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The struggle is real: Tracking the (under)representation of women on TV

CREDIT: COMEDY CENTRAL
CREDIT: COMEDY CENTRAL

When Dr. Martha Lauzen started conducting research on women in film and television, it was the mid-1990s and, supposedly, a great time for women in entertainment.

“I kept on hearing that things were getting so much better for women both on and behind the screen,” she said. “But I was not seeing that when I actually watched television.”

A social scientist, Lauzen started to track “in a very systematic way, the percentage of female characters on screen and the number of women in key roles behind the scenes.” She found — spoiler alert! — that reports of how much “better” things were for women in the entertainment industry were, as they say, greatly exaggerated.

Her latest study, “Boxed In 2015–16: Women On Screen and Behind the Scenes in Television,” arrives at a time at which it sure seems like women are rising in the ranks. Anyone paying attention to the television scene can probably rattle off a fleet of high-profile female writers, directors, and showrunners. But the numbers reveal otherwise: Lauzen found that 79 percent of programs in her study featured casts with more male than female characters, the women only comprised 39 percent of all speaking characters, and — most damningly — the percentage of female characters featured on broadcast network programs has not increased over the last decade.

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Gender stereotypes — female characters somehow always being younger than their male counterparts, for instance — “abound,” Lauzen discovered. Women were also less likely than men to be seen at work and actually working; women were also more likely to have personal goals, like ~finding love~, whereas men were more likely to have work-oriented goals. Male characters were nearly twice as likely as female characters to be portrayed as leaders. And that’s just on-screen.

Behind the scenes, everything is great! No, behind the scenes, a stunning percentage of programs employed literally zero women in key behind-the-scenes roles. 98 percent of programs in the study had no women directors of photography, 91 percent had no women directors, and 71 percent had no women writers. And, confirming data we’ve seen before, the shows that employed more women behind the scenes saw a spike in female representation on screen.

Lauzen spoke with ThinkProgress by phone about her findings, her thoughts on why sexism is so persistent and pervasive in Hollywood, and what she thinks it will take to actually achieve gender equality in television.

If television is doing so poorly with regards to women, where is this sense of success coming from? Why is the perception so far off from the reality?

I think that television has benefited from its comparison to film. We all know that the numbers of women working in film are just awful. They are lower than they are for television. So I think there’s this natural response to say, ‘But things are better in television!’ Because we want to believe that progress is being made somewhere. But if you actually compare the numbers, television is a little bit better and a little more welcoming for women, but the numbers are probably not as high as people would expect.

And we do hear about a lot of success stories these days about women working behind the scenes, and that recognition and attention is really well -deserved. Shonda Rhimes basically is programming Thursday nights on ABC with her lineup of programs. Jenji Kohan runs Orange is the New Black. So we hear that women are excelling and achieving behind the scenes, and we assume then that everything must be okay, that the ratios behind the scenes have been fixed, and in fact, that’s not the case. Those numbers, those behind the scenes numbers, remain, I think, remarkably low.

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When we look at broadcast television, we can look back 19 years and see that from the mid-1990s to about the mid-2000s, there was slow but incremental growth in the numbers of women working in those behind the scenes roles. But since then, that progress has stopped, and the numbers are stalled.

I wonder if part of the issue, too, is that there’s so much television, it is possible to create your own mini-feminist utopia and still have a ton of stuff to watch. You can be watching Scandal, Jessica Jones, Jane the Virgin, UnREAL, The Mindy Project, Inside Amy Schumer, Difficult People, and Orange is the New Black, and you’d never be caught up on any of them and you’d only be watching shows created and run by women.

Viewership patterns are changing, and it’s possible to — as you suggested — cherry-pick your viewing choices, which is, on the one hand, that’s great, because there is more television today to choose from than ever before. But at the same time, it’s hard to get a sense of, but how are women actually doing.

This divide between perception and reality reminds me of that choice comment from Lee Aronsohn, the creator of Two and a Half Men — an argument for male-created TV if there ever was one! — back when New Girl, Whitney, and Two Broke Girls premiered at the same time. “We’re approaching peak vagina on television, the point of labia saturation.” He said that because of three shows!

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I think that perception is due to the fact that we have been socialized, historically, to not see as many female characters as male characters. And so if we change our viewing patterns or if there are slightly more female characters on screen, or if those female characters happen to be high profile, it feels like things have changed and that the environment has improved for women. But that’s really a trick of perception as opposed to reality, which is why it’s so important to count the numbers of women working on screen and behind the scenes, because our perceptions can be fairly dramatically skewed by just a few high profile cases.

You’ve been doing this research for 20 years, and this is where we are. Not exactly within spitting distance of parity. Are you optimistic?

I really have come to recognize that social change occurs very slowly. It’s not a revolution; it’s an evolution. But I will say, I never I never would have thought, when I started this research, that I would be doing it 20 years later. I very naively thought that, well, people must not know that women are so underrepresented! If we get the information out there that these ratios are so dramatically skewed, surely things will change. I just didn’t realize what a mountain this would be to climb.

Why do you think this is taking so long? Obviously there’s more than one factor at play, but I’m interested if you think the crux of it is in more ignorance/unconscious bias or, the people in charge actually have no interest in improving conditions for women, either as an artistic issue or an employment one, and are perfectly fine with a sexist status quo.

I know the term “unconscious bias” has become really popular, but I think “subconscious bias” is the correct term. Unconscious bias suggests we’re passed out when we’re making these decisions. And certainly, some of this lack of movement is due to that subconscious bias.

“At the root of it, talking about the economics, that’s suggesting this dilemma is rooted in logic. And I don’t think it is rooted in logic. I think it is rooted in emotion and bias, and that doesn’t respond to money.”

We feel most comfortable working with others who resemble our own demographic profile, who look and think like us. So people tend to hire other individuals who look and think like they do. It’s not an excuse, but it is an explanation. I would say the other part of that is that people tend to create what they know, so having lived their lives as females in their culture, women tend to create female characters, and men do the same. And it’s not that women can’t create great male characters or vice versa, but they tend to create what they know. Some of that could be intentional, but I suspect a lot of that is unintentional.

I do think that this issue has been doing a slow build over the last 20 years. When I started doing this research, I can tell you that there was very little media attention devoted to inclusion or diversity in media. There was an occasional article in the L.A. Times on the subject, or a special issue of The Hollywood Reporter or Variety devoted to, it was a special women’s issue, it was always timed to coincide with awards shows that were sponsored by women’s groups. And so over the years, this issue has been doing a slow build, and now I think it has been pushed along by a change in demographics and really the recognition that diversity is a good thing, and a necessary thing, for media to reflect audiences.

I’ve reached a point where I just think: The men who run networks are aware of the issue and do not think it is a problem, and actually have no interest in watching women rise in those ranks or make television shows. They’re totally fine with the idea of most TV shows maybe having one or two women in them, a mom and a girlfriend.

There are some individuals in the community who really recognize that Hollywood is behind the curve here in terms of gender issues. But there really are also those individuals who are in very powerful positions who have demonstrated no will to change. They don’t really think that they have a problem, and if you don’t think that you have a problem, then you’re not going to do anything to change your business practices. So I think will to change is very important.

I do a study on the film industry every year, too, and the people who are atop the film studios have demonstrated no real will to change and they are very good at smoke and mirrors. So on the Directors Guild of America website, there are all of these mentoring and shadowing programs, and those programs are great. But the fact is that each of those handle maybe five or six individuals who are part of that shadowing program, and that is just not understanding the magnitude of this issue and the magnitude of the problem. But it does provide them, and has provided them, with PR cover on the issue. Because they can say, ‘Look! We’ve got this mentoring and shadowing program!’ We’re not going to change the industry, really, five people at a time. This is an industry-wide problem that requires an industry-wide solution.

What is your take on the ACLU-prompted federal investigation into sexist hiring practices in Hollywood? Is the problem so deplorable as to constitute a civil rights violation?

At this point, I really don’t think the television and film industry are going to change on their own. I think they’re probably going to have to be pushed into change. And I think that push is probably going to come from some external source like the EEOC.

ACLU Requests Official Investigation Into Hollywood’s Sexist Hiring PracticesOn Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union officially requested that state and federal agencies launch an…thinkprogress.orgVoluntary programs have been tried in the past and they just don’t seem to work. So I think there will have to be some kind of oversight. Quotas, that’s probably not going to happen. There will have to be some kind of oversight and, perhaps, penalties for non-compliance. I do not think — there’s been a lot of talk about, well, let’s try to use the Rooney Rule.

I get so annoyed when people bring up the Rooney Rule. As if it worked so well for football. Is the NFL some bastion of feminism and equality now?

Initially, they did see some movement! But apparently, they really didn’t enforce it and then there was no movement. So voluntary programs are probably not going to do the trick. There probably have to be some penalties for non-compliance and also some oversight. It seems to me that a group like — now I’m talking about film but, the MPAA, they have six members, and those members are the major film studios. They would seem to be a great group to show some leadership and pick up this cause, and come to some agreement among themselves to change and institute penalties for non-compliance. But it goes back to that will to change, and the MPAA just doesn’t appear to have that.

What’s been surprising to me is not a lack of will to change on a moral front — a belief that inclusion and equality is vital in all facets of our society — but an economic one. There’s so much money to be made here. Why do you think the financial case for more women in television hasn’t been convincing enough?

At the root of it, talking about the economics, that’s suggesting this dilemma is rooted in logic. And I don’t think it is rooted in logic. I think it is rooted in emotion and bias, and that doesn’t respond to money. Bias really doesn’t respond to money, in my opinion. I’ve just been doing this for so long, I think change may come, but it will probably be prompted by some external entity.

What drives you to continue this work when change is so slow in arriving?

I guess I’m just stubborn. It is so important when the symbolic world does not reflect the real world. This is certainly an employment issue for women working as directors, writers, editors, as well as actresses, so it’s a dilemma on that level. But it is a larger cultural dilemma. As long as women are underrepresented and misrepresented in our symbolic world, that is problematic for women living in the real world. So I think it’s just very important to women’s future to continue doing this.

Feminism is a trendy topic right now, as are diversity and inclusion across the board. But trends fall out of fashion. Are you concerned about the enthusiasm for and focus on this issue fading?

That’s certainly something I’ve thought about. We may be getting to the point of inclusion or diversity fatigue, where people are just tired of hearing about the issue and I really understand that. So it is possible that that would be the case. But because the push for inclusion is really rooted in changing demographics, I have some hope that that will counteract that fatigue and just push it through. It does feel a little bit like the wind is at our backs at this point, and it is being propelled forward by those changing demographics.

I also think that diversity means different things to different people. And it has been largely defined in the simplest way possible: In black and white terms, Even Chris Rock at the Oscars framed it as a black/white issue, which I found remarkable and disappointing. Because it’s so much more than that.

I do think it’s interesting, if you look at the study, the percentage of black females on broadcast network television has reached a historic high, and I think that is a response to [being] the squeaky wheel, and to framing this issue in black and white terms. If we’re going to talk about race, what about all the brown people who aren’t being represented? Latinos and Latinas are the most underrepresented group on film and TV compared to their representation in the U.S. population. So it does matter how this issue of diversity is framed. People are cognitive misers — they want to think about issues in the easiest way possible. And this is just not a simple issue, and achieving inclusion does not mean including one woman in a cast that includes seven men.

Of all the data in your study, is there any finding or number that is especially striking to you?

The statistic I open with: 79 percent of the programs considered in the study, including broadcast TV, streaming programs, and cable, featured casts with more male than female characters. Five percent had equal females and males, and 16 percent had casts with more females than males. I think those are pretty startling numbers. The broadcast numbers have not moved on screen or behind the scenes in a decade, and I think that’s really startling!

“As long as women are underrepresented and misrepresented in our symbolic world, that is problematic for women living in the real world.”

I think we think the networks continue to improve and that’s not the case. The numbers on streaming shows, original programming, those numbers are about equivalent to the networks, and I think that will be a surprise to people. I think the conventional wisdom holds that the streaming services are doing really innovative things because of the creative freedom afforded to them.

What do you think about the idea that women will watch television shows — or just consume stories, generally — about men, but men won’t watch shows about women? Why is that such a pervasive theory?

Women, traditionally, have not had a choice, and so when you watch a television show or watch a film, you learn to identify with a male character even though you’re female.

I know that is a popular belief, but I’ve never really seen any solid data to back up that notion that men will only watch male protagonists whereas females will watch both. I would like to see some data on that, and I really never have. It is a logical belief, just because of the array of products that are available to us. But here’s the thing, and I’ll flip over to film again for a second: The film studios have justified their emphasis on male protagonists by saying that is what the international markets demand. Audiences in other countries will not watch films with female protagonists. But this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. They’re nervous about making films with female protagonists, so they give those films limited resources, and that shows on screen in low production values and smaller marketing budgets, and then those films don’t do as well, and the executives say, “See?”

We could go back to a television show called Honey West, it was the first drama on television featuring a female, but the network was really nervous about it. So the other similar shows on the air would have been in color and they were 60 minutes long. Honey West was half an hour and black and white, and it failed after a season.

I find even among men who obviously don’t think of themselves as sexist, there is a resistance to watching a show that is overtly feminine. I have to do a lot more convincing to sell someone on Jane the Virgin — which is not just built around female characters but deals with issues that are typically coded as “feminine” and domestic — than I do to sell someone on Mr. Robot.

You know what’s really funny? We’ve had this discussion in my classes, and guys really do admit, “I watched it with my girlfriend” or “I watched it with my sister, and I really liked it!” And they were really surprised. But it was good because it’s really a realization for them. It’s a light bulb moment where they say, “I wouldn’t have watched it if I hadn’t been with a girlfriend or sister.”