In a in a speech for Equality Now (an advocate for human rights for women and children), writer and director, Joss Whedon recalled a reporter asking why he keeps writing strong female characters. Whedon replied, “Because you’re still asking me that question.”
Even with the popularity of women-led stories like Scandal, The Hunger Games and the Divergent series (among others), female characters are still underrepresented in film and television. This year the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film published a paper which breaks down the percentage of women on the screen, and the title alone gives away their conclusion: It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World: Portrayals of Female Characters in the Top 100 Films of 2015.
To put these percentages in perspective, the United States Census Bureau lists women as comprising 50.8% of the population. Here are highlights of what the Center’s research found regarding female characters in the top 100 films of 2015:
- 22% of protagonists (the characters from whose perspective the story is told)
- 34% of major characters (those appearing in more than one scene or instrumental to story)
- 33% of all speaking characters
- 18% of antagonists (main source of conflict for the hero)
- majority were in their 20s and 30s as opposed to males with the majority in their 30s and 40s
- 61% had an identifiable job with only 44% seen at their job (64% of males were shown at work)
- more likely than males to have goals related to their personal lives (14% vs. 5%)
- less likely than males to have an identifiable goal (49% vs. 60%)
- less likely than males to have a work-related goal (34% vs. 48%)
The percentages are more surprising with movies overseen by male directors and writers. Only 13% of female protagonists were found in these films. (The alarmingly low percentages for minority females in 2015 films would fill another post.)
What does this mean for women moviegoers, readers, actors, and writers?
It’s important to see ourselves positively reflected in the media. It validates us by showing that we are our own agents and significantly contribute to our world—whether that world is as intimate as our family or workplace or a wider reach like serving our country as activists or soldiers. The Center’s percentages don’t go into detail about the roles available for women, especially older women, which tend to be limited and, unfortunately, stereotypical. In our own lives, we are not only girlfriends, lovers, wives, daughters, mothers, but much, much more.
Let’s take a laugh break with a clip from Inside Amy Schumer, where the comedian recently poked fun at the female roles in top rated movies. Note the Oscar-winning actresses staring in this clip. 😉
When Whedon referred to strong female characters, he didn’t mean we should fill the screen with kick-butt heroes like Buffy or Katniss. Being able to fight battles isn’t what makes a woman strong. Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice was a strong female character long before she started slaying zombies. Whedon was referring to fully realized female characters with complex backstories, personalities, and goals. They aren’t in the story to fulfill the male character’s destiny: the unattainable hot girl he finally gets, the sex kitten who ruins his marriage, the muse who helps him to succeed in art, the virgin whom he guides into sexual awakening, the wife who supports him while he climbs the political ladder, and the list goes on.
There’s a reason why Meryl Streep is envied by women in Hollywood. Not only is she a phenomenal actress but her roles show that female characters come in various stripes and can carry a movie:
- Mirdanda Priestly (The Devil Wears Prada)
- Margaret Thatcher (The Iron Lady)
- Violet (August: Osage County)
- Julia Child (Julie & Julia)
All these female characters are vastly differently and yet represent a fraction of the roles women take on and continue to take on in world.
This past weekend we celebrated our mothers. Let’s continue celebrating mothers and all women by supporting and creating stories that show just how strong (complex) women can be.