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Sympathetic men need to check their privilege



Why is Hollywood so white? actors of colour asked during the Oscar award ceremony two years ago. Fed up with the lack of diversity in the film industry, they were using their platform at the annual celebrity-fest to shine a light on the underrepresentation of minorities in movies.

Jennifer Lawrence, one of the original signatories to the open letter that launched the Time's Up campaign against gender inequality in the workplace, in the 2015 film Joy.It was an excellent question, and one which prompted me at the time to poke a stick at another glaring anomaly in the land of mass-produced entertainment: why is Hollywood so sexist?

When at least 50 per cent of the population is female, and when at least that percentage of movie-goers are female, why is their gender so often treated precisely as though they were a minority: represented at a fraction of the rate of men, and most often done so in embarrassingly cliched terms?

It's a question that has bothered me for a long time. Hollywood's sexism is so blatant — and so infuriating — that I gave up on its offerings years ago. I found my appreciation of movies waning as I became a more critical viewer. Instead of enjoying the action, I would find my mind wandering: why were male actors of all ages so well-represented, while female actors tended to be both fewer in number and younger?

Why are male characters partnered with female characters often young enough to be their daughters? Why do women so often appear to be mere decoration in stories about men? Why do we see so many naked females on screen, and so few naked males? And why are films about women marketed as niche products (chick flicks, rom-coms) while films about men are regarded as universally entertaining?

Buried deep beneath Hollywood's glitzy veneer, I discovered a world of theories and fields of study into these issues: the Bechdel Test, which a movie fails unless it contains at least one scene in which two women talk about something other than a man (unsurprisingly, few movies pass this test).

The theory of the Male Gaze, which posits that movies, television shows, adverts and so on are produced from the male perspective, and so tend to contain scenes in which women are subjugated or objectified (since most of those producing and directing these media are men, and the few women doing so might well have internalised society's inherently sexist world purview).


"The movies we see reflect a world that doesn't exist, one filled with men of all ages and abilities, and accentuated with a smattering of women who comply to a narrow, male-designated definition of what is appealing."


The study undertaken by the New York Film Academy that breaks down in stark and digestible terms the astounding prevalence of sexism in movies, from onscreen representation to the low numbers of women working in key behind-the-scenes roles.

The Twitter account in which a male film producer shares sexist female character descriptions from scripts (they are, as one might expect, routinely described in physical and sexual terms).

Now that the treatment of women in the film industry has received worldwide attention, their cause will no doubt take centre stage at this year's Oscars ceremony. The runaway success of the anti-harassment and anti-sexism #MeToo movement has been augmented by celebrities wearing black dresses and carrying white roses on the red carpet in an effort to draw attention to sexism in the movie industry.

But while much has been said and written about casting couches, harassment, assault and pay gaps, there's been virtually no examination of the product that Hollywood churns out. And this product — which moviegoers are bankrolling — encapsulates everything that is wrong with Hollywood itself: the routine sexualisation and objectification of female characters; the lack of representation among older women and women of colour; the lack of opportunity for women in directorial and other leadership roles.

The movies we see reflect a world that doesn't exist, one filled with men of all ages and abilities, and accentuated with a smattering of women who comply to a narrow, male-designated definition of what is appealing. It's a gross misrepresentation that pervades all other media, too.

While the female-led outcry continues, those men benefitting from the imbalance ought to question their privilege. Instead of carrying sympathetic white roses into the Oscars this year, they should use the opportunity to question their own complicity in accepting roles in movies where women are inadequately or disproportionately represented. They should vigorously oppose the idea that movies are nothing more than escapist fantasies, and that we shouldn't accept them as fact but rather as the great fun they intend to be.

For if this is true, then whose fantasy do they serve, and why do we represent men as flawed and realistic people while simultaneously casting women as ideal beings?

Sometimes, movies are fantastical tales. But mostly, they are the telling of stories about ourselves: who we are, how we got here, the innumerable ways in which our lives are unfolding. If they reduce half of society to mere caricatures, then they have failed in their very purpose.



Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.

Main image: Jennifer Lawrence, one of the original signatories to the open letter that launched the Time's Up campaign against gender inequality in the workplace, in the 2015 film Joy.

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, Hollywood, sexism, gender equality



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Existing comments

Its a make-believe world - cartoons with real people rather than drawn characters pretending to be something they're not. Does it matter?

john frawley | 28 February 2018  

Wherever sexism is found, organisations are diminished. Just consider our Federal Parliament. I believe only about 20% of Coalition parliamentarians are women, compared to nearlly 50% in the ALP. The polls show a win for the ALP if a Federal election were held now. The Coalition need to redress the sexism issue as they nominate candidates for the next election if they are to benefit from the wisdom that women can bring to their group.

Grant Allen | 28 February 2018  

There is nothing so sobering as being made suddenly aware of the truth of human mortality by the threat of serious disease demanding surgery to save your own life or that of a loved one. I wonder how many of us would choose the surgeon to provide an essential life-saving operation based on gender rather than expertise. It is worrying that the continuing clamour in favour of 50/50 gender equality in the selection of all occupations in the public domain seems to have over-ridden selection based on quality and expertise regardless of gender.

john frawley | 01 March 2018  

PC police, inquisition and re-education for you, jf!

John | 01 March 2018  

“Why is Hollywood white?” seems an insignificant question when compared to the questions posed by Professor Donna Riley, head of engineering at Purdue University in the USA. Writing in a journal concerned with science, “Engineering Education”, the good professor suggests that engineering programs should “do away with” the need for academic rigor. After all, “rigor” is merely a cover for “white male heterosexual privilege”. She writes: “The term has a historical lineage of being about hardness, stiffness and erectness.” Her article then goes on about the sexist depredations of slide rules—those hard, straight instruments that have traditionally been deployed by males. She even suggests that “scientific knowledge itself is gendered, raced and colonizing…Decades of ethnographic research, documents a climate of microaggresions and cultures of whiteness and masculinity in engineering.” One can put up with poor quality movies. But if you’re thinking of building a bridge, you might check to see if the engineer went to Purdue University.

Ross Howard | 01 March 2018  

Looks like someone made an enormous gender mistake in the appointments system at Perdue University, Ross Howard! But then, we are talking about America which has yet to realise that the Wild West died a century or so ago, where children have to be protected by metal detectors to enter their schools in "the land of the free", where the president the people chose does much to suggest he is an idiot, where the role models play make believe on a celluloid screen and where the lunatics seem to be in charge of the asylums and, sadly it seems, the universities.

john frawley | 02 March 2018  

And then there are the advertisements! Thanks for a very good and unfortunately very accurate article Catherine.

Margaret McDonald | 05 March 2018