Fighting Against Sexism, Homophobia, Racism, and Ageism on our Screens

Geena Davis in "Grey's Anatomy"

So many things need to be changed in the way women, LGBT people,  people of color, and the old are depicted on our screens, it sometimes seems overwhelming. After Drea’s guest post from last week, this seemed a good time to mention some leaders fighting to change the dismal facts of the situation in our culture. I want to highlight and honor some of them for their efforts.

Sexism

Time Magazine is running a series called “Motto: Words to Live By.” One of the people who wrote for the Motto series is Geena Davis. Everyone who pays attention to media knows that Geena Davis started an Institute on Gender in Media several years ago to gather research about the number of women in television and the movies.

In the article she wrote for Time Magazine, Geena explains some of the findings and implications after almost 10 years of study and sharing the findings with studios, networks and guilds.

Now, we’re nearly 10 years in, and we’ve seen a tremendous response to our work: A survey showed that 68% of people in the entertainment industry who have heard my presentation say that they changed two or more of their projects because of what they learned; 41% said it’s impacted four or more of their projects. We’re seeing great progress; based on the reactions we get and the number of new shows and movies that we know we impacted, I’m very comfortable predicting that the percentage of female characters in children’s entertainment will improve dramatically within the next five years, as will the quality of the characters.

Davis explains why gender equity in what we view is so important.

Look at female representation in so many sectors of society, which has stalled at around only 17-20% women: Congress, corporate boards, C-suites, law partners, tenured professors…the list goes on. Progress in those sectors is glacial. So here’s what I call my theory of everything: What if people are seeing women as less important, less skilled and less talented because the tremendous amount of media we’ve consumed—from when we were very young—has trained us to have an unconscious gender bias? Media images impact the real world tremendously; they shape how we see ourselves and what seems normal. It may take decades to reach parity in other sectors of society, but the ratio of male to female characters onscreen can change overnight. Consider this: I was the President of the United States on TV for only one season, about 10 years ago. But a survey by the Kaplan-Thaler group shows that people familiar with the show were 58% more likely to take a female candidate for president seriously.

Davis’ personal motto is, “If they can see it, they can be it.”

I appreciate the work done by Geena Davis and others to bring more women’s images before the TV and movie-going audience.

Homophobia

The website After Ellen tries daily to combat homophobia in the media. I thought the post called Why We Ship Who We Ship by Karen Frost gave a fresh perspective on the topic.

This post re-imagines all your favorite shows as if they featured only queer pairings. That in itself is interesting to imagine. What if you’d grown up seeing romance depicted only among LGBT characters? What if that was the only media you could watch?

Then the article goes on to talk about “shipping.” The term comes from the word relationship and refers to the two characters you want to see together in a romance. In terms of shows I talk about on the blog, Doccubus is a good example. It’s a ship name for Dr. Lauren Lewis and the Succubus Bo Dennis from Lost Girl.

What does shipping have to do with inclusion? Shippers identify with the characters who are like them. What if there are no characters like you?

Here’s the quote I want to highlight from that article.

Perhaps another good way to understand shipping is to say that in ships, we create a canvas upon which we project our own thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams. We develop affinities for characters because we admire their traits, see ourselves in them, or see what we wish we could be or who we wish we could date, and then because we like these characters, we want them to find love and happiness with other characters we like. The ships become what we would like to see, in an ideal world, in our own relationships or in the relationships of others.

We feel such loyalty to the couples we ship – they live in our hearts like real people.

If the only reality shown to you in the media is white and male and straight, where do you put your hopes and dreams if you don’t happen to be white and male and straight?

Thanks to After Ellen (and After Elton) for fighting the good fight for LGBT inclusion in popular culture.

Turn what Karen Frost said in her article on its head and imagine that the only thing you saw in the media was characters who were all African American, or all Asian American, or all Native American. That leads to the topic of racism.

Racism

ARRAY Now is an independent film distribution and resource collective, a rebirth of Ava DuVernay’s AFFRM (African-Amerian Film Festival Releasing Movement) from 2010. The collective works to amplify independent films by people of color and women around the world.

Because of Ava DuVernay’s work supporting people of color in the media, a creative idea similar to the Bechdel test was proposed in her honor. The idea caught on immediately.

The DuVernay Test is a newly imagined way to judge media based on race.  To pass this test, a film or TV show must tell a story “in which African-Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories.” This test is now being applied to media as a measure of worth.

Thanks to Ava DuVernay and ARRAY Now for working tirelessly to improve inclusion on our screens.

Ageism

Ronni Bennett at Time Goes By debunks the myths of old age every day. She talks about what it’s really like to get old, about ageist language, about age bias in the culture.

Ronni keeps a list of what she calls Geezer Flicks. Her criteria for inclusion in the list:

  • Films about being old or growing old
  • Films with elder characters that are respectfully portrayed and well-acted
  • Films that may not be about aging overall, but include good scenes about or with elders
  • Films that add to our understanding of or celebrate what getting older is really like

The list hasn’t been updated recently, but I appreciate everything Ronni does to point out ageism in society.

To find the movies and TV I deem a worthy representation of elders, check the tag “elders rock” that I use on the blog. Or see “Who’s a Critic Now?

Old Ain’t Dead

The people and organizations I mentioned, plus many others like them, are my inspirations. They are big. I am a small-time blogger read by few. I want them to succeed. I’m helping as much as I can. If you are reading these words, you are probably helping, too. Thank you.

Geena Davis image ©ABC Television

One thought on “Fighting Against Sexism, Homophobia, Racism, and Ageism on our Screens”

  1. We are all doing our bit to address these “isms” that do so much damage. The big screen is very powerful (as is television), so it’s so important to do movie reviews—especially the fantastic ones you do!

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