Females, minorities underrepresented in films

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Photo Credit: Jason Cheon | Daily Texan Staff

After decades of limited on-screen opportunities, Hollywood’s leading ladies have risen from gloved housewives to gun-slinging heroines. However, despite rising representation, equality on screen — particularly for minorities — remains restricted.

Advertising sophomore Lorena Pena said the older she got, the more she realized representation of minorities was lacking. As a Hispanic woman, she said she found herself unable to relate to the characters on screen, especially when Hispanic women on-screen were sexualized. 

“I definitely think [the lack of Hispanic representation] really affects a girl’s self-esteem,” Pena said. “The character’s physical features can make you feel like you don’t look the right way when you don’t see any actresses with your nose, your skin color or your body type. [The movement] is about representing women … but it’s also about representing all women.”

Traditionally, attempts at diversification have been encumbered by the need to appeal to male audiences. While female protagonists faced forces of evil, the actresses embodying them faced far worse opponents ­— sexual objectification and stereotyping. Lead characters like Barbarella and Elektra lacked the agency that characterized traditional male heroes, and other femaile characters were merely trophies for men.

Recently, the tables have turned. Characters like Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road” and Rey in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” represent a shift away from vulnerability and overt sexualization of women. Their influence has been boosted by critical and commercial success, which, combined with other heroines breaking boundaries on screen, has prompted the development of more female-driven action flicks.

However, amid this emergence of female action stars, one group of women remains unaccounted for: minorities. 

In 2015, a report by Dr. Martha M. Lauzen indicated that minorities make up 26 percent of female characters, who in turn collectively make up only 30 percent of speaking characters in films. Female protagonists lead 12 percent of films, and most are portrayed by white actresses.  The lack of ethnic diversity among heroines poses a serious issue for Hollywood, whose efforts to portray powerful women have thus far been limited for women of color.

Charlotte Howell, a Ph.D. candidate in media studies, said she attributes this ethnic disparity to the marketability associated with white leads, even in nontraditional roles like Furiosa and Rey.

“Writers have got to make the argument [for representation] in [executives’] terms, usually capitalistic terms,” Howell said. “It’s a fundamentally different world for [women] of color in the film industry.”

While Howell said the rise in heroines is indicative of progress, cinema’s representation of women should include actresses of various ethnicities.

“The rise in quantity of female action heroes is a positive,” Howell said. “Those who are helping to push for this change are going to take that as the stepping stone toward a wider spectrum of representation that will more closely reflect the world in which we live.”

Amid efforts to increase roles for women, hindrances like marketability and white partiality continue to provoke conversation about the representation of women in film. According to communication studies freshman Julia O’Hanlon, representation in cinema can influence viewers’ perceptions of race and gender.

“I want young girls to understand that they can be successful and be a woman of color at the same time,” O’Hanlon said. “There are so many fantastic actresses who are women of color, [but] it’s going to take significant pushing to get them into the spotlight.”