When it comes to female representation in the media, it’s easy to think that we’ve never had it so good. But on average a fictional lead character is still straight, white, and male, and so are the creatives telling their story. We take a look at this issue in books, films, and video games, and at how genre fiction in particular is tackling the challenge of more gender-inclusive storytelling.
A page turned?
The vast majority of the ‘canon’ of English literature — the work deemed to be the most significant, influential, and representative of its period — is written by men. This is hardly surprising; historically, women had far less access to the things that made authorship possible: an education; financial independence; and the “room of one’s own” which Virginia Woolf wrote about in her famous 1928 essay — the room itself both a real consideration and a symbol for the private space and time necessary for any creative undertaking, usually denied by motherhood. Although a handful of women (Woolf among them, along with Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and some later 20th century authors such as Toni Morrison) are now widely counted among the literary greats, it’s still perfectly possible to encounter an English literature curriculum that doesn’t include a single female author.
Take a look at the history of genre fiction, though, and the picture changes. Women were the pioneers of many of the less ‘respectable’ genres. In 1666, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, wrote The Blazing World, which has a good claim to be the first English novel in the genres of science fiction and ‘portal fantasy’ (like C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series). In it, a young woman enters another world through a passage in the North Pole, becomes empress of a kingdom of talking animals, and eventually wages war on her former homeland through the use of submarines towed by fishmen. It’s not a book notable for great writing — the prose is nigh-on unreadable to modern eyes — but it’s an astonishingly weird and creative work.
More famously, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (first published in 1818 when the author was 20) was a foundational text for both science fiction and horror. The key tropes of the mad scientist, the secret knowledge mankind was never meant to have, and the dangerous but sympathetic monster can all be traced back to Shelley’s work. The development of horror fiction also owes much to the isolated settings and murderous secrets of Gothic novels such as Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho.
Moving into the 20th century, although genre fiction was dominated by male writers, many of its most respected authors were women. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House defined its subgenre. Ursula K. Le Guin won numerous awards for both her science fiction and fantasy works, including the title of Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Even Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved has a hint of genre fiction about it — it’s as much a ghost story as it is anything else.
In the present day, we might expect more authors to be women than men; since the 1980s, female university graduates have outnumbered male ones, and women are more likely than men to go into the arts. So have female authors begun to outpace male authors in book sales?
Yes and no. Here again, genre is a key factor. The New York Times Bestseller List is the classic indicator of what books are popular among Americans, and to some extent, the broader English-speaking readership. Looking at which authors make the list, there has been a move in most genres towards a broad gender parity over the last 30 years. In that period, women have comprised more than 40% of the bestselling authors in the mystery and horror genres, as well as the nebulous but prestigious category of ‘literary fiction’. They dominate the romance genre and, more surprisingly, in the 2010s 85% of bestselling historical fiction authors were female. Male authors still vastly outsell female ones in adventure, politics, and sci-fi and fantasy (SFF). As in previous years, though, women authors who do break into SFF tend to be particularly acclaimed — N. K. Jemisin won the Hugo award an unprecedented three years in a row with her Broken Earth trilogy.
Lights, camera, inaction
Picture the ‘early days of Hollywood’, and you’ll probably imagine an extremely male-dominated environment. Surprisingly, this is far from the truth. In its earliest incarnation, film was considered largely as entertainment for women, who took key roles both in front of and behind the camera. From 1915–1925, female screenwriters wrote half of all copyrighted Hollywood films. The highest-paid American director was a woman, Lois Weber, and she and fellow auteurs such as Alice Guy-Blanché and Mabel Normand made hundreds of films between them.
As movies became a more mainstream and profitable enterprise, the power and influence of women filmmakers diminished. The last few years have seen an increase in films starring or directed by women, but their numbers and earning power still lag far behind their male counterparts.
In 2019, the world’s highest-paid female actor was Scarlett Johansson, who earned around $56 million, while Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, the highest-paid male actor, took home more than $89 million. Of course it’s hard to care about numbers that big (a star who can command more than $10 million per film is not in need of anyone’s sympathy) but it’s illustrative of a larger problem. The typical American wage gap is 20% but, on average, a female actor in Hollywood earns 30 cents for every dollar a male actor makes.
On the production side, the problem is just as stark. Half of all film school graduates are women, but the numbers show that they struggle to find work. In 2019, 33% of the independent films submitted to festivals were directed by women, while about the same number had women writers. At the top of the industry, the statistics are far worse: of the top 100 highest-grossing films of 2018, 14% had female writers and only 5% had female directors. In recent years, this issue has been brought to the forefront by organisations such as the Geena Davis Institute and the UK’s Raising Films, which aim to call attention to the problem and support women in the industry.
The lack of female talent behind the camera may help to explain the relative scarcity of lead roles for women. The last decade has been marked by the rise of the superhero blockbuster, but only 14% of superhero films had solo female leads (albeit a reflection of the source material). 31% had male and female co-leads. These films’ performance at the box office gives some cause to be hopeful for the future, though; Wonder Woman made over $800 million internationally and, despite being the subject of a vicious trolling campaign, Captain Marvel topped $1 billion.
Fans of broader genre fare can also look on the bright side. A recent large-scale study by Google and the Geena Davis Institute showed that female characters get 43% of the speaking time in science fiction films, in contrast to action films’ dismal 29%. Horror films perform best at gender equality, with 47% female speaking time, and are the only genre in which women get more average screen time than men. Small wonder that, in defiance of stereotypes, women frequently make up half the audience for major horror releases.
Our culture largely considers video games to be regressive and unhealthy. Politicians excoriate violence in video games as a leading cause of gun violence. Parents everywhere roll their eyes at the digital gunfire blaring up from the basement. And the rise of gaming has led to a new social stereotype: the gamer nerd. In the midst of this emerging cultural movement, we see a microcosm of our culture at large, and it’s a perfect perspective from which to examine how our cultural understanding of gender and sex have changed.
In some ways, that change has happened in very recent years. In 2014, Ubisoft creative director Alex Amancio justified cutting the female avatar from the four-player co-op mode of Assassin’s Creed Unity because building female player models “was really a lot of extra production work.” In 2018’s Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, by contrast, the choice between a male and female player avatar was a flagship feature.
Many players wish to identify with the avatar they control on the screen, and increasingly these players aren’t white teenage boys. According to data collected by Techjury on December 18th 2019, 45% of American video gamers are women. The average age of a male video gamer is 34; a female video gamer, 36. Of course, many of these gamers aren’t necessarily PC or console gamers — mobile gaming makes up a third of the market. Still, our popular perception of what a video gamer looks like is fairly outdated. The cliché does still exist, but is more fringe than mainstream.
A portion of the gaming community resists how that might change the games they play. This came to a head in ‘gamergate’, a mighty clash in the ongoing culture war that began in August of 2014. Broadly speaking, there were two sides to the conflict: a loose coalition of independent, largely female game developers and game critics, opposed by a movement of more ‘traditional’ gamers. As the game developers and critics pushed for greater inclusion of independent games, including games that catered to women and minorities, the hordes of 4Chan and the like rose up in uproarious protest. Breitbart News ran articles about ‘feminist bullies’ that were destroying the fabric of gaming. Female developers faced threats, in some cases so extreme that the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation got involved.
The movement has since fizzled out (see the Washington Post’s excellent summary) but hostility towards gaming inclusion remains — despite the fact that, on the development side, gaming really isn’t that diverse. According to a report by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) released in early 2018, three quarters of surveyed game developers are male. This study is notably weighted towards the United States, although it also includes a number of Asian and European countries. This means that, overwhelmingly, men control the industry. Male gamers don’t need to worry about losing representation any time soon.
The industry is more diverse than it was even a decade ago, but female representation still lags. Some notable games, mostly indie, have female protagonists (Hellblade, Control, and Tomb Raider), while many popular games do offer the choice of female or male protagonists (the Fallout, Pokémon, and Borderlands franchises, plus most MMOs and battle royale games). In games with single protagonists, though, the ‘default’ game protagonist is usually male and overwhelmingly white. Such games and franchises include Mario, Halo, The Witcher, Metal Gear, The Legend of Zelda, Hitman, Devil May Cry, Death Stranding, Call of Duty, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Titanfall 2, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, and so on and so on. 2018’s Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, the latest game in a series which features characters from a plethora of games, has a roster that is more than 80% male (not including duplicates or characters whose gender is unclear, like Yoshi or Pikachu). Many of these are long-running franchises, born in an era when women truly were less involved in gaming; but long-running franchises largely remain the most popular and highest-grossing ones.
Although we’ve made great strides in recent years, video game characters largely still do not reflect the people who play them. The point isn’t to get rid of great characters like Mario and Master Chief, but that when a form of media is expanded to include more types of people, it benefits everyone — including those who have been represented from the beginning.
Stories worth telling
Women have always been key contributors to genre fiction and video games, and make up a much greater part of their audience than stereotypes suggest. Although the process seems agonisingly slow, the last two decades have seen an increase in the number of female creatives in influential positions across all forms of media. Progress has been even slower for creators who are LGBT or people of colour (or all three!), but they, too, are beginning to see their contributions recognised; although that’s a big enough subject to deserve an article of its own.
Creative equality means creative diversity. We’re a storytelling species — it matters what stories we tell and who we choose to tell them about. When we let more creators have their say, we let new stories into the world. And that’s worth getting excited about.