Gender Inequality in Film

4 Screenwriting Tips to Help You Eliminate Sexism in Movies

We see gender inequality in film all the time, but where does it start and how can we work to eliminate it?

Screenplays often implicitly or explicitly suggest flat female characters valued for their looks alone before shooting ever begins. Here are a few tips to help you avoid stereotypes when writing your own scripts and foster gender balance on-screen.

1. Introduce your female characters as you do your male characters.

It may come as no surprise that female characters are often introduced in a screenplay with their appearance front and center, while their personality traits coming a distant second (if they appear at all).

Ross Putman, a producer and filmmaker who started the Twitter feed @FemScriptIntros, dedicated to exposing the often cringeworthy introductions of female protagonists in scripts, told Jezebel, “Women are first and foremost described as ‘beautiful,’ ‘attractive,’ or—my personal blow-my-brains-out-favorite, ‘stunning.’ They’re always ‘stunning’ in a certain dress or ‘stunning’ despite being covered in dirt because they’re a paleontologist—or whatever.”

This is not generally the case for male characters, whose intros tend to be longer and more interested in an inner life, which will, in turn, justify their motivations and prepare for the forward momentum of the plot.

2. Give female characters names.

Female characters are much more likely to be referred to as something generic like “hot chick on bike,” or “pretty young mother.” Not only does this tend to encourage stereotyping, but, according to The Conversation, “Performers are usually paid more to play a named character, so naming characters in screenplays can also help address the gender pay gap for performers.”

3. Write with an eye to gender balance.

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Giving generic characters female names by default can also help to close the gender gap in films. According to See Jane, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, only 10 percent of films have a gender-balanced cast, so assigning lines of supporting dialogue to “Carla” instead of “Neighbor” or “Mike” can help ameliorate the dominance of men on a set. Even making a note in the script that a crowd should be half male, half female can help remind casting directors that the crowd should accurately represent the human population.

4. Allow women to age along with the menfolk.

We might tend to blame casting directors for the virtual nonexistence of women over 50 onscreen, but the truth is that many screenplays stop the conversation from the start by specifying the age of women to be 20-something, 30-something, or 19, when oftentimes the male opposite doesn’t have his age specified.

A big part of the problem is that most screenwriters are still men — only 11 percent of 2016 top-grossing films were written by women — so their biases and fantasies are most often represented. As this WIRED article puts it, “No one’s saying May-December romances don’t happen, they just seem to happen a lot more in movies.”

Though we are talking here about sexism in screenplays, many clichés regarding race, sexual orientation, and disability can also be addressed in a similar fashion. You may be surprised how much more interesting your script will be when you think about rounding out flat characters, and how it may help your project stand out in the eyes of producers who must wade through countless clichés to find fresh and compelling stories.

Learn more about screenwriting at the New York Film Academy.

 

NYFA Celebrates Women’s Equality Day

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Women’s Equality Day is a holiday to mark the day in 1920 in which the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed, granting women the right to vote. Today, while “feminism” is a word that many people have mixed opinions about, most can agree that equality for women and girls is an enormous, continuing human rights issue around the globe.

Globally, according to OXFAM’s New Zealand site:

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  • 60% of the world’s chronically hungry are women and girls.
  • Two-thirds of all children denied school are girls, and 75 per cent of the world’s 876 million illiterate adults are women
  • Women hold only 21 per cent of the world’s parliamentary seats, and only 8 percent of the world’s cabinet ministers are women.
  • Only 46 countries have met the UN target of 30 percent female decision-makers.
  • One in three women around the world are likely to be victims of gender-based violence in their lifetime.

While there has been a lot of progress towards gender equality worth celebrating since the U.S. passed the 19th amendment, there is still a very long way to go to achieve true gender equality — even in the United States. For example, as NYFA showed in our Gender Inequality Infographic, only 30.8% of speaking characters in film are women. And even outside of the entertainment industry, there is still a gender pay gap in the U.S., with women earning roughly 80% of men’s salaries.

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Even in the face of this reality, the way many people view the movement for gender equality today is challenged by social stigmas and misconceptions. For example, the word “feminism” is often perceived as divisive. This is largely because the movement of feminism itself has changed a lot over the last century. In the 1960s, second wave feminism focused on a range of issues including reproductive rights, sexuality, and domestic violence. Today, third wave feminism focuses on the intersectionality of issues surrounding women’s equality, including race, culture, and gender identity.

Gender equality is not just a western movement anymore, it’s now a global movement. The idea of feminism today is that it’s a movement for all people, everywhere. Gender equality is human equality.

Let’s take a closer look at how gender equality intersects with the entertainment industry.

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The Media, Diversity, & Social Change (MDSC) Initiative at USC Annenberg completed a study that focused on 1,365 content creators. The study found that 7.5 percent were female directors, 11.8 percent were female writers, 22 percent were female producers and less than one percent were female composers. The report concludes, “There has been no meaningful change in the percentage of girls and women on screen between 2007 and 2015.”

That’s not good news.

According to Dr. Stacy Smith, who led the study for MDSC Initiative, five films with female leads in 2015 were over 45 years old. But there were 26 movies in 2015 featuring leads or co-leads with males at least 45 years old.     

Women of color are also at a great disadvantage in the entertainment industry. From 2007-2015, only three African-American women and one Asian woman directed films listed in the top 100 films. Overall, only 5.5 percent of 886 directors examined for the study were African-American, and only 2.8 percent were Asian or Asian American.

In the last few years UN Women has kicked off its gender equality campaign HeForShe. The campaign aims for a solidarity movement for gender equality. Men and boys can engage through a targeted platform to achieve gender equality. This new approach recognizes that men and boys can be partners for women’s rights, and how they will benefit from equality.

In addition, Harvard University has launched their own campaign, Side by Side, which aims to promote awareness and action against gender-based discrimination on campus.

The entertainment industry is slowly moving in the right direction. However, we all need to continue to fight for awareness and progress towards gender equality both within the entertainment industry, and the world.

Become a part of the change by learning to create your own films at the New York Film Academy.