Friday, April 4, 2014

What's Wrong With This Picture?

A few weeks ago, some friends and I were talking about a piece in the Sunday Times about the lack of publication of children's books by people of color. The numbers were really eye-opening (and depressing). The author of the piece, Christopher Myers, writes movingly of the effects of not seeing yourself in the stories you read, and wonders why, despite the many mission statements about a commitment to diversity, in 2013, out of 3,200 children's books published, only 93 were about black people. The reason Myers is given for this discrepancy by members of the publishing industry and booksellers with whom he speaks, is The Market - that vague and unaccountable force that tells us only books about white people will sell.

In the course of our conversation, in thinking about the importance of who controls the levers of production to what actually gets produced, my friends and I brought up the Bechdel Test and the problem of women's invisibility in the movies, despite the fact that women are a majority of people who exist on the planet. We knew that the industry is dominated at all levels by men, and that it was unsurprising, therefore, that their stories would be the ones getting told. We had also heard, like Christopher Myers, that The Market was dictating what gets produced - that boys and men won't watch stories with girls and women, particularly in that all-important international market. 

So it was with real interest that I dove into a piece by Walt Hickey at FiveThirtyEight that takes a good hard look at the numbers comparing films that passed and failed the Bechdel Test.
Using Bechdel test data, we analyzed 1,615 films released from 1990 to 2013 to examine the relationship between the prominence of women in a film and that film’s budget and gross profits. We found that the median budget of movies that passed the test — those that featured a conversation between two women about something other than a man — was substantially lower than the median budget of all films in the sample. What’s more, we found that the data doesn’t appear to support the persistent Hollywood belief that films featuring women do worse at the box office. Instead, we found evidence that films that feature meaningful interactions between women may in fact have a better return on investment, overall, than films that don’t.
The whole article is worth a read for the great way it both points out the outrageous lack of meaningful representations of women in film, and explodes all the usual reasons given for why women's stories just can't be told. To emphasize this last point, he also throws in great data on just how completely skewed the numbers are with respect to men being in control of the movie industry.

Actress and activist Geena Davis has also been doing great work on the problem of gender inequality in the media, particularly in children's media.

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