Media has always been a pillar of social change. It reflects political, social, and cultural values that align with beliefs in a specific society at a specific time, which in turn makes it a perfect medium to transmit messages to many people. Traditional media, such as newspapers, television, radio, or posters, are brought into the discussion regarding controversial topics or social change. The film industry usually lacks recognition as an important aspect of society's transformation, trends, and spread of values.
Additionally, films convey relevant messages on various topics, including romance, religion, family drama, and social challenges (Kumari & Joshi, 2015). They have the power to bring people closer together, yet they still manage to spread and support stereotypes that create underrepresentation. An analysis of the film industry through social theories reveals the gender-biased and stereotypical representation of women on screen, and the reasons behind it.
Women have been misrepresented for years while white men are overrepresented (Murphy, 2015). In general, women play a crucial role in various spheres of life, whether it is in the household, economic field, or motherhood. In order for women to be fully aware of their potential and their role in society, they should not be marginalized by male dominance. Media plays a key role in spreading awareness among women, uncovering their potential, challenging the male-dominated world and making further social change (Kumari & Joshi, 2015).
Theoretical framework and women behind the scenes
Historically, women were a part of the domestic sphere, while men were actively involved in public life. Women were denied access to education and had very limited job opportunities. Moreover, they were excluded from public life and could not vote (Britannica, n.d). Eventually, historical, social, and political advances prompted the appearance of feminism, the empowerment of women and the challenging of the male-dominated world. Even though there has been enormous work done by activists throughout the 20th century and many objectives have been accomplished, women still receive stereotypical misrepresentation in the media, and films are no exception (Murphy, 2015) . There are two social theories that set a theoretical framework which offer a better understanding of audiences' perception of gender representation in film. These theories are the social cognitive theory and the cultivation theory. The social cognitive theory claims that people start building their perceptions of the world through media consumption (Murphy, 2015). For instance, when people watch romantic films, they tend to project the relationships presented in the films onto real life and make certain assumptions about relationships. While observing the media, people create their own definitions and understandings of reward and punishment in real life situations (Murphy, 2015). Gender development is a complex issue, as various aspects such as sociocultural, social life, and working opportunities are influenced by gender representations valued in society and covered in the media.
The social cognitive theory states that instead of offering a realistic representation, media tends to encourage gender stereotypes in terms of personality characteristics, abilities and attitudes. Thus, both women and men are portrayed in a hyper-traditional manner. Moreover, the theory mentions that media content can have a passive and long-lasting effect on people and their perception of reality (Murphy, 2015).
Generally, there can be a list of overall themes that portray specific women's roles on screen. Firstly, women rarely take the role of a leading character. For example, in the US, in top-grossing films shown across the country in 2013, women were involved in less than a third of speaking parts, and only 15% of female characters were protagonists. Therefore, the low percentage of leading female characters in the film creates an imbalance between our perception of women in film and their actual roles and status in reality (Murphy, 2015).
Nulman (2014) analyzed the US's top twelve box office films from 1990-1999 to 2000-2009. The purpose was to define common themes of representing women and track changes in the film industry by perceiving female characters. One of the most common ways of portraying women on the big screen is by linking them romantically with the main characters. For instance, in Independence Day, there are three leading characters: the president, a marine, and a technician. These roles are played by male actors, while the main women characters represent the three love interests of the leading male characters. In this case, female characters can be viewed as supporting characters. Another theme is to represent women as adventure seekers. This image of female character is widespread in action movies, such as Men in Black, Transformers, and Pirates of the Caribbean. In action movies, female characters tend to be involved in dangerous activities and show their reckless side. For instance, in The Lord of Rings, a king's niece dresses up as a man to have an opportunity to be involved in the battle for her homeland (Nulman, 2014).
Finally, the third portrayal of women on screen is as someone who needs to be rescued. For example, during the 80s, there were few central female characters, and they rarely took the role of rescuers. Even though Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade has a strong female character taking part in action, she does not save other characters. Another example is Ghostbusters, where the main female character becomes a victim of a ghost and needs someone's help. However, the film industry has made some progress throughout the decades. For instance, in The Lord of the Rings, female characters are shown as rescuers using their physical and intellectual abilities, which both break the gender barrier and show a new perspective of the female on the screen. Nevertheless, women's image as saviours is different from men's image of being a hero. Films still confine female ability to the sphere of love, sexuality, and maternal instinct. In contrast, the masculine act of rescuing is tied to knowledge and physical power. (Nulman, 2014).
Additionally, women are usually represented as over-emotional and powerless characters who lack ambition and are only able to have low-status jobs (Murphy, 2015). Even movies targeting female audiences offer a disappointing and stereotyped image of women (Murphy, 2015). Despite the rise of feminism throughout the 20th century and the appearance of empowered and independent female characters that shifted from a traditional image of women as housekeepers. The film industry spreads a misrepresentation of women, assuming that the audience has a stereotypical mindset and would enjoy seeing men and women have traditionally defined roles (Murphy, 2015). It is a rare case a female character is represented as a part of a working culture unless forced by circumstances. Most of the time, even educated women are shown as housewives, spending time at home and running errands. If they have a job, their working environment usually belongs to education and services ( Kumari & Joshi, 2015). As a result, there is still a big gap between male and female representation in film.
As a result, there is still a big gap between male and female representation in film. Significant change can be achieved only when women are portrayed equally in age, leadership positions, and aspirations, among other inequities. (Murphy, 2015).
One of the main reasons why women receive unequal coverage on the screen is because film is a male-dominated industry. It is noticeable that the majority of films are written, directed, and produced by men, which leads to fewer opportunities for female directors (Kunsey, 2019). Additionally, women do not get the spotlight as often as men do. In 2018, in the 100 highest-grossing films in the US only 36% of the leading characters were women. By 2022, the representation of women increased by 9%. Another reason for the lack of diversity in filmmaking is the difference in opportunity to produce between men and women. For example, female filmmakers present greater financial risks than males (Kunsey, 2019). Moreover, when dealing with big budgets, studio executives usually work with filmmakers who tend to have experience in the film industry, and they are usually men. Therefore, female directors do not receive the same budgets and resources as their male colleagues in the industry (Kinsey, 2019). Another approach is that male-directed films are generally more successful in the box office than female-directed ones. In the United States for example, Black Panther grossed $ 370 million as the top domestic film in 2018. In comparison, the top-grossing female-led film, A Wrinkle in Time, grossed more than $100 million at the US box office (Kunsey, 2019) Additionally, gender representation of key roles influences the visibility of women on screen, which is initially influenced by the director of the film. In other words, male-directed films have fewer female leading characters. In contrast, female directors cast more female protagonists (Kunsey, 2019).
Overall, the film industry offers a particular point of view of women through a patriarchal perspective. Women receive secondary and stereotypical representation tied to traditional roles of wives, lovers, and mothers. Additionally, women have more value in those roles than in being independent and intelligent. The film industry also portrays women as glorified beauty objects, symbolizing sex appeal and entertainment. (Rahman & Ullah, 2022). Even though gender stereotypes are still present in films, the industry has started progressing. Due to feminist movements, gender stereotypes are being challenged, and more complex characters appear on the big screens. Moreover, film production takes into consideration moviegoers' demographics to offer diverse and complex representations of various societal groups and minorities. (Murphy, 2015). Another approach is that women are an active part of the filmmaking process in contemporary society. Thus, female directors offer the audience an unbiased and realistic image of women that aligns with their actual status of them in society and have more leading women characters than in films directed by male filmmakers. (Kunsey, 2019). Finally, it is crucial to give female filmmakers more equal opportunities for production. Thus, women would receive greater recognition as directors and offer a fair representation of women that aligns with their status in contemporary society.
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Figure 1: Woke editors. (2019, December 16). Gender inequality in the film industry. Woke. https://www.ourwoke.com/post/gender-inequality-in-the-film-industry
Figure 2: Perrone, J. J. (2020, December 31). Gender Inequality in Film Infographic for 2018. New York Film Academy Blog. https://www.nyfa.edu/film-school-blog/gender-inequality-in-film-infographic-updated-in-2018/
Figure 3: Some of Hollywood’s Most Powerful Females Called out the Industry for Gender Inequality. (2015). https://notablelife.com/some-of-hollywoods-most-powerful-females-called-out-the-industry-for-gender-inequality/
Figure 4: Kumar, A. M., Goh, J. Y. Q., Tan, T. H. H., & Siew, C. S. Q. (2022). Gender Stereotypes in Hollywood Movies and Their Evolution over Time: Insights from Network Analysis. Big Data and Cognitive Computing, 6(2), 50. https://doi.org/10.3390/bdcc6020050
Figure 5: EWA Network. (2021, March 11). Study on Gender Inequality in the Film Industry - EWA Network. EWA Women. https://www.ewawomen.com/research/
Figure 6: Kunsey, I. (2019). Representations of Women in Popular Film: A Study of Gender Inequality in 2018. Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications, 10(2), 27–38.