Smith and undergraduate students team up to research gender in films

By Jackson DeMos

Undergraduate students were an integral part of a research team assembled by communication professor Stacy L. Smith, Ph.D., which examined the gender of speaking characters in films rated G, PG or PG-13 from 2006-2009.

"Students really get to understand the empirical process in a way that makes their education more meaningful," Smith said. "They’re not just reading scientific articles, they’re contributing to the generation of knowledge.  Many can’t later watch a film or TV show without thinking about issues of representation. It really shifts their schema and world view about media content."

The study, titled Gender Disparity on Screen and Behind the Camera in Family Films, was a joint effort of Smith, Marc Choueiti and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media Research (read executive summary). It showed that females are a scarce resource in family films. Out of the 5,554 speaking characters coded, only 29.2% were female.  This translates into 2.42 males to every one female. Far fewer females work behind-the-scenes as directors, writers, and producers, with a ratio of 4.88 males to every one female.  Though few in number, these behind-the-scenes females matter for on-screen portrayals.  A 10 percent difference is observed for girls and women on screen in films when one or more females are involved in the writing process. The study attracted attention this week when it was featured in Newsweek.

"We have found – across different studies -- that the presence of a female director, writer or producer, may increase portrayals of girls and women on screen," Smith said. "There are many reasons for this, but it points to the fact that diversity behind-the-scenes may translate into more diversity on screen. That is important."

An analysis of 150 G-rated films showed a small and upward pattern for females across roughly the last 14 years. The percentage of females in 2006-2009 (32.6 percent) is 3.9 percent higher than the percentage of females in 2000-2006 films (28.7 percent), and 5.2 percent higher than the percentage of females in 1996-2000 films (27.4 percent).  Unfortunately, the percentage of females in G-rated films in 2006-2009 is only 2.7 percent higher than the percentage of females in G-rated films in 1990-1995 (29.9). 

"We do see an upward pattern in the percentage of females in G-rated films," Smith said. "More monitoring is necessary, but hopefully the percentage of females will continue to increase as we raise awareness with content creators and studio executives about the lack of gender parity in movies and educate the next generation of filmmakers."

Smith and Choueiti trained students to code movies for multiple variables, including race, gender and body characteristics. Between three and six students code each movie individually, and then discuss any coding discrepancies as a group led by Choueiti to come to a conclusion.

“The training was amazing as a precursor to what we would be involved with,” said Cynthia Momdjian (B.A. Communication '11), one of 87 student research assistants who contributed to the study. “He trained us to be meticulous.”

“It’s a great opportunity for undergraduates to be involved with quantitative research in the field of communication,” Choueiti said. “They are motivated, interested and passionate. Our work is better because of them.”

Joseph Geraghty (B.A. Communication '11) said he can't think of a better opportunity for students interested in research.

"You really see how the research is conducted and learn from someone who is published everywhere," Geraghty said. "The chance to learn from Stacy and have her guide you is the best. She works with us as partners instead of being a top-down authoritarian."

Jessica Stern (B.A. Communication '10), who was a research assistant during the Fall 2009 and Spring 2010 semesters, said she has no doubt the study she helped research will have an impact on the future of the entertainment industry.

"As an extension of her project, I feel like I was part of something big and take great pride when I see and hear the support and attention given to it," Stern said. "I learned that we're far from reaching gender and race equity in Hollywood — on screen and off — and I am grateful that there are people like Stacy doing something about it."

Momdjian said researching with the team in Fall 2009 helped develop her as a student and person.

"The fact that I could be a part of defining the entertainment industry has had a lasting effect on me," Momdjian said. "This wasn't just reading a book. It's through practical applications like this you truly learn about the entertainment industry and everything else in life."

Smith said imbalances in Hollywood still exist.

"Our students can do something about it because they’re armed with the data and they’re informed," she said. "Knowing the facts is literally half the battle."

Said Geraghty: "I don't think my generation is going to accept how things were done in the past. It’s about exposing what has been done and lessening the harmful effects in the future."