SALT LAKE CITY — Despite growing diversity in the United States, Hollywood still portrays its young female characters as overwhelmingly white, abled, straight, skinny and partially nude.
Over the past 10 years, Hollywood's top films have shown more than 40 percent of young women in "sexy attire" and 35 percent with some nudity, while almost 61 percent of female actors were thin — all percentages that dwarf the number of skinny, naked or sexily dressed male characters, according to a new report, “The Future is Female?” from the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Journalism's Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative.
In depicting other traits, 77 percent of young female characters were Caucasian, only 3 percent had disabilities and 52 percent had heterosexual romantic relationships. There were zero LGBT females shown in the top 100 films from the last two years.
"The picture young female viewers see of themselves in media is one of erasure and marginalization and reinforces the idea that a girl’s value is not only on her appearance but also her romantic interests, rather than what she can do or be," wrote Stacy Smith, associate professor, lead author and founder and director of the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative.
Smith's findings complement a body of research showing that viewing sexualized images of women can cause depression, low self-esteem and eating disorders among young women, but they also serve as glaring reminders of the power of media to shape culture and define how men and women see women, both by marginalizing them and objectifying them.
It's a timely reminder, experts say, pointing to the current wave of sexual assault allegations against a host of men in entertainment, politics and media, including film producer Harvey Weinstein; comedian Louis C.K.; Roy Moore, a former judge and U.S. Senate candidate from Alabama, and, most recently, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.
While it's unfair to say that showing scantily clad females in movies causes men to assault women, a history of sexualized depictions of women in media cannot be brushed aside as unimportant, said Nicole Martins, an associate professor in the Media School at Indiana University Bloomington.
"If the women are always sexualized and treated as objects (in film)," she said, "then I don't think we should be surprised that we have men who treat women that way."
How women are shown
When Smith talks about her research on women's portrayals in the media, she often warns audiences that her data are depressing.
Although this latest study found that in the top films of 2016 young females finally gained equal screen time compared with young male characters, the overall picture remains extremely imbalanced.
Of the 900 films her team has studied since 2007, only 12 percent had a gender-balanced cast, and only 31.4 percent of speaking characters were female.
In 2016, only 34 films had a female lead or co-lead, though two of those are the highest-grossing films of the year: "Beauty and the Beast" and "Wonder Woman," — shattering the myth that female-led films can't be blockbusters, Smith said.
In "The Future is Female?", Smith found that of the top 100 films each year from 2015 and 2016, 189 films had no Hispanic female characters ages 6-20, 185 showed no Asian or Asian-American females and 178 had no young African-American female characters.
"Young female viewers from these racial/ethnic groups would have to watch hundreds of films before seeing themselves represented on screen," the researchers wrote.
But it's not just a numbers issue; it's also how the women are portrayed.
Smith and her team discovered that when female characters were shown doing chores, 93 percent of those characters were engaged in "stereotypically female chores," such as cleaning, gardening or caring for children.
Sixty-eight percent of young women weren't shown in school or doing homework, and when school was mentioned, only 12 percent of female characters talked about or were shown doing science, technology, math and engineering activities, with only 7 percent of elementary or high school characters mentioning a professional dream or role model.
"These results suggest that the academic lives and aspirations of girls are viewed as being of little importance to audiences or storytelling," the researchers wrote. "For younger viewers, who spend a great deal of time in school and engaged scholastically, these depictions run counter to the reality of their young lives."
This marginalization continues for portrayals of professional adult women.
Nearly 20 percent of finance or business jobs in the U.S. are held by women, and the legal profession has 34 percent female participation, yet there were zero films showing women in either of those sectors, said Smith.
Of the three films that showed women in the political arena, one was a foreign leader, and the other two were female congresswomen who were acknowledged but never spoke.
"These are really problematic trends that we need to keep documenting to understand the socialization practices of the media and how it might affect younger individuals over time," Smith said at a recent conference in Salt Lake City.
For Smith, one of the most troubling trends in the new report was that almost 54 percent of teenage female characters are played by adult actors — offering a "distorted image of teenage females to younger viewers," the researchers wrote.
Not only do 15-year-old girls feel overwhelmed by Hollywood's standard of beauty, but often that beauty is shown by a poised 21-year-old, creating an "unattainable idol that (young girls) can never really live up to," said Patrice Oppliger, assistant professor of mass communication at Boston University and author of "Girls Gone Skank: The Sexualization of Girls in American Culture."
If parents don't step in and talk through what their kids are seeing, Oppliger said, or look up the actor's age on IMDb to explain the mismatch, it can perpetuate unrealistic expectations of physical beauty and body image that affect both girls and boys.
While these media images don't immediately cause sexual assault and rape, they create a "toxic climate," which normalizes the objectification of women, said Jean Kilbourne, a senior scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women and co-author of "So Sexy So Soon: The New Sexualized Childhood, and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids."
"Ads that portray women as objects create a climate in which women are more likely to be abused," said Kilbourne, who has been warning about the impact of objectifying women since the 1960s. "It's very difficult to be violent to someone we consider an equal human being, but it's very easy to abuse a thing."
And the problem isn't just in ads or full-length films.
A recent study found that women who were entertained by a series of sexualized music videos, and who agreed with statements like, "It's OK for men to whistle or call out to a woman on the street," or "It's OK for men to think about women as 'eye candy' at a dance party," were less likely to be offended by dirty jokes, catcalling, sexual comments or males staring at body parts.
And if young women agreed with the earlier statements and believed the music videos were realistic, they were less likely to be offended by physical behaviors, such as unwanted advances or grabbing/touching body parts.
"Media has an effect," said study co-author Stacey Hust, an associate professor in the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University.
She knows it's important not to draw conclusions that watching music videos causes assault or makes someone accept sexual assault because it's possible these women liked these videos because they were more accepting of sexual objectification in the first place.
As a feminist scholar, Hust doesn't approve of any entertainment-based objectification because it establishes a power differential where women are without power and simply the object of the male gaze. However, objectification is often difficult to define because what one woman finds offensive may be seen as empowering to another woman — which means it's a topic ripe for discussion, says Hust.
"The critical question," Hust said, is whether an image or portrayal depicts empowerment or objectification and "understanding what female empowerment, free of sexual objectification, could (look like)."
A new message
So, if women in media have historically been ignored, marginalized, underrepresented and objectified, and if those portrayals are shown to have some effect on both males and females, then it's time to change the Hollywood story, Smith said.
And she believes it can be done with a few relatively easy solutions.
First, hire more female directors. Currently, of Hollywood's 1,114 directors, only 4 percent are female.
When women tell their own stories, those films naturally feature more girls and women, more women in lead roles, more racial and ethnic diversity, more women older than 40 and more women in key production roles.
In fact, if directors and writers would only add five females to each script, Hollywood films would reach gender parity by 2019, Smith said.
"I think there is a movement toward changing the media narrative," Hust said, mentioning groups like the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and the film “Miss Representation," as well as a speech by Reese Witherspoon, where she shared her experiences with starting her own production company.
It also helps if individuals brush up on their media literacy and recognize the way media impact subconscious beliefs and then listen to the women who share stories about how they've been affected by a media-swayed culture, Kilbourne said.
The fact that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he believes the women who accused Roy Moore of sexual harassment nearly four decades ago is "huge," she said. "I'm hoping that this is a moment that's a real sea change in the culture."
Perhaps the scores of women sharing their #metoo stories could even serve as inspiration for future Hollywood films, mused Martins.
"I hope the industry recognizes that … people are paying attention," she said. "They’re watching, and there’s an audience for strong female characters who do more than just look pretty."