Reel Women Facing
Real Bias in Hollywood
Analyzing Gender Asymmetry Using Data Visualization
The society is undergoing a social reckoning in the form of movements like #MeToo. Women in the entertainment industry are opening up about the misogyny they face on a daily basis. Discussing the underrepresentation of women in Hollywood has become a hot topic of discussion.
Especially since the inherent gender bias in the industry can easily be proved using numbers.
We conducted a semester-long data visualization project to analyze the gender asymmetry in Hollywood and inform changes to the existing tools that measure biases.
Film-makers claim that they unintentionally make movies about themselves. The most powerful producers, writers, and directors are men, so male-themes permeate into Hollywood's output. Gender inequality roots itself in both the subconscious of individuals and the societal culture as a whole. Entertainment industries are starting to have open dialogues about gender imbalance through powerful campaigns all around the world. The Bechdel-Wallace test was one of the starting points of this conversation in the 80s.
What is the Bechdel-Wallace test?
Alison Bechdel, an American cartoonist, famous for her comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For promoted an idea. In 1985, she published a strip called "The Rule" that came to be known as the "Bechdel-Wallace test",
a measure of the representation of women in fiction.
This test wasn't formulated to distinguish between feminist and non-feminist films. It was meant to be a litmus test to demonstrate the lack of screen-space allotted to female characters in movies. It doesn't elaborate on the nature of female interaction beyond its independence from male-centric topics.
We used lists provided by Paste Magazine, Yahoo, The New Yorker, and The Guardian to identify the 50 most popular movies of 2017. This dataset consists of movies that did very well in the opinion of the general audience and famous critics on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes. The results of the Bechdel-Wallace test were sourced from their website.
The Result: 33 out of the 50 movies in this list pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test.
But we were not convinced by the results. And here’s why —
Thor: Ragnarok failed this test. The antagonist is a female character with a significant role in the movie, but the movie failed the test on account of having no two female characters interacting with each other about something other than the leading male characters.
Movies that barely passed the test did so on a technicality, such as female-female conversations not being specifically about men, but might still be centered around gender-stereotypical topics.
Beauty & the Beast passed the test because Beauty discusses her wardrobe and the castle rules with Mrs. Potts, Plummete, and Madame Gaderobe for a tiny amount of time during a conversation about Beast.
New Criteria to Measure Bias
A surprising number of films fail to even do basic character development work with women. Female characters are pigeonholed into predefined roles such the action chick, romantic interest, or the middle-aged mother. Often, women are reduced to stereotypes or tropes as soon as they’re introduced and they don’t get developed any further. They frequently serve little purpose beyond causing plot problems for the protagonist or having a baby/dying to raise the stakes for a male character.
Apart from the data collected for the movies in our list, we also analyzed existing articles and academic papers on gender inequality in Hollywood.
Insights Drawn from Research
Women are seldom portrayed as strong leaders and thinkers in Hollywood films. There is a lack of serious character development for women on screen compared to their male counterparts.
According to a global film study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, female characters are at least twice as likely as men to be shown in sexually explicit scenes and are five times more likely to be referenced as attractive.
The imbalance in the sex ratio of the crew is stark. We can’t reasonably determine the sexual orientation of the entire crew, but it is possible to highlight the gender imbalance in key roles.
Women are seldom given supporting roles in Hollywood films. There is a lack of opportunities for women on screen compared to their male counterparts.
There is a pervasive belief that audiences both in the US and internationally don’t like films with strong female characters.
Whether female interactions go beyond male-centric topics determines how much the supporting female cast matters to the overall storyline.
This led to the creation of the 'Reel Bias Test'. We created six criteria derived from the above insights and tested them on the dataset of the most popular movies of 2017.
The Reel Bias Test
A points-based test that judges movies based on the following six criteria. If a movie gets at least 4 out of 7 points, it passes the Reel Bias Test.
At least two female characters in supporting roles (1 point)
A female protagonist or antagonist in the movie (1 point)
At least one female decision maker in the crew (2 points)
Female characters discussed non-sexually by men (1 point)
Female-female conversations about more than just men (1 point)
Female characters with a purposeful story — not serving just an ancillary/decorative function (1 point)
The Result: 21 movies out of 50 passed the Reel Bias Test. That’s just 42% of the overall list!
Designing the Visualizations
Finding a chart that encapsulates our findings in an intuitive visualization was our next challenge.
Our initial idea was to represent the 50 movies in a stretched chord diagram. The six criteria measured against the top six genres of movies. But, the visual didn't inform the issue as we imagined.
We tested out a waffle chart next. While the number of movies failing the test became obvious, the criteria were not getting the focus they need.
After much deliberation, we decided to try creating a Sankey Diagram.
Thanks to the wonderful work of Ken Flerlage, we were able to create the desired output on Tableau. His template forms the foundation of our visualizations.
Our findings only represent the list of 50 movies we analyzed, but the criteria used to determine the result were created based on our research of the existing tests and research material from other facilities.
Highlights of our Analysis
The average ratio of male characters to female characters is approximately 2.6:1.5.
48% of the movies have at least two supporting female characters and 46% have female characters with a purposeful story.
In 34% of the movies, we found that men discuss women sexually. And in 28% of the movies, women talk to each other only about men.
Only 28% of the movies have a female decision-maker (Director or Screenwriter) in their crew.
Going in Style, Dunkirk, and Pirates of the Caribbean - Dead Men Tell No Tales don’t pass any of the criteria.
Dunkirk is a period drama set in the 40s, so failing this test was inevitable. It was surprising to see Going in Style fail this test despite being a comedy movie, set in 2017.
The Reel Bias Test vs Bechdel-Wallace Test
In order to compare the results of the two tests directly, we created Waffle Charts on Tableau and placed filters to analyze the production houses, budget and box office numbers provided on IMDb and Wikipedia.
Highlights of our Analysis
Only 9 movies with all male-decision makers pass the Reel Bias Test. 23 movies with the same criteria pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test.
In the Pirates of the Caribbean series, 2 out 5 movies pass the Bechdel-Wallace test. The 2017 release, Pirates of the Caribbean — Dead Men Tell No Tales passes neither the Reel Bias Test nor the Bechdel-Wallace test. This movie made $794 million in the box office.
It is interesting to note that the two movies produced by Marvel Studios — Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, display exactly the opposite results on both tests. While Thor: Ragnarok fails the Bechdel-Wallace test, it manages to pass the Reel Bias Test on the basis of having a strong female antagonist and more than two supporting female characters. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 passes the Bechdel-Wallace test but fails the Reel Bias Test because the only criteria it passes is that of two female characters talking to each other about something other than a man
One Test Is Not Enough
The Bechdel-Wallace test was meant to promote the idea that women on screen ought to express their real feelings about all aspects of their life. That ultimately, they ought to be characters, not cliches.
The Reel Bias Test identifies some of the problematic scenarios to inform the decision-makers and the general audience of the gender asymmetries in Hollywood. However, this test does not take into account the total screen time, the total number of lines spoken by each gender or the inequality in pay, yet…
One test can’t change an entire industry that has an inherent problem with giving women equal opportunities and equal pay. Any test has a serious real-world limitation and the only way to reduce the errors is by revamping the criteria regularly.
Future Scope of Reel Bias Test
Streaming platforms are exploding in ubiquity. With this new era of internet-enabled entertainment, consumers have the greatest control over the type of content they consume. Once automated, an interesting implementation of the Reel Bias Test would be on platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime.
Original content and other movies that pass this test could inform audiences of the gender parity in their production by referring to the test in some way at the beginning of programming.
We completed the first phase of this research in 2018. In phase 2, the movies that released in 2018–19 are being examined. We will continue to iterate on the criteria and examine the various gender-specific nuances of Hollywood. The action plan involves testing the criteria for different genres of Hollywood movies and evaluating how gender-balance changes for each type of movie.