When talking about the representation of women in film, it is often in relation to how a particular gender is portrayed or affected: How are we influencing our girls? What are we teaching our boys? However, beyond the typical questions, an important thing to consider is how our masculine-dominated society is being reinforced overall.
With so many films released year after year that possess male-dominated storylines and lead characters, where are we supposed to go in order to find examples of strong females, women of color, and/or transwomen being represented beyond the male gaze?
The social theory of the hegemonic male lays claim to the idea that there is a particular type of individual that our culture caters to and strives to be. When looking at the lack of gender and racial-based diversity in the U.S. film industry, I believe that this is a valid claim to make.
The hegemonic male is a white, cisgender, intelligent, handsome, and powerful man who has achieved great economic, political, and/or social status. He is the ideal and standard by which many in our culture aspire to become — for good or for ill. (Think Don Draper.)
According to this theory, everyone is in competition to be the most hegemonic male that one can be. However, it’s difficult for an individual to ever feel as though he has reached this status, as it always feels like more power is possible. Furthermore, it’s impossible for women, people of color, or members of the LGBTQ community to gain any traction in this competition as their race, ethnicity, gender, and/or sexual identification does not line up with the supposed ideal. This competition among members of our culture, while not often articulated, often leaves many individuals feeling unfulfilled. It is virtually impossible to live up to the social norms and expectations set before them.
Applying this theory to the recent study Inequality in 700 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race, & LGBT Status from 2007 to 2014 , it is painfully clear that women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community are systematically underrepresented in the film industry. In fact, according to page seven of this study, the stats haven’t improved at all over the last 50 years. This means that equal representation in Hollywood has not achieved significant gains since Lyndon B. Johnson sat in the White House or the Arch in St. Louis was built.
The message from the film industry is clear: If you are not a cisgender white man, then you are not the standard in entertainment. Hypermasculinity drives majority culture and, in turn, is reinforced through Hollywood films catering to dominant culture—thus creating a cycle of hegemonic inequality.
Imagine that you are a young woman sitting down to watch a movie on a Friday evening. If you were to pick at random from the 100 top grossing films from 2014, there is a 21.8% chance that you would choose one where your demographic possesses a role in which her speech contributes to the primary plotline. If you are a woman of color, this probability drops to just 3% and all the way down to zero if you are over the age of 45 or transgender. However, compared to just 8% of men, the chance that you will see your demographic represented sexually is 27.9% and doesn’t fluctuate in the slightest if you are between the ages of 13-20 or 21-39 years old. (The aforementioned statistics can be found between pages three and five of Inequality in 700 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race, & LGBT Status from 2007 to 2014 .)
Living in a society where visual media operates as the backbone of U.S. culture, where it saturates our televisions, computers, and living rooms, it is difficult and arguably impossible to achieve gender or racial-based equality with a film industry that only represents the dominant demographic.
Women are capable of having lead roles ( WATCH: Viola Davis’ Powerful Emmy Acceptance Speech), people of color are able to direct films, and members of the LGBTQ community are more than capable of having these positions as well. So when will we start to see them on the screen — not as the exception, but as the norm? If it hasn’t happened over the last five decades, will it happen in the next?
Once the culture of our films begin to change, the attitude of our society will be forced to keep up.