January 31 2018
The ten highest grossing movie franchises of all time include Harry Potter, Batman, Lord of the Rings, Spider Man, Transformers, Marvel, James Bond, and The Fast and the Furious, according to Mental Floss. They all have something in common besides their box office success: the face of the franchise is a straight, white male.
Let’s start with gender. According to a 2014 University of Southern California study, there are 3.4 male characters for every one woman character in America, and women are accounted for only 23.3% of leads or co-leads globally. Women are half of the population, yet on screen they are still portrayed as lesser beings, who can’t handle the work that men can. This is not just blatantly inaccurate; it is harmful.
In the words of Geena Davis, who played Thelma in Thelma and Louise and now runs the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, “We are in effect enculturating kids from the very beginning to see women and girls as not taking up half of the space,” she said in a Hollywood Reporter Article. Young children with impressionable minds see the media not giving females half of the room, and they accept it as normal. Indeed, according to a study conducted by Florida State University in 2011, male adults and animals were present in 100% of children’s books while female adults and animals were only present in 33% of picture books in any given year.
Furthermore, during crowd scenes, where it would make sense for there to be a 50/50 ratio of women to men, there are only 17% women, according to the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. These trends enforce the antiquated mindset that women should not be seen or heard; that women are simply sidekicks, love interests, and support for male protagonists. Females exist. Not only that, but they are capable of doing countless wonderful things independently, and not representing us as such is a sexist practice that must stop.
In a world where women make up 23% of STEM professions, movies fill STEM professions with women only 14% of the time. By increasing the representation of women in STEM in movies to a much higher percentage, our culture can nurture female astrophysicists, paleontologists, environmental engineers, coders, and software developers. When people see people like them being successful in a certain occupation or position, they know that it is possible for them to also be successful in that way.
Disparities like these are certainly not limited to gender. According to the UCLA 2017 Hollywood diversity report, while the United States population consists of almost 40% people of color, characters of color in Hollywood account for only 16%. This is unacceptable. Similarly, according to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, only 22% of children’s books published in 2016 feature characters of color. How can children learn that the world is a wonderfully diverse place when the books they read are devastatingly monochrome? The existence of people of color being shrunk is to devalue their profound impact on our culture. To represent people of color in movies sends the message that they are invaluable and full of potential.
When Walter Dean Myers, the author of Monster, realized as a child that other black people were not represented in the books he was reading, he felt as if there was an important part of him that was missing. Now he writes books about youth of color to fill that gap. Many children tell him how much they like his books, and Myers stated in an article for the New York Times that children of color are “struck by the recognition of themselves in the story, a validation of their existence as human beings, an acknowledgment of their value by someone who understands who they are. It is the shock of recognition at its highest level.”
Everyone deserves to recognize themselves in the media they consume. That “shock of recognition” should not be so rare. Knowing that there are people like you can be a life changing experience that should never be limited to straight, white males.
Dr. Eric Grollman, an assistant professor at University of Richmond, expresses this sentiment in an article, saying “the positive portrayal of women, people of color, immigrants, LGBT people, same-gender couples, interracial couples, working-class people, people with disabilities, fat people, and so on is crucial so that people are aware of diversity, but also appreciate and celebrate that diversity.”
Gender identity and sexual orientation is yet another instance where Hollywood falls short. The USC study found that out of the 100 top grossing movies of 2014, 0.41% characters were gay, lesbian, or bisexual, with no transgender characters. This appalling number mirrors society’s tendency to automatically categorize people as straight or cisgender when in fact people of all different types of sexual orientations and gender identities exist and should be celebrated. Movies exist to tell stories, and leaving out these stories sends a subliminal message that they don’t or shouldn’t exist.
Some may say that Hollywood makes movies largely populated with straight, white males because those movies make more money. However, the 2017 Hollywood Diversity Report has surveyed the box office successes of movies from many years including 2017 and has found that when movies include diverse casts similar to the makeup of our population they make more money.
All of these reasons to make diverse movies are beginning to be taken into account. Wonder Woman, Rey, Moana, Elsa, Katniss, Jody, Lady Bird, Dory, and more have been the face of their movies, showing that women and girls can do anything, from saving islands to becoming fierce warriors. The Hate U Give, a movie based on the book by Angie Thomas, is coming out soon, and it will tell the story of Starr Carter, an African-American girl with lots of courage. Love, Simon is a movie coming out on March 16th that chronicles the life of Simon, a gay teenager. This is not to say that the main character’s minority or female status solely defines them, rather it is a part of their story, bringing invaluable recognition to viewers who also share that identity.
Oprah Winfrey spoke about the power of recognizing oneself during her speech at the Golden Globes. She talked about watching the Golden Globes on TV as a kid, and how powerful it was to see Sidney Poitier become the first black man to win best actor. Poitier later won the Cecil B. DeMille Award, and Oprah said that “it is not lost on me that at this moment there are some little girls watching as I become the first black woman to be given this same award.” Her iconic status has certainly inspired many girls to pursue their dreams after seeing her shining example, another instance of the power of representation in the media.
By having movies where there are diverse casts, especially diverse protagonists, the message is sent that anyone can do anything. Because anyone can do anything, and everyone deserves an equal chance to be the protagonist.