Being seen on screen: gender equality initiatives with BBC 5050, Geena Davis Institute, Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe, and more

Gender equality on screen – whether TV, film, or gaming – was the topic of an online seminar hosted by the British Screen Forum on Wednesday 28th September and attended by an audience spanning four different continents. 

As gender equality and diversity initiatives from Mongolia to Switzerland challenge the established media industry, representation of populations is becoming not only more proportional, but better. Yet in most countries around the world, some tired stereotypes and structural problems still persist.

Representatives from the Geena Davis Institute (USA), Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe, BBC 5050 (UK), and Beirut International Women Film Festival (Lebanon) joined chair, broadcaster Ritula Shah, to discuss the ways that their organisations have assessed and addressed gender equality in a variety of spheres.

“Audiences reward diversity”

Gender equality and diversity on screen matter because they have power in shaping public perceptions. As Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President of the Children’s Defense Fund, said in a 2011 documentary, Miss Representation: “You can’t be what you can’t see”.

And there’s a good business case, too. “There’s obviously a social imperative for gender equality: it’s important for women to be seen in entertainment,” said Madeline Di Nonno, who co-founded the Geena Davis Institute with Davis, famous for the film Thelma and Louise (1991). “But the business imperative is also important. If you have a diverse cast, you’ll attract a more diverse audience. Audiences reward diversity.”

The BBC also has an obligation to its audiences. “As a public service broadcaster, we’re required to do it and it makes good business sense – in addition to the moral and ethical case for gender equality,” said Lara Joannides, Creative Diversity Lead (News) at BBC 5050.

More women on-screen: an easy change to make?

Both Johannides and Di Nonno stressed that improving representation of women is relatively straightforward compared to other gender equality initiatives. While you can’t change an organisational culture or who it hires overnight, you can take straightforward steps to alleviate bias in what you show.

“There are other organisations focusing on women behind the screen, ie., directing, producing,” explained Di Nonno. “Instead we go for the low-hanging fruit: women and diversity in age and ethnicity on-screen.” 

Through a series of studies, in which they partnered with groups like Plan International and the Oak Foundation, the Geena Davis Institute found some consistent issues in how (many) women are portrayed in films, TV, and gaming. 

For instance, they found that in many of the highest-rated films and TV shows between the years 2016-2020, fictional female characters are still hypersexualised, being six times more likely to be wearing sexually revealing clothing than male characters (in film), and three times in TV. 

Similarly, their study with Plan International looked specifically at how young women associate with leadership. “They were acutely aware of the power of media when assessing this,” said Di Nonno. 

Using a dataset of 56 top-grossing films from 20 countries, the study identified female characters who were “leaders”. Across the board, these characters were found to be at least two times more likely than male characters to be wearing revealing clothing, sexually objectified, partially nude, or completely naked. 

They also found that female characters are also highly underrepresented in video games (at around 20%) and that ageism is a massive problem in film, with women actors’ earnings peaking at age 34 and men at age 51. Older adults in happy marriages, or experiencing financial struggles, cultural changes, and signs of physical aging are disproportionately absent, explained Di Nonno. 

Supporting women filmmakers in Zimbabwe and Lebanon

While increasing the amount and improving the storylines of women characters is one way for film, TV, and gaming to advance, in some parts of the world women’s involvement in any part of the creative process can still be a struggle. That’s why Tsitsi Dangarembga co-founded Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe, which runs capacity-building workshops and networking events across the continent.

“It’s difficult to talk about ‘career paths’ for African women filmmakers,” she explained. “A younger woman new on the scene can be likely to be seen as an incredible emerging talent; but after she has made a few films she is ‘less interesting’ and she doesn’t attract as much funding.”

There are structural barriers to women advancing into a filmmaking career. Even when training workshops are run in deprived areas, Dangarembga noticed that young girls wouldn’t come to the workshops because they had too many chores at home. “So it’s important that the workshops are not seen as the girls ‘wasting time’,” she explained.

She also noted that men will “grab the cameras, while women do the costumes or await instructions – gender socialisation matters,” she added. “What I’ve been trying to build is something like a safe socialisation platform in Zimbabwe.”

“Through colonialism, people often don’t have the understanding that contemporary culture is as important to a nation as its traditional culture.”

What’s more, colonialism has created a negative legacy around film as a cultural product. “In many countries in Africa, people have not had film in their frame of reference. Our cultural expressions were devalued, rendered ‘infantile’, through colonialism, people often don’t have the understanding that contemporary culture is as important to a nation as its traditional culture.”

Finally, governments don’t always create a supportive environment for filmmakers. “Almost everything that happens in a country like Zimbabwe is controlled by the state, including filmmaking,” said Dangarembga. “Therefore, this kind of work feels explicitly political – a policeman will read your script and he has the power to tell you if you may make this film or not. And many of the wealthy Africans who might support the film industry are connected to government, so they don’t want to engage in projects that might be offensive to the government.”

Doris Saba, Artistic Director, Beirut International Women Film Festival/Projects Manager, Beirut Film Society, also spoke of the importance of supporting women through networks and events in the absence of a supportive government or society.

“We want to women filmmakers to believe in themselves, their stories, their narratives and not forget the power of solidarity. Not to be depressed by statistics,” she said. “We want to sound a note of positivity at the Beirut International Women Film Festival – cinema can be a tool for education.”

To end, she talked about the Girls for Change Project in Lebanon, a small country with a high number of refugees. “We meet girls aged 13-16 who are Lebanese, and also from refugee communities – Syria, Palestine. We train them to use audiovisual materials, train them to be curious and gain knowledge about filmmaking.”  

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