Thursday, May 17, 2012

Belloc's Lament

Females were “dramatically under-represented” in the United States’ top 100 grossing films last year, accounting for 33% of all characters at a time when they made up nearly 51% of the U.S. population, according to a study being released Tuesday.

The 33% figure represented an increase over the findings of a similar study in 2002, when females comprised 28% of the movie characters, said the report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

But while there were more female characters overall, fewer of them were “clearly identifiable protagonists,” the study found -- 11% in 2011 versus 16% in 2002. “Thus, while there are more female characters on screen today, fewer stories are told from a female character’s perspective,” according to Martha Lauzen, executive director of the center.

Her title for the report: "It's a Man's (Celluloid) World."

The report mirrored a study of women's behind-the-scenes participation that the center released in January, which found that women made up 18% of all directors, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors working on the 250 highest-grossing movies last year. That was only one percentage point higher than when the center began studying employment figures in 1998.

Lauzen’s latest report said that, on average, female characters in last year’s films were younger than the male characters, less likely to be portrayed as leaders and more likely to be identified by their marital status. It said that 73% of the female characters were Caucasian, 8% African American, 5% Latina and 5% Asian (with the rest in smaller categories, including aliens and animals).

I'm kind of conservative in the sense that I think equal rights under the law is about the best we're ever going to achieve with regards to reducing social inequality, and even that ideal takes a lot of effort to get anywhere near attaining (and sustaining). As Richard King noted, the problem with equal rights, for some people, is that they aren't enough by themselves to guarantee social justice. But social justice is a relative, subjective standard. Perfectly apportioned pie charts of sociopolitical identity do not naturally occur in institutional and interpersonal relationships. Imbalances of power and influence are inevitable, and yet do not predictably lead to uniformly negative outcomes. Precise fractions, mathematical means, and other such abstractions can only be imposed on human activity by diktat. Your parents weren't just being insensitive when they told you that life isn't fair.

Partially, I'm annoyed by the implications in such articles, that a perfect numerical balance of male and female (and why stop differentiating there?) film, pop, literary, etc. stars is necessary and, if stymied, it must necessarily be due to some nefarious -ism; attempts to appeal to standards of merit are countered with quasi-Freudianism which brooks no falsification. Partially, the annoyance is with the random bureaucratic metrics of progress, as if 50% of the fame and profit in Hollywood accruing to women will directly correlate with an increase in tips for waitresses and a decrease in domestic violence; or the apparent belief in gender/racial essentialism so similar to early Romantics like Johann Herder; post-colonial guilt rejects the attempt to reach something approximating universal ideals and experiences open to understanding by anyone in favor of cultivating jealously-guarded hyphenated identities.

But it's also the fact that all around the web, people will link to this story, have the requisite two-minute hate of sexism, take a moment to feel the sugar rush of affirmation that comes with associating oneself with a righteous cause, and go back to posting pictures of cute animals. It's cheap and easy, and it strikes me as cynical. Let's fume about the insidious oppression that exists simultaneously everywhere at once and nowhere in particular, all the better to keep us from having to offer up anything like meaningful insight or a practical course of action. Behold my righteous denunciation! Somebody should, uh, do something about, you know, all the things that suck. What matters is being seen, positioning oneself as a crusader for all the right causes.

The point is to make sure the argument never stops. Injustice never sleeps; there will always be an asymmetric ratio in need of rectifying. It becomes a comfortable career, almost, crusading for impossible standards of fairness, secure in knowing that things will only change slowly if at all, thus guaranteeing a stable, reassuring identity for the crusader.

There appear to be two rational explanations for this behavior. One is that Scalzi and the commenters who aped his behavior have a simply atrocious grasp on psychology, human behavior, and politics, and sincerely believed that mocking people would lead to their enlightenment. The other is that John Scalzi's purpose was never to actually contribute to education and social justice, but rather to demonstrate his superiority to those people he claimed to want to educate, and in doing so show what a brilliant and enlightened guy he is to the liberals he is in cultural competition with.