In the long list of stereotypes we typically attach to gender, there’s something in there about talking, specifically how much we speak. An ideal male, according to a Western definition of masculinity, could easily be described as “stoic,” and a key component of stoicism is, of course, silence. Meanwhile, women often complain that men only listen to their problems with an ear toward fixing it. A woman needs to talk to another woman if they simply want to be heard and understood.
Based on these stereotypes, one might surmise that women speak more often than men do, as a rule. But when academic rigor is brought to bear, it seems that the opposite might be true. A recent analysis of Supreme Court transcripts revealed that the women on the court – Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan – are interrupted three times as often as their male colleagues. Studies dating back to 1975 have shown similar phenomena – that women are interrupted far more often than men, and that men are usually the ones doing the interrupting.
So, the facts seem to be at odds with the stereotype and the accompanying stereotype that men aren’t nearly as interested in verbal communication as women are. There are likely many root causes for this. Many studies indicate boys receive more teacher attention in classrooms, from elementary school to college, as girls do, which would indicate the behavior is socialized.
And so, being who I am, my mind immediately wanders to the topic of pop culture. It’s something that has always fascinated me, as the entertainment industry is a place I once dreamed I’d make my mark professionally. I believe the stories we consume and the scenes we witness when we’re at our most relaxed – sitting in a dark theatre or on your comfiest couch, munching on popcorn or sipping a glass of wine, and wanting an escape from our everyday lives in the form of entertainment – can have a profound impact on the way we look at the “real world.”
So I was curious: in movies and television, how often do women speak? Luckily, I’m not the only one who ever wondered this, and the research abounds.
Probably the best source of information on this topic was a body of research conducted by the Women’s Media Center. There’s great research in this single document up to, and including, the ways in which the women we see in popular culture skew much younger than the men, the ways women are sexualized in movies and television compared to men, and how race plays a factor in all of this.
But the most startling piece of data was an analysis of the top-grossing 2,500 films in the US. The films were sorted on a scale that ranged from 100% male dialogue (0% female) to 100% female dialogue (0% male). Only one film in the list of 2,500 contained 100% female dialogue, a movie called Now and Then, released in 1995. However, there were 20 films with 100% male dialogue, including Oscar nominees such as Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, and The Shawshank Redemption. If there are any women who speak in any of these films, the cumulative dialogue spoken by women is less than one-half of one percent. Over half of the films listed were those in which men spoke 80% of the time or more.
If we learn about ourselves by watching people on screen, is it any wonder women have a difficult time getting a word in edgewise?
If you look at the media our children are experiencing, the news is just as troubling. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender & Media has uncovered that in films and television created for children and families, only one in four speaking roles are written for women and girls. Even in crowd scenes – both live-action and animated – women only account for 17% of those crowds, a figure relatively unchanged since 1946.
Even in media created expressly for girls, the trends skew towards men doing all the talking. From 1989 to 1999, a period largely considered to be the renaissance of the “Disney Princess” genre, we mostly heard from guys. The Little Mermaid was famously about a woman who literally lost her voice – and can we take a moment to ponder a film that teaches girls that silence is the way to win over a prince? – but in all the other “Princess” films that decade – Beauty & the Beast, Pocahontas, Mulan, etc. – women spoke even less.
There are concrete ways to fix this problem. More film and television being written by women would be a start, as well as more women working as directors, script editors, producers, and first Assistant Directors (those are usually the ones who put together those pesky crowd scenes). Geena Davis suggests breezing through scripts and randomly assigning characters such as the police officers, conniving politicians, and taxi drivers women’s names – a recognition of the fact that women make up 51% of the population.
Will fixing Hollywood change the way women are heard, either around the dinner table or the boardroom table? Probably not on its own, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not a task worth taking on.
Eric Peterson is a Senior Consultant with Cook Ross. He holds a Master of Science in organization development and has been a diversity and inclusion educator for 20 years.