What is the cost of limited representation in movies and television?

So, America isn’t a country of white bros, or even a country of any-color-bros. America’s got ladies. Tons of them! We got ladies of every color and every size. There are women who are able-bodied, and others with very different physical capabilities or brain chemistry. There are women who are artists, and others who are scientists, and other women are who doing beautiful things with their science. We’re diverse and complicated and wonderful and…. not so wonderful sometimes….we have stories worth telling! Yet, the stories of these women are not as often celebrated, let alone seen.

Tomorrow is the 89th Annual Academy Awards and in the last few years, there’s been a lot of controversy around people of color not getting recognized for their contributions in film and television. Sure, there have been some gains. Last year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science invited 683 new members—46 percent of those invites were women; 41 percent were people of color. And we have directors like Ava DuVernay in film and Shonda Rhimes in television just straight up killing it. But, still, it’s a wholly imperfect process. DuVernay didn’t get the Best Picture award for Selma like she should have… but she persisted and made 13th and is pushing the conversation of mass incarceration.

So we return to the lingering question: what is the cost of this slow progress?

On an emotional level, the cost feels monumental and ridiculous. I was out to dinner with a friend*, and we’re both proud brown Tias (aunts)—and we were talking about how our childhoods were already so different than our nieces and nephews. She told me she watched the Ghostbusters reboot with her niece and it gave her all the feels. In an earnest voice that stayed with me long after the gin mules waned, she asked, “Who would I be if I had seen the new Ghostbusters when I was kid?”

And I knew what she meant. What is the cost to brown, black, Asian, Native, LGBT, disabled kids when they don’t see themselves in positions of power? Or conducting scientific inquiry? What is the cost of not being who you could be?

Women just aren’t in movies or television at the rate they deserve to be— this is true in front of the camera and behind the scenes, according to a recent study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. The study examines the top 250 grossing domestic films last year:   

  • There are 2 percent fewer women directors than there were in the previous year—or a whopping 7 percent of movies were directed by women
  • Only 13 percent of movies are written by women
  • More than 30 percent movies had no women executive producers and more than 50 percent had no women producers of any kind
  • Only 4 percent of movies had women cinematographers
  • Over a third of all films had no woman IN ANY of the following top roles: director, writer, executive producer, producer, or cinematographers

Let’s pause here for a second. Because seriously, what the actual fuck? In a third of the top grossing movies, there were rooms full of only men and they single handedly thought that, “Yeah, we got everything covered here. Our perspectives are totally enough!” 

   
  
 
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   there is not enough space in the world for the level of eye roll that I would like to do here

there is not enough space in the world for the level of eye roll that I would like to do here

Sure, women are more than secretaries, nurses, and teachers in today’s workforce. But we’re not everywhere, we’re not in so many places. Compared to 2015, there are fewer women in 2016 in each of these pivotal movie-making roles—director, writer, executive producer, producer, and cinematographer. It’s like we’re going 2.5 steps forward, and 1.7 steps back.

Okay, now let’s examine who is in front of the camera. The 2015-2016 Boxed Report from Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found the following:

  • Almost 80 percent of all television programs featured casts that were more male than female
  • Only 5 percent of programs had an equal number of males and females in their ensembles, and let’s be real, women are often the funniest and least appreciated part of ensemble casts
  • Across all delivery platforms, females had only 39 percent of all speaking roles.
  • Females represent 38 percent of all major characters in broadcast network, cable and streaming programs. This is actually 2 percent less than the previous year!

And for those douchers who think that shows like Girls and Orange is the New Black is killing all the bro vibes on all television—there has been no increase of female characters in broadcast network for the last 10 years. And, we’re only talking about quantity here. If you look at the kinds of roles that are available to women, it becomes more upsetting. Because women are often portrayed as being maids, moms, and wives—not always in that order, but those are the general categories. In 2015, men were twice as likely to be given roles that depicted them as leaders than women. Last year, when USC surveyed 414 film and television programs, they found that  that over 70 percent of speaking and named characters were White. Only 28 percent represented all other races, but Black, Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern groups are pushing 40 percent of the US population.  As the report makes explicitly clear: “most stories fail to reflect or match the demographic composition of the U.S.”

So what do we do then?

I think it depends on who you are. There are actors like Lena Denham, Rose Byrne, and Jessica Chastain opening or supporting female-led production companies. There’s The Writer’s Lab that is fostering and supporting women writers over the age of 40. There are lists like the one DuVernay launched on Twitter of movies directed by Black, Latina, or Asian directors.

But there’s also what we can do—as consumers. You can up your criteria about what kind of movies and shows to watch. Maybe, you make a point to go to the movies and actually buy a ticket for films that are directed and starred by people of color. Maybe it means you’re encouraging the people around you to watch films that resonate with you and push them to rely less on Rotten Tomatoes and traditional movie reviews in newspapers, where up to 80 percent of reviews are written by men.

For me, it means I’m super choosy about what movies and television shows I watch. I personally don’t have a lot of time to watch entertainment—so there is no way I’m going to spend a significant amount of time watching movies and shows about bland white dudes with high levels of confidence. I live that reality already every damn day. I don’t know what kind of person I would be if I had seen brown female scientists in movies when I was growing up. I think that watching Murphy Brown probably played a role in me calling bullshit out when I see it. I imagine that Daria helped me perfect my eye roll. And I know that the movie Tortilla Soup was invaluable for me to imagine what adult relationships between sisters of immigrant parents could look like.

If I had seen the new Ghostbusters, maybe I would be less scared to do complicated math. Maybe I’d watch Planet Earth with more wonder. I will never know what it will be like to have grown up with a movie about female scientists saving New York city in my childhood memories.

But you know what? These little girls will. 

 Eric Charbonneau / AP

Eric Charbonneau / AP

And that makes all the difference.


*shout out to  fabulous dinners with fabulous friends who inspire questions that just won’t quit