Women in Media: The Power of Perception

Wonder Woman is a success! Doctor Who is a woman!

And there are certain segments of the population that still aren’t happy. Wonder Woman wasn’t buff enough! Doctor Who isn’t a woman of color. Instead of celebrating that a female led superhero movie is inspiring little girls everywhere and making huge amounts of cash at the box office or celebrating after 12 incarnations of white men, the thirteenth Doctor will be female! These are things to be celebrated. It means, we hope, that the fact that 50% of humanity is female and we want our stories to be shown is making an impact on the minds of folks in media. That women can be just as successful as men as action heroes and leading roles.

There still is a long way to go. Women are still hypersexualized more often than not. They are held to higher standards than men. They’re still regulated to roles that are more stereotypically considered female instead of leadership positions. It is still a step forward. And I don’t think that step should be trashed for not being big enough.

Because media plays an important role in changing our society and the way society thinks. By changing the way women are portrayed in media we can change the perception of society slowly over time. Right now the perception of women in society through the lens of media is still pretty dismal. (Fate of the Furious is a really good example of this, five women, and I’m lost if any of them had real agency or power. Okay, I’ll give you Helen Mirren.)

Here is the power of male perception. Dr. Stacy Smith of USC Annenburg did a study about the ratio of men to women in a room and how men felt about the number of women versus the number of women actually there. When there were 17% women in the room, the men felt that there were an equal, that’s 50-50, amount of women to men. And when there were 33% of women in a room, the men felt outnumbered.

Then, add to that study the idea and fact that most people in positions of power in the media are men. Think about the perception. To male executives, if 17% of the media put out has a main character being female, that could to them feel that it’s an equal distribution of female main characters to male main characters. And if 33%, that’s one third of the main characters are females, then the females now outnumber the men in their mind. In an ensemble cast of say 6 people, instead of casting 1 to 1 male to female, there is going to be 5 to 1 male to female because that would be 16.6% female. Because men, who are in power, see that as an equal female representation.

Male executives. Male writers. Male producers. Male directors and so on and so forth. They do this without even realizing it because they have a subconscious perception of what equality looks like.

And of course, if more females get more roles, they’ll push back to try and put more projects through with male leads in order to get back to the perceived ratio they feel is “equal.” When it’s grossly, grossly not.

There are more complications than just that of course. One of the other major contributing factors is the belief that women can relate to men better than men can relate to women. Instead of writing their characters as people first and gender second, characters are first defined by gender and then by their other traits. And male executives feel that women can relate to men just as well. (Honestly, I can’t. I don’t have one of those things between my legs and I’d really rather not. I will take my periods over that any day of the week. Thank you.) Let’s be real, men are perfectly capable of sympathizing with female characters if they would think of them as human beings first and women second. Just as women for years have been sympathizing with males because they’re human with human wants, needs and emotions.

I know, as a consumer of media like books, video games and movies that I am more likely if there is a female character available to me, to gravitate to the female over the male character in a title of the same genre. The problem is most the time I have to make do with a male character because there aren’t any female characters in my preferred genres. (Urban Fantasy being an exception to this, however, many of the female leads I find are simply not to my taste.)

My preferred genres being science fiction, fantasy and action/adventure. Genres that the target market is considered primarily males 18 to 24. Which is ultimately bullshit because girls like unicorns, magic and laser swords and explosions just as much as boys. (See Wonder Woman and Star Wars.)

Now, as a writer, I’m not particularly happy that for the first two books of Heaven’s Heathens if you go by the titles and the back copy the main characters would be considered men. I know, intellectually, that I’m an ensemble writer and that Savannah is just as important if not more important than Gideon and Rodeo. It’s just the way the story played out and the titles worked that it made more sense to push Gideon and Rodeo forward first as “focus” characters. I also know realistically that if I want male readers that they may be more likely to pick up a motorcycle themed werewolf book if they see a male on the back copy. It doesn’t make Savannah any less of a main character and if anyone bothers to read the book, they’ll find that out very quickly. Serpent’s Smile is her book to be the “focus.” (If I had the money I’d be spending a couple hundred bucks on a pretty painted cover like ones out of the 80s with both Gideon and Savannah on the front.)

Fortunately, the Dawn Warrior doesn’t have this problem. Roxana is firmly the main character, thank you. But that’s written for a slightly different audience, the romantic fantasy type audience pioneered by Anne McCaffery and Mercedes Lackey.

I can just hope that in the future that the perception will change enough that writers like JK Rowling won’t have to go by their initials anymore. That there will be more equality in Hollywood in front of and behind the camera. That it won’t be commented up that there is more than one female in an ensemble cast or a superhero movie starring a woman does well at the Box Office.

Success of women in media will hopefully breed more success and more strides forward. So, let’s not degenerate what we have and move the goal before success has had a chance to sink in to the minds of those in power. One step at a time!

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