn't designed for assessing the profit/percentage-of-female characters ratio. But it is a fact that a number of animated movies with female leads are in the top-twenty box office ranking for the last 15 years. I agree with you: I'm not convinced that pouring more female characters into the stories we tell will dent the B.O.

Ken Roskos mentioned Hayao Miazaki as someone who has had success with female characters. What strikes me most about his films is not that he often has a female lead, but that the films as a whole are richly populated with female characters of every stripe. My guess is that his viewers don't really notice that: just as most parents here don't notice a lack of female characters, I suspect that having female characters share the space in his films doesn't stand out to his audience.

Japan, if I may be forgiven for generalizing, is know for remaining a fairly sexist society, yet Princess Mononoke became the No.1 movie OF ALL TIME in Japan, beating the record held by "E.T." for 15 years (the record has since been broken by "Titanic"). It was also the all-time best selling video in Japan, selling more than 4 million copies, until the record was broken, again, by "Titanic." (The previous video sales record was held by "Aladdin", which sold about 2.2 million copies in Japan.) If a movie with "Princess," of all things, in the title can be a runaway hit in Japan, perhaps we should feel emboldened to push the boundaries here.

The final point I want to respond to is Klahd's suggestion that I "make some financially successful films with strong female roles and hope that the pencil pushers take notice." I wish that worked. I have -- and they didn't. I shot Thelma and Louise and A League of Their Own back-to-back, and the press predicted in both cases the start of a wave of female buddy and sports movies. Neither movie provoked the decision-makers to try to repeat their success; in fact, I believe the next female-oriented sports movie to come out was Bend in Like Beckam... about 10 years later.

Thank you all for your time, and especially thank you for your serious and thoughtful discussion of our study results. I'd love to hear more of your thoughts.

Kevin Koch said...

Geena, many thanks for coming and expanding on your goals and thoughts. I've taken the liberty of turing your comments into a new post, in order to keep the discussion alive. Anywould who would like to respond should go to the June 16 post and respond there, since it's much more likely to be read.

Steve Hulett said...

American animation was pretty much a male bastion back during the so-called "Golden Age." Women were seldom allowed to do much more than paint cels in the ink-and-paint department, no matter how artistically qualified they were (Mary Blair was a notable exception).

Care to name all the female directors in the seventy-year history of feature animation? Women have only occupied the director's chair in the last decade -- Lorna Cook, Brenda Chapman and Vicky Jenson come to mind, but there are few others. (Kind of tough to gain the necessary skills when you're downstairs coloring cels.)

Story development was another area that had few women. When I arrived at Disney in the late-seventies, there were none. In the animation department, there were new arrivals Lorna Cook, Linda Miller and one or two others.

Some strides have been made over the past few decades, but they've been small.

Sanjay said...

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