At the 2nd Global Symposium on Gender in Media in New York this week, Dr. Stacy L. Smith, an Associate Professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, presented results from a study entitled, "Gender Bias Without Borders: An Investigation of Female Characters in Popular Films Across 11 Countries." While this study did not include popular video games, Anita Sarkeesian's series on Tropes vs Women in Video Games has shed light on some of the same topics.
From the research, it's clear that gender equality inside the fictional worlds of films has not yet arrived. Strikingly, the study indicated that very few of these popular films represented female characters in a manner truthful to global demographics or occupational data. The films lacked "gender balanced casting," meaning females in roughly half of the speaking roles, strong female protagonists, and females in positions of power or employed in scientific fields. Instead, female characters tended to be oversexualized. They were twice as likely as male characters to be in sexually revealing clothing, partially or fully naked, thin, or referred to as attractive. Furthermore, a girl age 13 was just as likely to be sexualized as a woman age 39. (To see more findings or an infographic of key results, visit SeeJane.org)
Why does this all matter?
Research also indicates that with repeated exposure to this stereotyped content, viewers merely become further entrenched in gender stereotypes and beliefs. Female viewers bombarded by sexualized material may struggle with body shame and the worship of the thin ideal. This is of particular concern when applied to young girls, who instead of embracing strong female role models, get the message that women are either unseen, at a permanent glass ceiling, or valued only for their appearance.
The authors of the study stress that content creators are part of the solution, that they can make a choice for gender equality. It's simply a reflection of the real world (and real-world occupational data) to indicate that there are female doctors, lawyers, politicians, scientists, judges, executives, mathematicians, etc. Indeed, films with female content creators, perhaps reflecting awareness, had roughly 6% more female characters. Film executives have already reacted to previous studies by increasing the number of female characters, changing the occupation of female characters, and changing story development in their projects. We can do the same in the game industry. Already, we have seen a call for diversity in the workplace and in content. Let's make a choice to include female characters and at the same time, encourage young girls to pursue careers in our industry.
Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.