This was originally written for the second issue of the wonderful Ingenue magazine (which I suggest you all go and buy, as it's absolutely gorgeous and packed with intelligent content) - so it's a fair bit longer than your average blog post.. One of my favourite commissions I've worked on in a while though. Quick content note - some discussion of sexual assault.
When I was in my early teens there were so many things I was uncomfortable with: the assumption that it was normal - and expected - to shave off all body hair; the divide whereby guys who slept around were ‘lads’ while the girls were ‘slags’; the fact that to be female was to be judged according to your weight, your appearance, your desirability; the assumption that certain spheres like politics, business or science were just a bit more male; the way in which women were usually represented (or rather misrepresented) in the media.
Well, I’m not sure if I was consciously frustrated with the latter. I was certainly aware of it though. How could I not be, when it was one of the contributing factors to all those other forms of unease? I’m not claiming that it was solely fashion ads and movies and porn clips and newspaper commentary and gossip mags and website features and music videos that instilled those feelings, but they certainly contributed - especially when all of that filtered down into the realms of secondary school, where bitchiness ruled and judgment was par for the course.
In spite of so many advances, we continue to live in a culture where boys are expected to be active and girls are expected to be beautiful. One where actresses are asked about their weight-loss regimes rather than the nuances of the characters they play. One where gossip rags focus in on every perceived female ‘failing’ – encouraging us to mock any sign of life or age, like cellulite, sweat-marks, weight gain, weight loss, or wrinkles. One where the dominant ideal of beauty is slender, young, and white – anyone falling outside of those parameters labeled as an exception if they attain mainstream celebration. One where a woman speaking out is a woman who is threatening – perhaps one who needs shutting up. One where, ultimately, we are shown that female achievement isn’t manifested in skills, but in the width of a waistline.
Well, fuck all of that.
A little later on, I began to question those corrosive assumptions and expectations. I also started responding critically to what I was reading and looking at. A flourishing interest in feminism gave me a framework for what was going on – also, most importantly, a means to analyze the uneasiness. I realized that what I was consuming wasn’t a given – but something that could be challenged.
Maybe you’re reading this going “yeah, yeah, beauty ideals, gender roles, underrepresentation, the wage gap, inequality, capitalism etc – I get it.” If so? Great. That’s a good position to be in – one of awareness and education and anger. But it took me a while to reach that stage. As one person says in the excellent documentary Miss Representation, “the media is the message and the messenger.” For most of us it requires quite a bit of work to unravel those messages – to get a grasp on just what the messengers are doing at the moment, and then, maybe to consider how to change them.
Luckily there are plenty of others who are both clear-sighted and proactive, like Madeline Di Nonno - the CEO of See Jane, an organization set up by actor Geena Davis (she of Thelma and Louise fame) to look at gender inequality in films and TV. With a mix of research projects, education resources and an increasing number of events, they’re provoking big conversations. Their statistics have been groundbreaking, while the symposiums focused on women onscreen are opening up new dialogues within the industry.
Incidentally, Thelma and Louise does a pretty fabulous job of passing the Bechdel test (a set of requirements dreamt up by Alison Bechdel, in which a film must have at least two women in it, who talk to each other and, crucially, talk about something other than a man). Yes, there’s a fair bit of shooting, but also an incredibly nuanced, in-depth look at female friendship. It’s as political as it is entertaining. We still need more films like that, more than twenty years on.
I sat down with Di Nonno recently to discuss the work of See Jane, spending plenty of time comparing our teenage years and time at university before we got on to talking about films. I mentioned how the revelatory thing for me was seeing all of those things I was aware of (the lack of powerful women onscreen, under-representation of women of colour etc) being quantified – properly researched to provide hard evidence.
Alongside these studies, See Jane has a very specific set of ways to combat inequality. They mainly work from the inside out. As Di Nonno points out, ‘by fuelling what’s going on behind the camera, you can then see the results on camera.’ From encouraging more multifaceted women leads to discussing the lack of female directors, writers and other creatives, they’re interested in both the process and the product.
Their main mantra is ‘if she can see it, she can be it’. It’s a simple point. If we could see female presidents and leaders and breadwinners on screen, then young people would hopefully consider that to be what’s normal - just as it’s currently seen as standard for all those positions to be male-dominated.
Essentially, See Jane wants to readdress the balance. ‘If we can organically change the content that our children are seeing, and boys and girls grow up seeing media images that have lots of girls doing interesting things, then subconsciously it becomes the norm, and not the exception.’
And my God, is visibility important – in so many ways. It affects what we think is acceptable, expected, right, everyday. Recent research showed that children between 8 and 18 spend around 7 hours a day engaging with media. It’s a huge force – one present whenever you open a magazine or watch a film or eye up your phone. If you can transform that force, you can transform how people – especially young ones - think.
‘The approach we’ve taken is collaborative – one in which we don’t shame,’ says Di Nonno. ‘Every studio, network, production company etc has been extremely responsive - because we’re saying, “we all want our children to grow up with a sense of infinite possibilities, our girls, our boys.” When it’s positioned that way, and we’re able to say that our research is showing that we’re bereft of female presence - but we’re 51% of the population - everyone is shocked.’ It’s not about pointing fingers, but encouraging positive, active decisions to do things differently.
All Walks Beyond the Catwalk do similar things with fashion, placing gentle pressure on the industry from the inside out – asking change to come from designers, photographers, stylists, casting directors, and anyone else who can actively choose to challenge the status quo. Like See Jane, they’re all about both showing and telling. It’s important to raise rallying cries and point out what’s wrong and shout loudly, but also to push for transforming what young women and men are seeing and taking in everyday – whether it’s on film or in a fashion ad. Both of them also offer up a set of tools – a way to engage critically, and question what’s put in front of you.
Di Nonno also mentioned the presence of ‘unconscious biases’ – of the way certain types of status quo are assumed to be normal. There’s no huge conspiracy here, no tycoons rubbing their hands and going “hahaha, let’s reserve all the big, serious roles for men” (Maybe. Hopefully.) Instead it’s just that ‘the default is always male.’
I pointed out to her how irritated I get that it seems like the ‘LARGE SERIOUS THEMES’ are reserved for men. If an experience is to be considered ‘universal’, it’s most likely embodied by a male protagonist – whereas if the main character is a woman, it’ll be considered niche or specialist or mainly for female audiences. Some progress is being made in breaking the mould – everything from The Hunger Games to Mad Max: Fury Road – but they’re still considered the exceptions.
It’s unsurprising that this is how it is in films, in an age where research has also showed that books with male main characters are more likely to win serious literary prizes. ‘As an artist, you write what you know, you want to be authentic,’ Di Nonno says. ‘So if you’re a storyteller, and the ratio of male to female storytellers is five to one, then that automatically is going to manifest in terms of the product that’s onscreen.’ See Jane’s 2012 study showed that if there’s a female writer or director, there’s a ten percent increase in female roles onscreen. Change the narrative, change the creator, change what the audience sees.
There’s often this argument that comes up when talking about gender and the media – a rallying cry that there are “more serious” issues to focus on, as though there’s a set ranking of issues neatly ordered from ‘mildest’ to ‘most awful’ that must be addressed in strict sequence. But this fails to chart any of the intricate links between different areas of inequality, or to take account of the way the media normalizes certain things.
For example, images of violence against women are rife in the media: in shadowy fashion ads suggestive of assault or death; in film and TV narratives that use rape as a gratuitous plotline rather than something explored sensitively; in video games that allow female characters to have two functions: a.) Physical object, all boobs and bum and no personality, and/ or b.) punchbag.
Add to this the disquieting fact that under the American Film classification system (the MPAA), scenes featuring sexual violence towards women often gain lower age restrictions than those showing women enjoying consensual sexual pleasure. Brutality inflicted on a female might gain a movie an R (those under 17 can only see it accompanied by an adult), but if a woman is shown receiving oral sex, it’s immediately an NC-17 (basically the equivalent to a UK 18).
And oh, remind me where all this is taking place? Ah yes, in a society where women are overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) the targets of domestic violence; where rape victims are often assumed to have been ‘asking for it’ or to somehow have been provocative; where female pleasure is still seen as vaguely taboo. The media doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists on our screens, in our houses, seamed throughout our conversations and expectations.
I’m not arguing here that there’s a direct A to B link, as though one causes the other. Oh no. Instead it’s a series of relationships and influences. It’s all wrapped up – the focus on image and attractiveness, the over-representation of women as objects, the under-representation of women as complex individuals, the marginalization of women of colour, of older women, of women of all sizes... Sexualisation, body image, job prospects, violence, gendered stereotypes, aspirations, assumptions, anxieties – all interacting, all connected.
That sounds kind of miserable though. Surely we, as individuals, can attempt to make changes too? ‘There are so many things that people can do who are not making movies,’ argues Di Nonno – firstly pointing to social media. From the #askhermore hashtag to the ability to critique things, ‘everyone can have a voice, and call this out.’ Next she says, ‘I think it’s important if you’re a care-taker to watch what your children are watching… to watch it with them and have a conversation.’ It’s about chatting, giving young people a space to ask questions and be responsive.
What if you have some kind of authority? ‘For people who are in a leadership position… How are you attracting diversity? What is your means of messaging – print, website, social media? What are your hiring practices? How many women do you have on your board? How many executives?’
She also relayed the story of a guy she worked with at one point. ‘He sat through and listened to our research, and at out next meeting, he said “you’ve changed how I parent.” I said, “really? What happened?” He replied, “well, I have a son and a daughter – they both play soccer, and are both really into sports. But I realized that when I saw my son, I’d ask him about the game, or what he was doing, and when I saw my daughter the first thing I’d say is “Oh you look so pretty today.” All I was reinforcing to my daughter was her beauty, and not recognizing that she’s as good an athlete as my son.”’
So it’s about conversation. About using what Di Nonno calls ‘a gender lens’ to opening up chats, critique what you see, always be curious, query the stuff in front of you, and never get complacent. It’s about wanting more from our media-makers, and also changing our own behaviour. It’s about supporting those doing good stuff, like Act for Change (a project aiming to encourage diversity across the stage and screen), Arts Emergency (they look to get young people from all sorts of backgrounds into the arts through mentoring and schemes), The Fawcett Society (a charity campaigning for gender equality) and The Women’s Room, (an organization set up to get more women in the public eye, especially experts in their field), to name but a handful. It’s a good position to be in – one where our voices are important. And it’s one where they can only get louder.
The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media are partnering with the BFI this autumn – hosting a global symposium on gender in media on October 8th.