How can we best reduce sexism in Hollywood?

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Award season is over but Cate Blanchett’s words are still echoing. The best actress winner at this year’s Oscars hit the nail on its head when she called out Hollywood on its sexist behaviour.

She said: "To those of us in the industry still foolishly clinging to the idea that films with women at the centre are 'niche' experiences, they are not. Audiences want to see them, and in fact they earn money. The world is round people!"

Her speech has generated a lot of debate about sexism in Hollywood but will it change anything? I doubt it. Forgive my pessimism but every few years, we hear a profound speech at the Oscars which generates a lot of buzz but really, nothing ever changes.

Remember Halle Berry’s moving acceptance speech a few years back? There was a lot of debate on the subject of opportunities for women of colour in Hollywood but did that debate change anything? Let’s see I believe the miniscule percentage of coloured women getting roles, let alone lead roles in Hollywood have actually diminished since Berry’s Oscar win.

A decline in speaking roles

Women in general get a raw deal in Hollywood and then when you dissect the figures according to ethnicities, the figures are actually non-existent for those in the minority.

So will Blanchett’s words change anything? Let’s take a look at the stats, shall we.

Women got only 28 per cent of speaking roles - often hyper sexualised roles in the 100 top-grossing fictional films from 2012. About 32 per cent of female characters wore "sexy" clothing, compared to 7 percent of male characters, and 31 percent of these women were shown partially nude, compared to 9 percent of men.

The Academy’s figures aren’t any better—seventy-seven per cent of Academy voters are male, 99 percent of "Best Director" winners are male, and 98 percent of both producers and writers are white. In other words, the status of women, and especially women of colour in Hollywood, is an absolute train wreck that certainly doesn't represent the movie-going public.  

The figures certainly don’t make a pleasant reading nor give hope of anything changing in the foreseeable future, does it?

Victoria Frings, in her article Hollywood’s hidden sexism: How casting notices keep beauty standards alive, argues that sexism in Hollywood starts with the casting process.

Casting breakdowns sent to agents usually describe female characters with adjectives like smoking hot, beautiful, cool, personable, attractive, fit, stylish, siren, curvaceous, sexy, alluring and flawless while male characters get descriptions like  filthy rich, confident, wealthy, businessman, authoritative, debonair, corporate giant, brash, corn-fed, pudgy, adorable, serial killer, funny, smart, famous, passionate and handsome.

Obviously, breakdowns for women put much more emphasis on looks while for men, it’s mostly based on their personality and character attributes.

‘No evidence’ of improvement

Geena Davis, a veteran actress and now founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media cites data recently proposed two steps to make Hollywood less sexist.

First, for film makers to go through projects they’re already working on and change a bunch of the characters' first names to women's names and second, when describing a crowd scene, they should write in the script: "A crowd gathers, which is half female.”  

Sounds simple but are the film makers listening? Statistics suggests they aren’t.

The actress’ institute have statistics that show that for every one female-speaking character in family-rated films (G, PG and PG-13), there are roughly three male characters; that crowd and group scenes in these films — live-action and animated — contain only 17 percent female characters; and that the ratio of male-female characters has been exactly the same since 1946. Throw in the hypersexualization of many of the female characters that are there, even in G-rated movies, and you get a lack of occupations and aspirations for women.

According to the institute, the way to stamp out sexism is through education at a young age but current G, PG and PG-13 rated films reinforces already entrenched sexist views of Hollywood so it looks like change isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

Something as entrenched as sexism will take a lot of effort to change; Dr Martha Lauzen's Celluloid Ceiling analysis which comes out January of every year claims that the figures for women have not improved in the 16 years.

According to Dr Lauzen: “The film industry is in a state of gender inertia. There is no evidence to suggest that women's employment in key roles has improved over the last 16 years.”

She believes the status quo will be hard to change because anyone advocating for significant change would be challenging the film industry's dominant ideology and since executives in even the loftiest positions are under constant threat of getting sacked, it seems unlikely that they would take that chance.

Also, it seems that leaders at the various guilds are paralyzed when it comes to sexism because they feel advocating on behalf of their female members may alienate majority of their members who are male.  

Unfair I know, considering there are far more women than men trying to make it as actors. Highlighting and confronting sexism in one voice looks like the way forward for women in Hollywood and Blanchett’s leading role in Blue Jasmine proves things can change.

But only time will tell if wholesale changes can occur—here’s to hoping we won’t have to wait centuries.

What do you think is the best way to reduce sexism in film? Have your say in the comments section below.

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