A recent study from the University of Southern California published its findings on the roles of male and female characters in films. On average, there are fewer female and characters of color than white men, and female characters are less central to the plot. The study showed female characters had less utterances than male characters throughout the film.
The study conducted the Bechdel Test as well, but wanted to do a more in-depth linguistic analysis of various films. They examined films from the last several decades, in which they studied 7,000 characters. After looking over the characters, they noted that, unsurprisingly, male characters spoke more than female characters. Male characters were involved in 37,000 dialogues whereas female characters were only involved in 15,000 dialogues. The inequality among dialogues reinforces the traditional gender trope that what a woman has to say is less important than that of a man.
Researchers took their analysis even deeper by looking at what each character was saying. What makes the study different than the Bechdel Test is that it focused on both men and women, rather than focusing on a conversation between two women. The research revealed the language used by female characters is more positive. They focused on family and used stronger emotions. On the other hand, the language used by male characters was linked to achievement.
African-American characters swore more in their dialogue and Latino characters used words closely related to sexuality. With regards to age of characters, the older they got, the wiser they became. Their conversation fixated more on religion and less on sex. The language for each group of characters showcases the biases we place in films. The language in films project into real-life, when we start to expect people of a certain gender or ethnicity to speak in a similar way. It perpetuates gender stereotypes, ones that can be harmful to communities.
Another alarming fact noticed by the researchers at USC was how female characters weren’t central to the plot. USC’s Signal Analysis and Interpretation Lab (SAIL) created a demo to help visualize the importance of female characters versus male characters. The demo includes the characters based on gender and race, each encompassed by a “node” or a hub.
Each node had lines connecting them to other characters. Researchers noticed that when they removed female characters, the plot was rarely disrupted. The only time the plot was severely disrupted was in a horror movie, when women were the victim. If a man was removed from the plot, it would change dramatically. If you want to see the visualization demo for different films, click here!
Image: Linguistic Analysis of differences in portrayal of movie characters, Ramakrishna, A. et al, in proceedings of ACL 2017, Canada.
Overall, the underlying theme that films reveal is that women are sidelined. The fact that women serve their purpose solely as the victim undermines their worth. Women aren’t the staple victim in a horror movie, nor are they the aloof girl-next-door in a romantic comedy.
The biases injected in films make it harder for people to realize that these tropes shouldn’t follow in the real world either. This study reaffirms the necessity to change the way films portray women in a more progressive manner; one that encourages women to speak up and go after the goals they strive to achieve.