Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Women in the Movies and in Literature: Where is the Female Experience?

What we watch and read invariably affects our thoughts and plays a part in shaping our opinions. The discussion has been, of late, on the effect media sensationalism and the dismal portrayals of women in the media has had on young women and their relationships, both with themselves and others, or their interactions within the workforce and workplace. Women as sexual objects, objectified to their bodies, removed of their experience and advertised as disposable has become the commodity of reality television shows, video games, news segments, women and men's magazines on fashion and health and in social media. 

A perhaps more insidious and far more pervasive sexism is felt in the absence of female voices and characters within our libraries and on and behind our screens. If you were to take a hard look at your bookshelves and deep into your movie collection, what would the predominant authorship behind those mediums look like? Most likely, the fiction we know of, and the experiences therein, has been concentrated within the white male voice and opinion and has shaped our views and our thoughts a seemingly invisible but all too familiar way. Azar Nafisi speaks about this world of fiction as the ability to think beyond ourselves, to create and envision, to learn beyond borders, to speculate and dream and calls it the "republic of imagination." Unfortunately, I fear this republic is simply recreating the sexism around us, in far more subversive and deep-seated way. 

A few numbers tell the story well. A recent report releases by The Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative noted that women held only 30.2 percent of all speaking or named character roles in movies from 2007-2014. While recent hits including The Hunger GamesMad Max, Frozen or Inside Out come to mind as examples of movies with a strong female lead, these skew public perception to thinking that women spend more time on our screens, while the reality is much different. Other numbers paint reinforce this depressing picture: only 1.9% of the movies were directed by women, 73.1% of all speaking roles were white and only 19 total characters were identified as gay. While women continue to represent half of viewership and ticket purchasers as well as half of the population, their representation on screen is tepid at best. For the women that are onscreen, their roles pale in comparison to their male counterparts. The Bechdel test, which evaluates if a work of fiction features two female characters who speak to each other about something other than a man, has proven time and again that even when women are represented in cinema, their representation is either to support a male lead or compete for his attention. Indeed, 30 years after its creation, isn't it time to retire this low bar test, and raise our expectations? Cinema desperately needs stories about the diversity of female lives, with female voices and leads that do not depend on men for their experiences. Insomuch as these movies continue to represent archaic stereotypical stories as representative of modern day gender relations, they also reinforce our beliefs about women's roles that we learn from our everyday experiences. If anything, art and 'the republic of imagination' should seek to step outside of the norm, challenge it, and represent the truth about its subjects. 

The content and perception behind our books is, unfortunately, no better. Literary sexism, present since the dawn of the written word, has become en vogue again, and female authors who speak against it, decried as whiners. Only recently have numbers shown that even though women write nearly half the books published and that many publishers are women (62%, although senior roles are mostly men), pervading sexist perception results in less reviews in esteemed literary journals. Like in science, these reviews count toward obtaining grants, prizes, references and toward future authorship. The Vida Count reported that The NYTimes Book Review, in 2010, reviewed 306 male authored books, and 59 female authored books. Actual reviewer numbers were also heavily imbalanced with 200 male and 39 female reviewers. Due in large part to the publication of these numbers by Vida (which also began a Women of Color count in 2014), The NYTimes Book Review upped its review of female-authored books to 45% in 2014, with a slight increase to 47% in 2014.  Peter Stothard of The Times Literary Supplement, with 28% of its reviewed books by female authors, a percentage steadfastly held since 2010, declared without irony that "while women are heavy readers, they are not heavy readers of the kind of fiction to be reviews by the TLS." 

The outcome, if not obvious, is that the more works of fiction authored by men and reviewed in prestigious magazines, the more likely these men will go on to win prizes and the money to sustain their careers as authors, and the more likely their books will be the ones purchased online or in stores. These stories, by and about male experiences, will continue to influence public thought and perception, be quoted and referenced more often, and become part of the literary norm, whereas female voices, and the voices of women of colour, remain noticeably absent. While female authors do win some awards, unfortunately they only do so if they write about the male experience or from a male perspective. Female authors also continue to publish under male names to avoid being marketed as 'female authors' - which Lionel Shriver describes as particularly "insulting to readers."

Indeed, from Francine Prose's compelling ode to literary bias in Scent of a Woman's Ink in 1998 Harper's Bazaar to a more recent write-up of modern literary sexism by Suzanne Rivecca for Salon, never has there been such an attempt to highlight the nature of sexism in the literary field, a sexism so ingrained as to seem unmovable. Our republic of imagination, it appears, is in the mind of a white man. 

Increasingly we turn to cinema to provide distraction, and to books as a lesser used but increasingly useful way of removing ourselves from reality. While not aiming to be a comment on the wider need for more imagination and the reading of more fiction, especially within our school system, we must admit that the literary and cinematic art world is merely a recreation of the sexism and racial biases that surround us. If we are to dream, to imagine, to speculate and to be entertained, to enter into deep thought, to wonder and be in awe at the moral and philosophical underpinnings of our actions and our surroundings, we must include the many different female experiences and voices in these artistic realms. Actively and aggressively we must have art that represents the true diversity of ourselves, our voices and the cross-cutting themes of our existence. 

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