Sexism in film

With the release of Suffragette, the debate on gender inequality in Hollywood has resurfaced, Sunil Nambiar investigates privilege of the penis variety

23rd October 2015

At a recent press conference for her upcoming movie Suffragette, the brilliant Meryl Streep expressed her frustration at the lack of female voices amongst American film critics. Previously, Emma Watson reflected that, thus far, she had been directed by a total of 17 male directors and a mere 2 female directors. That same month, Anne Hathaway told the New York Times that, in the professional realm, she had been “treated differently because [she] was a woman”, while Helen Mirren discussed the “profound sexism” in the film industry with The Guardian.

If wages reflect worth within an industry, women in film apparently aren’t worth very much. A leaked e-mail exchange, a product of last November’s Sony Pictures Entertainment hack, shed light on the wage disparity between the two female leads and three male leads of American Hustle where, despite almost equal screen time, the female leads were each paid 7% of the film’s profits, while the male leads and male director were each paid 9%.

This lack of value towards women in film is conceivably due to the narrow scope of roles available. In this year’s highest-grossing films, we observe male leads in a range of roles: a dinosaur trainer and researcher (Chris Pratt in Jurassic World), a celebrated and deadly marksman (Bradley Cooper in American Sniper), superheroes (Avengers, Ant-Man), professional street racers who are also affectionate fathers (Furious 7), and suave espionage agents (Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation). Men, it seems, can be anything: strong, smart, lethal, extraordinary, sensitive, sophisticated.

Female leads in this year’s highest-grossing films have had a more uninspiring scope of representation: personified emotions (Inside Out), an innocent, long-suffering orphan whose be-all and end-all is marriage to a prince (Lily James in Cinderella), and an innocent, bland college senior who cooperatively becomes an outlet for a male billionaire’s sexual inclinations (Dakota Johnson in Fifty Shades of Grey).

"this model of gender roles must not and cannot last"

Perhaps this bias has stemmed from our traditional experiences with gender roles; chiefly the heteronormative ideal of the breadwinning male returning from work to an aproned wife. It is not unlikely that the same children growing up with this microscopic view of gender roles have become consumers and industry bigwigs who expound the versatility of the male identity and the subservient, domestic limitations of female identity.

But, this model of gender roles must not and cannot last. Throughout the modern world, gender dynamics are changing rapidly. Encouragingly, the film industry and its consumers are gradually recognising the growing social and economic power of women. Amongst the top ten highest-grossing films in the American box office this year, four films feature women in leading roles and/or have a female director and/or female screenwriter, and are targeted toward female consumers. This is double that of a decade ago.

However, until women acquire equal representation and standing throughout the film industry, these progressions are not enough. This is not merely a question of giving talented, deserving women the jobs they deserve. This is about the film industry finding the integrity to produce truthful and meaningful representations of the diverse sexual, racial and economic landscape we live in, and for its consumers to welcome this change.

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