I wanted my first-year film students to understand what happens to a story when actual human beings inhabit your characters, and the way they can inspire storytelling. And I wanted to teach them how to look at headshots and what you might be able to tell from a headshot. So for the past few years I’ve done a small experiment with them.Some troubling shit always occurs.
It works like this: I bring in my giant file of head shots, which include actors of all races, sizes, shapes, ages, and experience levels. Each student picks a head shot from the stack and gets a few minutes to sit with the person’s face and then make up a little story about them.
Namely, for white men, they have no trouble coming up with an entire history, job, role, genre, time, place, and costume. They will often identify him without prompting as “the main character.” The only exception? “He would play the gay guy.” For white women, they mostly do not come up with a job (even though it was specifically asked for), and they will identify her by her relationships. “She would play the mom/wife/love interest/best friend.” I’ve heard “She would play the slut” or “She would play the hot girl.” A lot more than once.
For nonwhite men, it can be equally depressing. “He’s in a buddy cop movie, but he’s not the main guy, he’s the partner.” “He’d play a terrorist.” “He’d play a drug dealer.” “A thug.” “A hustler.” “Homeless guy.” One Asian actor was promoted to “villain.”
For nonwhite women (grab onto something sturdy, like a big glass of strong liquor), sometimes they are “lucky” enough to be classified as the girlfriend/love interest/mom, but I have also heard things like “Well, she’d be in a romantic comedy, but as the friend, you know?” “Maid.” “Prostitute.” “Drug addict.”
I should point out that the responses are similar whether the group is all or mostly-white or extremely racially mixed, and all the groups I’ve tried this with have been about equally balanced between men and women, though individual responses vary. Women do a little better with women, and people of color do a little better with people of color, but female students sometimes forget to come up with a job for female actors and black male students sometimes tell the class that their black male actor wouldn’t be the main guy.
Once the students have made their pitches, we interrogate their opinions. “You seem really sure that he’s not the main character – why? What made you automatically say that?” “You said she was a mom. Was she born a mom, or did she maybe do something else with her life before her magic womb opened up and gave her an identity? Who is she as a person?” In the case of the “thug“, it turns out that the student was just reading off his film resume. This brilliant African American actor who regularly brings houses down doing Shakespeare on the stage and more than once made me weep at the beauty and subtlety of his performances, had a list of film credits that just said “Thug #4.” “Gang member.” “Muscle.” Because that’s the film work he can get. Because it puts food on his table.
So, the first time I did this exercise, I didn’t know that it would turn into a lesson on racism, sexism, and every other kind of -ism. I thought it was just about casting. But now I know that casting is never just about casting, and this day is a real teachable opportunity. Because if we do this right, we get to the really awkward silence, where the (now mortified) students try to sink into their chairs. Because, hey, most of them are proud Obama voters! They have been raised by feminist moms! They don’t want to be or see themselves as being racist or sexist. But their own racism and sexism is running amok in the room, and it’s awkward.
This is hugely important.
Just because you don’t “hate women” doesn’t mean you’re not sexist.
Just because you don’t “hate black people” doesn’t mean you’re not racist.
We all carry the unconscious bias and oppressive stereotypes that we’ve been raised with, and that we see subtly reinforced by the media and by others on a daily basis.
Patriarchy/Kyiarchy live in our heads, hidden where we can’t see them, and it takes a life-long effort to educate ourselves and question our motives to break them down.
ScienceDaily (May 3, 2011) — The most comprehensive study of 20th century children’s books ever undertaken in the United States has found a bias towards tales that feature men and boys as lead characters. Surprisingly, researchers found that even when the characters are animals, they tend to be male.
The findings, published in the April issue of Gender & Society, are based on a study of nearly 6,000 books published from 1900 to 2000. While previous studies have looked at the representation of male and female characters in children’s books, they were often limited in scope. “We looked at a full century of books,” says lead author Prof. Janice McCabe, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Florida State University. “One thing that surprised us is that females’ representations did not consistently improve from 1900 to 2000; in the mid part of the century it was actually more unequal. Books became more male-dominated.”
The study also found that:
- Males are central characters in 57 percent of children’s books published per year, while only 31 percent have female central characters.
- No more than 33 percent of children’s books published in any given year contain central characters that are adult women or female animals, but adult men and male animals appear in up to 100 percent of books.
- Male animals are central characters in more than 23 percent of books per year, while female animals are in only 7.5 percent.
- On average, 36.5 percent of books in each year studied include a male in the title, compared to 17.5 percent that include a female.
- Although books published in the 1990s came close to parity for human characters (with a ratio of 0.9:1 for child characters; 1.2:1 for adult characters), a significant disparity of nearly 2 to 1 remains for male animal characters versus female.
Since children’s books are a “dominant blueprint of shared cultural values, meanings, and expectations,” the authors say the disparity between male and female characters is sending children a message that “women and girls occupy a less important role in society than men or boys.” Books contribute to how children understand what is expected of women and men, and shape the way children will think about their own place in the world.
The authors collected information from the full series of three sources: Caldecott award-winning books, (1938-2000); Little Golden Books, (1942-1993) and the Children’s Catalog, (1900-2000). They found that Golden Books tended to have the most unbalanced representations.
A closer look at the types of characters with the greatest disparity reveals that only one Caldecott winner has a female animal as a central character without any male central characters. The 1985 book Have You Seen My Duckling? follows Mother Duck asking other pond animals this question as she searches for a missing duckling.
In seeking to answer why there is such persistent inequality among animal characters in books for kids, the authors say some publishers — under pressure to release books that are more gender balanced — use “animal characters in an attempt to avoid the problem of gender representation.” However, their findings show that most animal characters are gendered and that inequality among animals is greater — not less — than that among humans.
The tendency of readers to interpret even gender-neutral animal characters as male exaggerates the pattern of female underrepresentation. The authors note that mothers frequently label gender-neutral animal characters as male when reading with their children, and that children assign gender to gender-neutral animal characters. “Together with research on reader interpretations, our findings regarding imbalanced representations among animal characters suggest that these characters could be particularly powerful, and potentially overlooked, conduits for gendered messages…The persistent pattern of disparity among animal characters may reveal a subtle kind of symbolic annihilation of women disguised through animal imagery.”