Last week was Equal Pay Day, a day to draw attention to and raise awareness of the gender pay gap in the United States. On average, women earn 79 cents for every dollar men earn for comparable work. These figures are even lower for women of color and other minorities. April 12th was chosen this year because it marks the approximate day that women would have to work, in addition to a full year, to make the same amount of money as their male counterparts do in a single year. Over a lifetime, this can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars – money that women and their families deserve. And don’t even get me started on the fact that women tend to pay more for basic needs like toiletries and clothes, and are charged “luxury taxes” on items like feminine products.
But what does any of this have to do with the entertainment industry, as the title above implies? Spoiler alert: Hollywood is one of the worst offenders when it comes to representation and gender equity.
Since 2012, the Women’s Media Center (WMC) releases an annual report detailing the gender gap between men and women in the media. According to The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2015 report, white men still dominate nearly every aspect of the entertainment industry, both in front of the camera and behind the scenes (“More women than men globally—except for on-screen and behind the lens,” 55-57). As if that wasn’t enough, Polygraph recently released their own report on the representation of characters entitled Film Dialogue from 2,000 Screenplays, Broken Down by Gender and Age. It’s interactive and simultaneously fascinating and frustrating data highlights that even fantasy characters in children’s entertainment experience a male-favored gender gap.
For example, in princess films from Disney’s Renaissance (1989-1999), a male character spoke at least 65 percent of the total dialogue in the movie. Even Mulan, who singlehandedly defeats the Huns and saves the Chinese empire, speaks less than Mushu the dragon. And, despite her incredible achievements, her grandmother gripes at the end of the film why Mulan couldn’t have brought home a man instead of a sword, only to have Captain Shang enter the scene a beat later.
Things get stickier still if we compare the roles and opportunities for white women and women of color. As I was researching and writing this blog, the most recent whitewashing controversy came to a head: Accusations that Paramount Pictures experimented with CGI to make star Scarlett Johansson appear more “Asian” in the live-action adaptation of the Japanese manga and anime Ghost in the Shell. While Johansson signed on to the project in January of last year, this most recent allegation against the adaptation reignites the argument against Hollywood’s penchant for whitewashing, particularly when it comes to adaptations of anime. Here’s looking at you, Dragonball Evolution (2009) and Avatar: The Last Airbender (2010).
The biggest problem with Johansson cast as Major Kusanagi is the glaring fact that she is not an Asian actress. If Paramount Pictures were planning to adapt Ghost in the Shell similarly to how Martin Scorsese adapted the Hong Kong film Internal Affairs (2002) into The Departed (2006), that would be one thing, but unfortunately, it’s not. Ghost in the Shell is still reportedly set in 2029 Japan, with Johansson’s Motoko Kusanagi as head of a public safety agency. Since news broke that Paramount Pictures may have tried to use special effects to make Johansson appear more “Asian,” industry insiders like writer Max Landis tried to explain why a studio would cast a white actress for the role.
However, I think actress Ming-Na Wen explains it best:
It’s disappointing and a missed opportunity to cast a Japanese or Asian American actress for the part. Scarlett Johansson is a great actress with the Sci-Fi and action chops and star power necessary to draw in crowds. However, I would much rather see her in a stand-alone Black Widow film than in a poorly imagined and insensitive anime adaptation. For Landis and others to claim that there aren’t any “Asian A-List actresses right now” simply isn’t true. And if for some reason it were true, that's still not a valid explanation.
So, what’s the impact?
Clearly, despite the industry’s best efforts to be more inclusive, there is still a long way to go. If backlash from recent controversies like #OscarsSoWhite is any indication, audiences are ready for a change. Ultimately, with men filling a disproportionately higher percentage of industry positions and representation, this leads to fewer opportunities for women, and even less so for women of color and other minority groups. Closing the wage gap in the United States would potentially stimulate the economy and pull families out of poverty, alleviating the overwhelming need for supportive programs like welfare. Similarly, shaking up the status quo in Hollywood leads to positive things like better and more well-rounded representation, greater opportunities for individuals with unique and creative perspectives, and an overall stronger industry.