What is the Powder Room?
What is the Powder Room?
Illustration for article titled Why Media Representation Matters

E3 has come and gone and as always there's a lot to talk about. Did you hear about what Sony announced? (No, not really, I have no plans to get a PlayStation 4). How about Microsoft? (No, not really, I have no plans to get an XBone). Nintendo (yeah, but mostly because I was hoping for a hint of a new Metroid game). Yeah, lots of stuff went down, but one of the big stories to break out came from Ubisoft.


Kotaku has covered the details in several pieces , but a quick summary: Assassin's Creed: Unity will have four player co-op. It will be really cool. You'll only be able to play as a dude.

Assassin's Creed: Unity isn't a problem by itself. For all I know it could turn out to be a really, really good game. The developers, however, might be a bit of a problem if they think "well, we just didn't have time to put together the character models to let anyone play a woman" is a valid excuse. But even that, I'll just say whatever to right now. Even that isn't the real problem (not to mention Assassin's Creed III director Jonathan Cooper sees the reason as pretty weak).


No, the real problem here, the real underlying problem is that society just doesn't value the representation of women (or racial or sexual minorities, for that matter, or people with disabilities, or really anyone who isn't a white ambulatory dude who likes to sex women with his penis) in media. Film, television, games - across all media the effect is marked.

Let's start out with some facts from Dr. Stacy Smith of USC Annenburg, because facts are fun.

  • Males outnumber females 3 to 1 in family films. In contrast, females comprise just over 50% of the population in the United States. Even more staggering is the fact that this ratio, as seen in family films, is the same as it was in 1946.
  • Females are almost four times as likely as males to be shown in sexy attire. Further, females are nearly twice as likely as males to be shown with a diminutive waistline. Generally unrealistic figures are more likely to be seen on females than males.
  • Females are also underrepresented behind the camera. Across 1,565 content creators, only 7% of directors, 13% of writers, and 20% of producers are female. This translates to 4.8 males working behind-the-scenes to every one female.
  • From 2006 to 2009, not one female character was depicted in G-rated family films in the field of medical science, as a business leader, in law, or politics. In these films, 80.5% of all working characters are male and 19.5% are female, which is a contrast to real world statistics, where women comprise 50% of the workforce.

So, it appears that part of the reason for such low representation of women in media is a lack of women as content creators. That doesn't really make things any better, actually. First of all, a glib solution such as "hey, women, go apply for jobs" ignores the fact that women face stiff bias against them in the hiring process. Secondly, even if we don't take the lack of women as content creators to be the cause of the lack of media representation of women, we run into this fun nugget. Men by and large are aware that women exist and make up roughly half of the population. While it is necessary to correct the ridiculous ratio in content creators, the gender ratio in the actual content should never have become so skewed to begin with. Women aren't part of the creation process, which depresses the numbers - but that's not the totality of it.

There's a myth pervasive in the media that lady-led properties are unprofitable. The Hunger Games are a pretty convincing argument against that. But as long as the men in charge of studios don't take movies with women front and center as seriously as they do those with men front and center (or the white men in charge who don't take those with racial minorities as seriously, and, well you get the picture) the demonstrably false myth will still have credibility in the industry. And with such small numbers of women on the content creation side or in higher level positions, there's less likely to be someone pointing out that this is going on.


So on the one level here, the lack of female representation hurts women economically. It encourages a status quo where women have fewer roles in the media, artificially depressing the opportunities for women to find work in the media. On the other hand, it limits everyone's ability to enjoy and experience what it's like to see quality female characters.

Two examples will serve us here.

Let's start with Assassin's Creed: Unity, since that's got buzz going for it and I already brought it up. Many commenters on Kotaku's pieces have argued that you can play as a woman in Assassin's Creed: Liberation, so what's the issue? Well, let's see if we can identify it. Here is a list of the games and their main playable characters.


The main continuity:

  • Assassin's Creed (PC, PS3, XBox 360) - Altaïr ibn-La'Ahad (male)
  • Assassin's Creed II (PC, PS3, XBox 360) - Ezio Auditore da Firenze (male)
  • Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (PC, Ps3, Xbox 360) - Ezio (male)
  • Assassin's Creed: Revelations (PC, PS3, XBox 360) - Ezio and Altaïr (male)
  • Assassin's Creed III (PC, PS3, XBox 360, WiiU) - Ratonhnhaké:ton/Connor (male)
  • Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (PC, PS3, XBox 360, WiiU, PS4, XBox One) - Edward Kenway (male)
  • Assassin's Creed: Unity (PC, PS4, XBox One) - Arno (male) [from your perspective you are always Arno and any co-op players are random guys from your brotherhood, so everyone plays Arno from their own perspective)

Side games:

  • Assassin's Creed: Altaïr's Chronicles (DS, mobile) - Altaïr (male)
  • Assassin's Creed: Bloodlines (PSP) - Altaïr (male)
  • Assassin's Creed II: Discovery (DS, iOS) - Ezio (male)
  • Assassin's Creed III: Liberation (PS Vita; rereleased via PlayStation Network and XBox Live Arcade) - Aveline de Grandpré (female)

Hmmm... Well, I noticed the games have a fairly odd numbering system. But let's also note that in ten released games, with eleven protagonist roles between them (five unique, six once Unity comes out), only one is a woman. In a side-game. Incidentally it's set just over a decade before Unity, so it's not like we couldn't have, say, Aveline's daughter show up in Unity.

That is not the most stellar record of representation. 20% of unique protagonists, 9% of overall protagonist roles, 10% of games, 0% of main series games for women vs. 80%, 91%, 90%, and 100% for men.


How about the Marvel Cinematic Universe? The comics have brought us a new (awesome) series for She-Hulk, a new Ms. Marvel, The Mighty Avengers, an all lady X-Men team, and more in recent years. But the films? Let's take a look at the second-highest grossing film franchise of all time ($6,381,584,007 so far) and count up the number of films with male main characters.

  • Iron Man (2008) - main character Tony Stark (1 male)
  • The Incredible Hulk (2008) - main character Bruce Banner/Hulk (1 male)
  • Iron Man 2 (2010) - main character Tony Stark (1 male)
  • Thor (2011) - main character Thor (1 male)
  • Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) - main character Steve Rogers (1 male)
  • The Avengers (2012) - ensemble cast, arguably Iron Man is our main, but we'll be kind and divide the film among its six protagonists: Iron Man, Hulk, Hawkeye, Thor, Cap (5/6 male), Black Widow (1/6 female)
  • Iron Man 3 (2013)- main character Tony Stark (1 male) with a bit of Pepper getting some action late in.
  • Thor: The Dark World (2013) - main character Thor (1 male)
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) - Steve's our main, but you could make a solid case Black Widow deserves to share with him. We'll be kind and give her half the movie, so 1/2 male, 1/2 female
  • Guardians of the Galaxy (August 2014) - another ensemble. Let's just split it the same way we split Avengers. 4/5 male, 1/5 female.

Add it all up and what do we have? 9 and 2/15 films' worth of male protagonist time, 13/15 films' worth of female protagonist time. Or, out of ten films, about 8.7% female representation compared to 91.3% male representation for protagonists. Our antagonists thus far are 100% male. Really close to having almost a whole film's worth of main female representation, but not quite.

But what's so important about representation anyway? How does not having women in media hurt?


Well, there's the question of same-sex role models, for one thing. It's kind of nice to see people like you in movies as prominent characters, or to control characters who look like you in games. That there are fewer women means that for young women it's harder to find quality role models who share the experience of being a woman. If you never encounter media portraying a woman as a scientist, have a cultural idea that women are no good at science, and are a young woman, well that might just have some sort of effect.

Maybe seeing some lady scientists might lead some viewers/players to consider doing science, for instance.


Or perhaps more women in media might mean more opportunities to see quality female characters, rather than sad parodies of strong women. Good for providing examples to young women, good for not skewing young men's ideas about women in general. Attitudes can be influenced by media - playing a violent game won't make you a murderer, but repeatedly partaking of media which portrays women as little more than sex objects might have some effect on our thinking about women and sex.

The underrepresentation of women positions men as a cultural standard, entrenching men's positions and opinions in the culture. This becomes evident when men and women interact in conversation. Turns out that the amount women contribute to conversations is overestimated and that when men and women are represented equally, women are perceived as overwhelmingly dominant:

Teachers are often unaware of the gender distribution of talk in their classrooms. They usually consider that they give equal amounts of attention to girls and boys, and it is only when they make a tape recording that they realize that boys are dominating the interactions. Dale Spender, an Australian feminist who has been a strong advocate of female rights in this area, noted that teachers who tried to restore the balance by deliberately 'favouring' the girls were astounded to find that despite their efforts they continued to devote more time to the boys in their classrooms. Another study reported that a male science teacher who managed to create an atmosphere in which girls and boys contributed more equally to discussion felt that he was devoting 90 per cent of his attention to the girls. And so did his male pupils. They complained vociferously that the girls were getting too much talking time.


If only there were places we could see realistic models of equitable representation so we could recognize actual imbalances and not be fooled into thinking that equal participation is akin to female dominance, or worse yet, actually is female dominance. We could, like, put people on a stage or, if distributing more widely, on a screen. Perhaps in ways accessible from home. What would we call these wonders of wonders? People displays? Talky pictures? I don't know. Someone better at this than I am would have to come up with a name - I hate naming new concepts.

Point is, such skewed representation is bad for everyone, especially the people underrepresented. Frankly as a society we are dumber for it. We're less aware of people who aren't white men. It makes it easier to perpetuate outdated ideas. And it keeps underrepresented groups economically depressed and further underrepresented in the industries in question when compared to their white male counterparts.


After all, if you only have the bare minimum of roles for characters with disabilities, or trans characters, or black characters, or women you get to have your pick of actors among those groups, and since there are so few roles they kind of just have to accept what you're paying or not work - and that's if they even get a crack at those roles in the first place. Jared Leto could probably tell you all about taking a role which might have better served trans representation if acted by a trans woman, and the writers of Dallas Buyers Club might have done well to at least consult some trans people if they were bent on giving the role to a cis actor.

Representation matters. It's not about appeasing feminists, but media realizing they could earn a lot of goodwill from a whole lot of people if they ever saw themselves in mainstream films, games, shows, and other media as anything other than a poorly written stereotype or barely-there ornamentation to add some color to the white guy's world. Even moreso if they could see themselves often. It's about realizing that we overrepresent and thus overvalue male opinions and male presence (and white opinions and white presence, and so on). It's about maybe, just maybe leaving behind a media record that accurately reflects our society so that when we are long gone and aliens discover buried literary treasures like In the Velociraptor's Nest they'll get a somewhat accurate picture of our society for their xenopological records.


And in the interest of helping our alien discoverers (Hi, welcome to Earth, if you came with a cookbook you're a bit late since we're already dead, but boy, you really would have tricked us if we were still here) I leave you with this infographic, which includes some more up to date data than Dr. Smith provided and I quoted above.

Illustration for article titled Why Media Representation Matters

Image Credit LeftFootForward

Image Credit New York Film Academy

Share This Story

Get our newsletter