Because life is political, so is entertainment, and so is our blog. Because we know that the creators of the shows that we love can do better. If no one points out where the issues lie, how will they know where they need to improve?
We live in the real world, where mass media has an effect on people’s attitudes. It’s important to examine closely exactly what we’re being shown and what messages are actually being delivered. It’s the only way that change happens.
Whenever we start analyzing how a show is doing in regard to its male/female ratio and other forms of diversity, and compare how characters from different demographics are being treated, we are always met with the response:
But aren’t the male (and white) characters being treated the same way as the women?
This is where attention to detail becomes important, plus the ability to count, and the ability to distinguish between a named character and a background character. When we’re discussing violent acts, this argument is frequently made, because there will be so many more men running around on screen than women that, of course, in raw numbers, more violent acts are happening to men than women.
Let’s break this situation down.
First, ask yourself, why are all or most of the people in the background male? (By “background actors”, I mean those with no or few lines, such as extras and stunt people.) If the casting is skewed in a misogynistic way so that there aren’t women to begin with, then everything that happens will happen to men. This can also apply to the featured actors, by which I mean those with a few lines who might only appear in a scene or two, whose gender is irrelevant, such as a restaurant server or a cop.
This also applies to race in casting, though the trend these days is to cast diverse actors in the background and as featured characters, then have the violent acts happen to them. The darker the character’s skin, the more likely they are to die and to be involved in violence. I’m so sick of writing about black men who act only in one or two stereotypical ways. Please (scifi) TV writers, write about the majority of the black men in the world, who are a varied slice of humanity, like everyone else.
So, first, it may appear that more violent acts are happening to men because the ratio of men to women on a show is so out of balance. But if you look at the numbers proportionally, the women are far more likely to be killed or injured.
Second, we may be referring to the quality of the interactions, which is harder to define, but has to do with concepts such as respect and agency. It could be that in a given show, more men may die, even when looking at the proportions, but the men may have chosen to be involved in the violence, while the women were forced into it against their will. In other words, we consider which characters are the perpetrators and the victims.
Or the women may choose to be involved, which is called having agency, but they may be treated mainly as sex objects by both the creators and other characters. Or in other ways as objects, possessions, or tools to be used and discarded. Invisible women, who aren’t considered sexy enough to keep or are too smart to keep because they’re threatening to the male ego, are particularly likely to be used and discarded. This is generally written in such a way that the audience is supposed to find the woman unlikeable and the disrespect shown to her humorous and justified. This type of humor depends on institutionalized and internalized misogyny.
For an explanation of the terms invisible women, institutionalized misogyny and internalized misogyny, see our Guidelines for Spotting Misogyny in Media, linked in the sidebar of every page.
But it could be that, when you look at the speaking, named characters in a show who spend the most time on screen, the regular and recurring characters and the main guest stars, the women really are being given a raw deal, whether there are more or fewer of them in proportion to the men. You just didn’t notice it because we’ve been taught not to look at things this way and not to complain. And we’re taught that women deserve what they get. This is basically what the concepts of institutionalized and internalized misogyny refer to.
These ideas of respect, agency, institutionalized and internalized misogyny bring us to our third point. When we move beyond discussing violence, and look at the rest of the culture, how do we distinguish when the women are being treated with misogyny, while the men are being treated with humor? It begins with the idea of privilege, and who is culturally dominant in the situation.
As an example, in a work situation, a joke using insult humor comes across very differently when it comes from your boss than it does when it comes from a coworker on an equal level. And one joke might not mean much, but significant repetition might mean your job is in trouble.
This is the way demeaning humor and situations in entertainment feel to women and minorities. It’s not the same for a white man to be made to look silly or stupid, because he holds all of the power in the situation, even if he momentarily appears to have lost it. It’s hardwired into our brains to defer to him. This has been researched ad nauseam. Women stop talking when men start.
The whiter, straighter, more able bodied and minded and maler you present, the more this privilege applies. This is true in life and in entertainment. Obviously, we’re not suggesting that violence and humor in entertainment disappear. But what’s also true is that in the entertainment world, the whiter, straighter, more able bodied and minded and maler you are, the more likely you are the one dishing out the humiliation and violence. The darker, more queer, more disabled, or female you are, the more likely you are to be killed, harassed or humiliated.
If you are female, this means that your body and mind are not your own in a way that men only experience when they are prisoners. They consider the mental and physical violations which we endure on a regular basis to be the worst punishment imaginable. Because we are all so used to this situation, by the time we are adults, we don’t even see it as wrong anymore. This is inadvertently portrayed in entertainment 24/7, with the willing help of women.
So, no, the men are not experiencing the same things as the women, in quantity or quality. The creators might want you to think that they are, and they might even think that themselves, but look closer. The only way our culture will improve is if we expect people to do better.
A few sources:
NYTimes.com- When Talking About Bias Backfires
NYTimes.com- Speaking While Female
Time.com- How Not to Be ‘Manterrupted’ in Meetings
WashingtonPost.com- Women shouldn’t trust the men who call themselves allies
Vermont Public Radio- Pop Culture Politics: How TV, Movies And Books Shape Our Real-World Views
HuffingtonPost.com- We Don’t Need ‘Diversity’ In Film And TV. We Need Balance.
Hannah Gadsby Full Speech: “The Good Men” & Misogyny | Women in Entertainment-