What Impact Do Women Have On The Pop Culture They Create?

Reading through the Women’s Media Center’s latest report, The Status of Women In The U.S. Media 2013, which is really an invaluable compilation of the results from a host of media monitoring and academic efforts, I was struck less by yet another year of evidence proving that women are dramatically underrepresented in every sector of media than by a series of numbers that sketch out where women are working in media than on what.

In movies, for example, the report notes that:

“Traditionally, documentaries have been more welcoming of women and diversity in general because the (financial) barriers to entry are lower than they are in narrative features,” Lauzen told The Wrap’s Sharon Waxman in August. “That director role is traditionally the most male role,” Lauzen said. “With narrative films, whether they are independently produced or produced by a studio, there is still that celluloid ceiling women have to overcome.” Women were most likely to find work on documentaries, dramas and animated films. They are least likely to be hired in the action, horror and sci-fi genres.

I’d be fascinated to see someone take a look at how the presence of women in a genre impacts the other work by directors there. It doesn’t surprise me to see male directors like Kirby Dick making strong documentaries on issues faced by women, like sexual assault in the military, a subject he tackled in The Invisible War in the same way it was striking to see Steven Soderbergh make a female-oriented action picture like Haywire, because the mix of subjects and emphases in the genres in which they’re working. But that’s an impressionistic reaction, rather than a systemic one.

Similarly, I’d like to see some cross-referencing of the data on movies written and directed by women and the impact of their presence on the positioning of female characters on movies. As the report notes:

While female characters are on the rise, female protagonists have declined. In 2002, female characters accounted for 16 percent of protagonists. In 2011, females comprised only 11 percent. Female characters remain younger than their male counterparts and are more likely than males to have an identifiable marital status, according to “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World: On-Screen Representations of Female Characters in the Top 100 Films of 2011.” And female characters are much less likely than males to be portrayed as leaders of any kind.

There are two reasons to want more women making popular culture (and to make sure they’re paid equally and have access to similar levels of support for their work): equality of opportunity, and the actual impact that their presence has on content. It’s clear, and it’s been clear for a very long time, that women are hired at lower rates in the entertainment industry, paid less, and have greater power on lower-profile projects. But the impact of female perspectives on end results (not to mention people of color or LGBT creators) is more a matter of anecdote at this point rather than established by data. I think we can make the argument that creators like Shonda Rhimes are valuable, both creatively and commercially, because they provide a perspective that’s utterly lacking elsewhere on television. But I’d like to have more data to see if I could argue that she’s an underacknowledged rule, rather than an exception.