Climbing the Walls of Evidence

Sometimes you build a wall of evidence. Then you climb on top of that wall and start screaming.

Dr. Stacy L. Smith and her colleagues at USC have released yet another report, supported by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media. As they have every few months in recent years, they go to the trouble of watching hundreds of movies and take notes, and then tell us what we've been seeing.

Today I read Soraya Chemaly's fierce piece in the Huffington Post, "20 Facts Everyone Should Know About Gender Bias in Movies." She reports, and tries to process, Smith's latest findings, which sample the most popular films from all over the world. The infographics scroll on and on, slicing the stories we take in (and take our children to) from dozens of angles, then holding those slices up to the light.

We see, quantitatively, our bias.

We see our presumption that female voices are about half as relevant as male ones. Men take up about 70% of the dialogue we hear in popular movies worldwide.

We see our presumption that the men who are speaking are professionals. They wear clothes. The women who get a word in don't work for a living--though they do show off their skinny bodies, prompting appreciation from those male voices.

Chemaly's list piles up. Every now and then she looks up in shock:
Just three female characters were represented as political leaders with power. One didn't speak. One was an elephant. The last was Margaret Thatcher.
I first read about Dr. Smith's analyses a few years ago, and they inspired me to give a talk about how I wanted to block these biases from my children, if I could. Some things have changed: we've gone to see movies with female heroes in the center, and we've gone again and again. Feminism is back, and the familiar backlash with it. That's how you know you're winning, maybe.

But still, the numbers tell us that movies are still, collectively, lying to us. Not just being annoyingly stereotypical. Skewed gender representation isn't bad because it's a bummer for little girls who don't like pink. It's bad because, as Chemaly knows, it's teaching another generation how to oppress each other and themselves.
Media is how we train girls and women to have low expectations and train boys to have high ones...These biased portrayals contribute to inhumane, unrealistic stereotypes about masculinity based on control, violence, dominance and the active erasure of empathy as an acceptable emotion. A narrow, frequently violent, power-over-others male heroism comes at a very high price for everyone.
As filmmaker Abigail Disney...asked, "Where are the men who solve problems by thinking?"
Yes, thanks to Dr. Smith's team and Geena Davis' team, the wall of evidence has gotten really high. And every day someone like Chemaly, or Emma Watson at the United Nations, or Margot Magowan on her Reel Girl blog, lays the bricks on one another once more, and then stands on top of them and cries out for action.
There is no excuse for not having this information and using it.
Men with influence and the ability to raise these questions and do something about them probably strive, as individuals, to be good parents to their kids and make sure their daughters are healthy, happy, educated and ambitious.
Not doing anything about this problem, from an institutional perspective, undoes all of that effort. The argument that there is some kind of benign "neutral" position is misguided.
Same goes for parents.

Read Soraya Chemaly's "20 Facts Everyone Should Know About Gender Bias in Movies" at the Huffington Post.