Rebecca Kamm

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Rebecca Kamm: Why we need more women on screen

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Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon (l-r) as Thelma and Louise.Photo / File
Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon (l-r) as Thelma and Louise.Photo / File

How is it that in 2012, female characters in film and television are still sidelined?

Sure, there are a smattering of films predominantly populated with female characters and the odd TV series featuring a female lead, but they're few and far between. Even worse: only 11 per cent of family films, 19 per cent of children's shows, and 22 per cent of prime time programmes feature girls and women in roughly half of all speaking parts. And only 28.3 per cent of characters in family films, 30.8 per cent of characters in children's shows, and 38.9 per cent of characters on prime time television were women.

These gobsmacking numbers come courtesy of a collaborative study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and journalism school USC Annenberg.

The study was large-scale and thorough: researchers analysed 11,927 speaking characters across 129 top-grossing family films made between 2006-2011; 275 current prime-time programmess; and 36 children's TV shows from 2011.

Researchers also found female characters had little connection with the working world, accounting for only 34.4 per cent of the employees portrayed in prime-time TV, 20.3 per cent of those in popular films and 25.3 per cent of those depicted in kids' shows.

The study's relevance to the rest of the developed world is obvious - American popular media is the default when it comes to mainstream viewing habits, especially with young people. And it's widely known that the media young people consume helps shapes their worldview, especially when it comes to role models. Which is nothing short of frightening in this case.

So why are women characters so often relegated to bit parts? Because there are far less female directors, writers and producers. According to the Celluloid Ceiling Report, women account for a measly 18 per cent of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. Only 26 per cent of all creators, directors, writers, producers, executive producers and editors on prime time TV series are women. And just 17 per cent of narrators are female.

It gets worse. Last year, females made up only 11 per cent of protagonists in top-grossing films. To be clear: only one in ten leads were played by a woman.

The male point of view is so standard in popular film that its dominance is rarely discussed. Mainstream audiences, women included, are expected to join in on the excitement of the latest Bond offering. Yet take a man to see a film with all female characters or focused on some aspect of the female experience, and invariably there is resistance. Jovial resistance maybe, but resistance all the same. It's a 'chick flick', after all, and he's sort of doing you a favour by seeing it over something else, isn't he. Because films about women are films for women, but films about men are just films.

Geena Davis - whose gender initiative funded the study - launched her organisation in 2004 out of frustration over the severe lack of female roles in the movies her daughter watched. The actress is well-placed to preach, having played some of the grittiest female characters in film history: the first female president of the United States in TV series Commander in Chief, for instance, and gun-toting Thelma in Thelma and Louise.

"My theory is that if we can change what kids see .... that will impact how boys view girls and how girls view girls later on in life," she has said.

"If the ratio of 50-50 starts to become the norm in what they see, then that will be something that they expect. Then if they go into a board meeting and there's only one or two women, they actually might say, 'Hey, where's the rest of the women?'"

Interestingly, a study by advertising group Kaplan Thaler showed that 68 per cent of people who watched Commander in Chief were more likely to take the idea of a female president seriously. It's a small yet powerful reminder that even though female characters aren't real, the effect they have most certainly is.

Follow Rebecca Kamm on Twitter.

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