This is the basic list of questions we ask ourselves while consuming media to help us determine if we’re seeing women being treated fairly or not. It’s not a yes or no checklist, or an easy, one sentence test, like the Bechdel test. But then, Alison Bechdel never meant for her test to become a widely used standardized instrument. This test requires some thinking about what you’re viewing. Misogyny is often subtle, and it’s pervasive. It’s easy to miss with one, casual viewing, but the message still gets into our heads and affects us.
That’s why these are guidelines, rather than a test. Some of these answers will be subjective, and reasonable people can disagree. We’re talking about art and the interpretation of art, after all. It also takes practice to start seeing things like camera angles and positioning, rather than letting it fly by. Hardly any of us can always spot gaslighting, especially when it’s being done by the writers and producers instead of the characters. These guidelines are just aspects of entertainment to keep in mind while viewing, to become more aware of what you’re seeing.
I (Metacrone) started working on this list in the late 80s, and it’s slowly grown. It’s still a work in progress, just like the entertainment industry. There are very few works that would pass every question with flying colors. Figure out how much you can live with watching, and the level that makes you take action. It’s okay to just watch and enjoy the show sometimes without feeling guilty, too. But, the more you can recognize the issues with entertainment and speak out, even if it’s only to one person, the more of an effect we all have on the entertainment industry.
The trick to understanding subtle misogyny, which is often institutionalized and internalized, is to look at the attitude behind the narrative, the way events and actions are framed, and the repetitiveness with which we are presented with these images. One scientist or superhero unrealistically fighting monsters in heels doesn’t matter. All of them fighting monsters unrealistically in heels while being unrealistically thin, with no muscle mass, having beautiful hair and clothing, and only a minor smudge or 2 of “sexy dirt,” matters a huge amount. It becomes the standard that everyone measures women by, even if they don’t realize they’re doing it. Especially for girls growing up surrounded by those images and looking up to those heroines. Or finding powerful female villains to be the closest thing to a well-rounded, achievable role model that is available to them.
You’ll notice we don’t include the standard used by the Bechdel test, time spent with other females talking about something other than men. We feel that standard has turned out to be a Trojan horse, as others have pointed out before us. If a woman is alone on a desert island with a man, there’s no way to pass the Bechdel test, even for the most feminist piece, whereas a piece in which a group of women do nothing but belittle each other based on patriarchal beauty standards can still pass the Bechdel test.
What’s important to us is the female characters’ appropriateness relative to the situation they find themselves in. We’re looking for women escaping the shackles of patriarchy. For women to no longer have to choose between being a madonna or a whore. To no longer be burdened with Eve’s supposed sins. We’re looking for shows where women are just women. Just regular, human people, living their lives, going about their business, as most of us do, without having male expectations placed onto them, forcing them to be weaker, or stronger, or more beautiful, or sexier, or uglier, than the situation would otherwise call for. We’re looking for female characters that haven’t been distorted in any way in order to fit male needs and expectations.
It doesn’t seem like much to ask, but it’s surprisingly hard to find. Most of us have forgotten what it might even look like. Many of us don’t even have it in our real lives, so we don’t know what to look for to begin with.
So, the next time you have some extra brain space and are watching a show, ask yourself a few of these questions. They are meant for reflection, to be applied in a thoughtful manner on a case by case basis, not to suggest that every time a woman fights in heels or wears tight, revealing clothing she’s in a misogynist show. We love a good fight in a great outfit as much as the next person.
Metawitches Guidelines for Spotting Misogyny vs Female Equality in Entertainment and Media
Misogynist works reduce women to five different tropes, or a combination of these tropes, if the characters are “complex”:
Madonna: The perfect, pure, unspoiled, virginal, all-giving, always nurturing mother/good girl who “deserves”, and gets, the men’s respect. Attractive in a more controlled, more subdued way than the Whore/Bad Girl, usually involving pastels, neutral colors, and covered skin. Sandy from Grease, Jane Bennett from Pride and Prejudice and Melanie Wilkes from Gone With the Wind are examples.
Whore: The woman who is sexual, powerful, selfish, self-aware, who does not put the needs of others first at all times, and hangs around with the men, but isn’t respected. Attractive in a flashy, obvious way, involving brighter colors, and tighter, more revealing clothing than the Madonna/Good Girl. Often a villain, but also can be simply the Bad Girl or even the Bad Girl with the Heart of Gold. Scarlet O’Hara from Gone with the Wind, Kitty Bennett from Pride and Prejudice, Rizzo from Grease, and Johanna from The Hunger Games are examples.
Child: The woman who is weak and unable to think for herself, whether it’s the writers who think that, the male characters, or the woman herself. She is helpless, ditzy, silly, insane, manic, dreamy, victimized, angry, depressed, etc. There are an infinite number of reasons why the male characters might need to step in and take over the decision-making, or provide strong guidance. Guidance may be provided subtly. This one can be difficult to spot. The child usually doesn’t grow up/grow as a character, get more than token punishment for mistakes, or have any truly evil intent. Examples include Mrs Bennett from Pride and Prejudice, Frenchie from Grease, Annie from The Hunger Games and Barbra from Night of the Living Dead. This is a prominent racist stereotype as well, so it’s often used on women of color. Prissy from Gone with the Wind is a famous example.
Eve: Even though she might be the lead character, the woman is treated as if she is an extension of the male characters, instead of a separate being, especially physically. Men will guide her decision-making. She will learn everything important from them. Their love and approval will mean everything to her. Often, the love interest will touch her constantly, going so far as to move her body to where he wants it without telling her where they are going first or giving her any choice in the matter. Sex is all about him and is often a reward for his accomplishments. If the woman disobeys the man’s wishes, the universe will often teach her a lesson. Unlike the child, Eve can grow as a character, but she can only grow in male-approved directions. Eve can be a good girl and close companion to the man from the start, or she can start off as a villain and be redeemed, after she’s accepted her punishment and male guidance. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, Wonder Woman (from the 2017 movie), Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Jane Austin’s Emma, and Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice are Eves, as are most of the recent crop of bad ass female warriors and strong female heroines.
Invisible Woman: The women that men don’t want, unless they are used as villains or plot devices. The throwaway characters. The old (post-menopausal, sometimes younger), very young, disfigured, disabled, sick, unattractive, fat. If the piece is racist, women of color will often fall into this category. Wonder Woman 2017 erased all of the women in this category except the chosen child, the plot device secretary, and the disfigured villainess. The movie side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has also virtually erased this category, except the aging Peggy Carter and a few appearances by superhero mothers and mentors. The Ancient One in Dr. Strange was an Invisible Woman, meant to be a supremely powerful being, but instead kept in hiding, reduced to asking neophyte Dr Strange for help, and sacrificing herself, in the end.* All of the Asian women who could have played the role instead of Tilda Swinton were rendered invisible by the filmmakers.
Now that you have an idea of what you’re looking for, let’s look at the questions.
1- Does the women’s clothing make sense for their situations, or is it meant to sexualize or infantilize characters who otherwise wouldn’t have those traits? Are older women, disabled women, fat women, and other women outside the typical Western beauty standard dressed in plain, loose clothing, while the “attractive” women are dressed in tight, revealing clothing? Are the women dressed appropriately for what they’re doing and who/when/what they are? Are they dressed sexually for no apparent reason? Are they hobbled by wearing high heels or being barefoot? Is a character wearing a tiny revealing outfit that makes her physically vulnerable to injury, or virginal white, or something else that makes her seem deliberately childlike?
2-Are women who aren’t considered traditionally attractive confined to the role of best friend, sidekick, neighbor, boss, villain: anything but leading lady? Are women who are physically disabled or disfigured actively portrayed as villains?Are the women’s faces and facial expressions allowed to be normal reactions to situations and is the level of make up they wear appropriate to the character? Are they allowed to have bad hair days, not wear makeup, have less than attractive facial expressions? Are their faces oversexualized? Are they forced to smile at all times? To wear heavy make up? Are older women so loaded up with Botox that they can’t move their facial muscles any more? Do the female characters become ridiculously frightened or scream at the first sign of trouble, no matter how brave and practical they are otherwise?
3- If the show acknowledges bodily functions and genitals, does it acknowledge them in women? How? Is it acknowledged in a matter-of-fact way, or are women’s bodily functions and genitals seen as especially disgusting, especially those that are unique to women, such as periods and breastfeeding? Or are women’s bodily functions fetishized, with pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding turned into processes created exclusively to benefit men? Or are beautiful women too perfect to do anything as disgusting as fart or sh*t, but “ugly” women do it for laughs or to show us how scary or hideous they are?
4- Are the women unnecessarily physically manhandled by other people? Are the women fully in control of their own bodies? Do people touch them, either sexually or non-sexually, without their consent? Are their bodies picked up and moved around at will by others, without their consent? Is their personal space invaded without a second thought? Are they forced to use their bodies in ways they don’t want to, up to and including rape? Are they subject to social pressure to behave a certain way, often to the point of coercion? Are they seen as monsters who must be executed? Are they the subject of a witch hunt, or false imprisonment?
5- Is the woman in full control of her mind and power (personal power or supernatural power)? Or does she have to have a man guiding her all the time? Does a male step in and finish her fights for her (and possibly take the glory)? Is there a male guide who is the smart one, and who chuckles at her naivety? If she’s the main character, does the male get the big victory? Does she ever outgrow mentorship? (E.g.: Buffy never outgrew needing Giles to be her guide.) Does her husband, lover, or son tend to make the main decisions, or subtly guide her toward the correct decision? (We’re not talking about a woman freely asking for advice, or coming to consensus with another person.) Do men belittle the women’s intelligence and morals on a regular basis, while the women accept this treatment as normal? Do all of the female characters have an external locus of control (feel that they are powerless to affect their own world/lives, and thus end up being constant victims), or act like it when it’s time to take action, regardless of their position in the world? Do women go insane or develop other illnesses from experiences that don’t have the same effect on men? Are female characters expected to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, whether that means the couple, the family, or the country, while male characters are not? If the woman is a criminal, in the military, or has another dangerous lifestyle, is she treated equally to the men, or is she seen as a pawn in the men’s games? Did she understand the choices she was making, or was she portrayed as too stupid or naive to realize the seriousness of the life she chose?
6- Do men use subtle and not so subtle gaslighting and manipulation of women to control and coerce them, but this is accepted as normal behavior by everyone? Who is the point of view character? Are we ever given the honest point of view of the female characters? (This might be the most important question, and the hardest to discern. Characters speak the writers’ words, after all, not their own. Editors and directors manipulate which words we hear and how they are presented. But then sometimes it seems like it should be obvious. We’ve been pressured into accepting reality show conditions, for example, as okay, because the women appear to choose to trade their autonomy and dignity for fame and fortune. But is there any real choice in a coercive culture like ours, where we are bombarded from birth with certain messages?) Do women feel the need to apologize for expressing their emotions and opinions freely, especially negative ones, most especially anything involving anger or depression (for being the dreaded Debbie Downer), while men are accepted and even praised for expressing themselves? Are women automatically seen as liars and manipulators, using men for their own purposes? Does the gaslighting extend to the audience, asking us to accept that the male characters are truthful and have only good intentions? Do the women smile and nod their way through the scenes, accepting whatever is dished out to them (often with a laugh track in the background or a reality show commentary)? Do the women compete to be degraded, sometimes to the point of abuse? Do the male characters keep a judgey running commentary on the women’s behavior and looks going, as if the women can’t hear them?
7- If the show involves sex, do women initiate and enjoy sex as often and as much as men? Is it stated or implied that certain kinds of women want or enjoy sex too much? Are value judgements made on the types of sex a woman wants and enjoys, whether that’s hetero sex, kinky sex or queer sex of whatever sort? Does it show women receiving oral or being pleasured just for them at least as often as men are? If it does, does it only show women receiving pleasure from other women, or do they receive it from men? Is the man genuinely concerned with pleasing the woman just for her, or is it part of some actual or perceived competition for him? Does it show women being coerced, either subtly or overtly, into sex acts they aren’t interested in or comfortable with, while the narrative implies that they should go along with whatever their partner or culture wants? Is it stated verbally that it’s okay to say no or to stop in the middle of sex, but that’s negated by everything else in the piece? Is it stated or implied that only certain kinds of women (such as a certain age, size, race, ability, economic or beauty standard) are interested in sex, enjoy sex or are worth having sex with? Is the man always dominant and the initiator in sexual encounters? Is the sex about power or competition rather than pleasure? Who has the power in the situation? Is everything that happens during the sexual encounters consensual and previously discussed, if the couple is trying out sexual practices that are new to them? Is the women freely choosing to have sex, or is the sex something that has been earned by the male character for fulfilling certain conditions, whether it’s taking her to dinner and a movie or helping her escape from prison? Are the characters being honest and open about themselves before having sex, or is dubious consent involved due to the dishonesty and manipulation of one or both of the partners?
8- Are the women surrounded by symbols and signs of female powerlessness and weakness? Are the women forced into a Madonna/Whore dichotomy, where good, nurturing women can’t be sexy and own their power, and bad, sexy, powerful women can’t be selfless and compassionate? Where women are either powerful or good? Where a “complex” female character is a woman who struggles to choose between being powerful or good? Does her power ultimately make her weak or evil? Is she forced to apologize for using her power? Is she self-loathing because of her power? Is she a funny-sexy woman who’s too weak for her hypersexuality to be threatening? Or a powerful but evil woman whose sexiness is portrayed as threatening? Is she turned into Eve, falling from grace and goodness with the acquisition of knowledge and adulthood? Does using her power drain her and make her physically and mentally weak? Is she self-loathing because of the necessary choices she’s had to make to survive a crisis situation, such as a war or natural disaster, or an ongoing struggle, such as poverty? What kinds of jobs do the female characters do? What kinds of roles do they play in their society? What does the culture’s religion look like? The military? Are women respected for the roles they traditionally and currently play in the culture that’s being portrayed?
9- Are they showing the truth of a woman’s experience, or are they showing exploitation? Is the woman a victim because that’s the only way the writer knows how to write women? Is a historical figure’s story being told accurately, or is it being sensationalized, with the woman being made weaker, or sexualized, or taking a backseat in her own story? Is a woman making choices that act out male fantasies rather than choices real women make, such as when characters fall in love with their rapists?
10- How are women photographed and physically positioned? How does the cinematography treat them? Is the lighting harsh, to make them look old or ugly? Soft, to make them look younger? Are women in positions that make them look smaller and more childlike? Are they positioned behind and/or below men consistently to show that the men are the more powerful and important characters? Does their position make them look dehumanized, vulnerable, self-protective, or lacking in individuality? Do they appear faceless or monstrous? Are they disappearing into shadows, or do they appear as if they’re behind shadowy bars made by blinds, making them look sinister? Is the camera tilted and/or is part of the subject of the frame obscured, making everything feel off, unstable, maybe even insane? Do all of the women look alike, in their physical characteristics and/or dress and behavior, turning them into anonymous clones lacking in individuality?
11- What kind of language is used to describe women and women’s issues? Are elderly women referred to as “grandmothers,” while elderly men are called “men”? Are women called “ladies” or “girls” while men are called “men”? Are women described by their physical characteristics, while men are described by their character traits or history? Are appropriate terms and phrases used for women’s body parts, issues and crimes against women, or are derogatory terms used, and terms that question the validity of crimes and issues, like the phrase “real” rape? Even the tone of voice that newscasters use has an effect on the way we view the people and issues they are reporting on. Do narrators, hosts, and commentators promote stereotypes of women, and manipulate the audience into feeling a certain way about certain women, such as that empowered women are “evil witches” or unmarried women who use birth control are “slutty”? Do the jokes have an anti-realistic, anti-equal woman slant (fat jokes, lying woman jokes, ageist jokes)?
12- How are female characters treated relative to male characters, in areas such as amount of screen time, focus given in the plot, and relative number of lines of dialogue? This goes for females vs males in all aspects of the production. Lead characters and series regulars are the most visible. How does the number of named female characters relate to the number of males? How prominent are the women’s roles? Are there women of color and LGBT women in the cast? How prominent are the roles the women of color and LGBT women are playing? Is there a female lead, but she’s the only named female character? Does the production have women on the creative team? If it’s a TV series, does it have female writers and directors for its episodes on a regular basis? Are there women in any of the male-oriented tech positions? Is the story about female characters who look and act like they are important to the piece (and might even be the title character) and get major screen time, but in reality the important work of the story is done by the male characters (who might technically be supporting characters)? (This, and the female lead as the sole woman are the most popular ways to dupe women into thinking they are seeing equality.)
Lucky 13- If you want to dig really deep, what is the working climate for women who work for this production, this director, this studio, this theatre, this TV network? Are they known for hiring women? For giving women their start as writers or directors? Or are they known for shutting women out of anything but acting, for enforcing unrealistic physical standards on actresses, and/or for sexually harassing the women who work for them? Worse, have they been accused of rape, pedophilia, or other crimes against women, but their wealth and influence have allowed them to escape justice? Is this a business that you are comfortable continuing to give your viewership to, knowing that views, ratings, clicks, advertising dollars and ticket sales encourage the continuation of the misogyny you’re seeing on the stage or screen?
According to the annual Celluloid Ceiling Study, fewer than 1% of each year’s top 250 films employs more than 10 women behind the camera, whereas 70% employ 10 or more men. This has remained unchanged for the last 20 years. It will remain unchanged until we demand change with our feet.
What we see in our entertainment influences us, but we have the power to influence it back by focussing our attention and our money onto the projects and creators that we feel are most worthy of our support. All it takes is some critical thinking and the power of an informed choice.
*The Ancient One also has elements of the Madonna and Eve, but given her self-sacrifice and dependence on the men around her, I feel that the combination of making her soft spoken, dependent, sacrificing, hidden, and generally lacking in authority and presence serves to make her fade into the background, compared to other characters. Usually an Invisible Woman would be a smaller role, so The Ancient One is worth noting. She’s turned into a ghost when she should be a powerhouse. For comparison, look at the Netflix side of the MCU, and Madame Gao, who commands every room she walks into, before even saying a word, even though the actress, Wai Ching Ho, is physically a tiny person.