You can’t be what you can’t see

To pass the Bechdel test, a film must have at least two named female characters who have a conversation about something - anything - other than a man, writes Nicole da Silva. An astonishing number of films fail.

Despite accounting for half the world’s population, less than one third of all speaking characters in film are women.

They are less likely to play leaders or professionals – or even women who work. Female perspectives and stories are sorely lacking across our media landscape.

Our media not only fails to provide a broad and balanced reflection of society as a whole, it fails both women and men by suggesting the representation of women and the reinforcement of gender stereotypes harms only women. We are all let down by cultural narratives that perpetuate damaging gender stereotypes of women as objects and men as thugs or playboys. The pervading belief that gender disparity doesn’t also limit men is alarming.

Teenagers consume almost 11 hours of media a day, including television, music, video games, magazines and online content. The media educates, influences and shapes us, and it is here that we learn stories of manhood and femininity. Girls understand from a young age that their primary worth is based on their physical appearance. Boys learn that looks are what’s important in girls and that the role of a man is to be powerful, tough and in control. 

Jackson Katz, an anti-violence educator, author, filmmaker and activist puts it this way: “It’s patriarchy that says men can only be attracted by certain qualities, can only have particular kinds of responses, can only experience the world in narrow ways. Feminism holds that men are capable of more – are more than that.” 

Everyone is affected by gender inequality in the media. Underrepresentation and misrepresentation of both genders ingrains stereotypes. Lack of diversity in gender, ethnicity, age, ability, religious preference or sexual orientation in the media pushes its content away from the realities and aims of society; and this affects everyone. 

Women hold only 3 per cent of positions with clout in telecommunications, entertainment, publishing and advertising; and comprise only 18 per cent of all writers, directors, producers, cinematographers and editors.

The cycle is clear, the cycle is fierce and with these statistics, it is unsurprising.

The failings of the system are ingrained, so the true challenge comes in shifting beliefs that permeate our media, educational, professional and societal systems; in order to address social imbalances.

Once men join the conversation and “own” gender inequality and the limitations it places on them, we will see true and lasting change on a personal and institutional level.

As a champion for the Australian National Committee for UN Women Australia, an advocate of the One Billion Rising campaign, and an actor, I represent both sides of this conundrum. 

On the one hand, I am an equality advocate working to improve the status and representation of women and girls across the globe. On the other, I am a female actor working within the very medium that insidiously limits women and the roles they play in broader society.

Marie Wilson, author and political organiser, says “you can’t be what you can’t see”. I agree. I would like to see the media reflect the value of female experiences and perspectives. I’m inspired to strive for more; to challenge unconscious bias and latent sexism and carve out characters and roles that offer more complex, varied versions of women on screen.

So, how else can we make a change? First, we must recognise that it is not only women who benefit from gender equality, but society as a whole.

Gender rights are human rights, interconnected and interwoven into the tapestry of society. By achieving equality we have the chance to prevent one in three women experiencing sexual or physical violence in their lifetime;

I want women, and others who are marginalised, to enjoy equal access and opportunity, while men transform their relational lives.

I encourage women to strive for their goals. I also encourage men to be active and call out sexism when they see it. Everyone can demand a media landscape that reflects women in all their diversity. It’s imperative to ensure that TV shows and books represent and recognise women as strong and complex people. We can all play an active role in advancing gender equality. Joss Whedon, writer, director and producer sums it up perfectly: “Recognising someone else’s power does not diminish your own.” Our time starts now.


Originally produced by Guardian Australia Brand Partnerships to a brief agreed with and paid for by ANZ.