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It's no secret that the battle for gender equality in Hollywood is intensifying. With the continued conversation surrounding the topic — and the monstrous success of Patty Jenkins's Wonder Woman as an example of what brilliant women can accomplish — key figures in the industry are making their voices heard and trying to shake up the existing standards of female representation.
Even in a lot of independent films, female characters are still often a backdrop or used as a repetitive force to reiterate the dialogue delivered by men. Jessica Chastain made her opinions loud and clear, after serving as a judge at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, regarding how women are treated (and represented) in film:
"This is the first time I’ve watched 20 films in 10 days, and I love movies. And the one thing I really took away from this experience is how the world views women from the female characters that were represented. It was quite disturbing to me, to be honest — with some exceptions.
I hope when we include female storytellers they will be more like the women I know in my day-to-day life. They are proactive, have their own point of view and don’t just react to men around them."
But there is a gender-equality gem within the film industry that seems to be hiding in plain sight. According to a new study, the horror genre is actually getting it right.
Film Dialogue by the Numbers
Of the 129 top-grossing films between the years 2006 and 2011, University of Southern California Communications Professor Stacy Smith found that fewer than 30 percent of the 5,839 characters were female. Not only that, but Smith also found that just half met the minimum criteria for the Bechdel Test, which calls for at least two female characters to talk about something other than a man.
Pretty staggering, huh? Granted, this study was completed with films released prior to 2012, a year when we received strong female performances in films such as The Hunger Games, Brave, Gravity, The Avengers and Pitch Perfect. Still, those numbers are pretty horrifying ... so, for once, let's turn to horror movies for comfort.
Google recently partnered with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (yes, that Geena Davis) to examine gender recognition in relation to screen time. The objective of the study was to find out how viewers absorb dialogue. To put the results bluntly, the study found that audiences see and hear men twice as often as women.
But there is one catch: the horror genre was the only exception. The study found that female characters receive 53 percent screen time within the horror genre, along with 47 percent of the dialogue being spoken by women. That's a major improvement over just 36 percent screen time and 35 percent dialogue in other genres.
So Why Don't We Recognize What Horror Does for Women?
The horror genre is often misrepresented as lacking depth or just meant to shock audiences. It's not easy to argue gender equality with people who don't enjoy movies filled with blood, guts, and screams.
Of course, there are female victims within the horror genre, but the genre is changing the game by including women not just as victims but also as strong leaders, smart survivalists and completely menacing villains. Even back in the 1970s, women in horror weren't just treated as victims (or a beautiful nude body), as exemplified by iconic horror films such as The Exorcist, I Spit On Your Grave, Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
To give a more recent example, Jordan Peele's 2017 horror release Get Out had a male lead character, but the way the film portrayed a white woman as the main villain was something that we hadn't really seen before. Get Out showed audiences a male character falling victim to a woman's evil plotting and murderous intentions. Why is this important? Well, stories like that are usually flipped the other way around. Allison Williams's character Rose not only flipped the narrative, but she had equal screen time to her male counterpart, as well as a high amount of dialogue that wasn't just centered around the male characters.
If you are upset over the state of female representation in film, I would suggest grabbing your security blanket and watching some horror movies. While it's not perfect, I think anyone would be pleasantly surprised with the amount of positivity that exists within the genre and how it has made big strides to equally represent women and men. It's time for other genres to take some notes from what horror has done for women and try including some of the techniques to expand the horizons for film.
After all, without the horror genre, we wouldn't have iconic female characters such as Laurie Strode, Carrie White, Lorraine Warren, Amanda Young, Nancy Downs and many more. The horror genre has been inclusive for women for decades. Not only has the inclusion always been there, but it's continuously evolving and changing the way women are viewed — and the way women view themselves.