A day after attending an awards ceremony for writing, I was randomly flipping through the conveyor belt of movies on my flight back to Vancouver when “The Golden Era” (黃金時代) caught my eye. Not knowing anything about the headlining wins director Ann Hui (許鞍華) received at the Hong Kong Film Awards, nor the film’s quiet but trailblazing showcase in renowned film festivals around the world, I decided to give it go.
What unfolded on screen was a cinematic masterpiece likened to the timeless essays and novels the young writer composed. The lead actor Tang Wei played Chinese writer Xiao Hong set in the 1920s. Wei brought Hong alive with the nuances of struggling with poverty and loneliness. She invited the viewer into the inner life of the flawed writer who appeared to have questionable morals. Yet, Xiao Hong is hard not to empathize with for her child-like observations written in simple and colorful verses.
What I appreciated most about the portrayal of Xiao Hong was the depth of a female character Ann Hui brought to the screen. I didn’t realize how much I was starved for strong, intelligent and fully developed female characters until I reflected on the film’s storyline and the subtext of the film existing in an age where underrepresentation of women in mainstream film and media is a chronic shortfall.
While women make up half of the world’s population, less than a third of all speaking characters in some of the most profitable film industries are female. Only 22.5% of the on-screen workforce is comprised of women. When they are employed, females are visibly absent from powerful positions. Women portrayed as business executives, political figures, or science, technology, engineering, and/or math (STEM) employees, are less than 15%, says the Gender Bias Without Borders study.
In response to the first global study on female characters in popular films, UN Women said the report revealed “deep-seated discrimination and pervasive stereotyping of women and girls by the international film industry.”
The disappointing numbers tell the story. A study conducted by a film and television research center examined the top 100 grossing films of 2014 in the US. It found that females comprised 29% of major character, an increase of only 2% compared to numbers in 2002. Female protagonists made up a dismal 12%; whereas, 75% of protagonists were male.
Unfortunately, age discrimination in females is also evident with the majority of them being in their 20s and 30s. Males aged 40 and over accounted for 53% compared to 30% of all female characters aged 40 and over. Furthermore, the report also confirmed what we, as consumers, are sadly immune to.
“Sexualisation is the standard for female characters globally: girls and women are twice as likely as boys and men to be shown in sexually revealing clothing, partially or fully naked, thin, and five times as likely to be referenced as attractive.”
The most obvious way to reverse the chronic underrepresentation is foster more female directors and commission studies to raise awareness and inform policy. According to the Gender Equality Committee under the Executive Yuan, (行政院性別平等會), women directors in Taiwan comprised of 21%while men stood at 79% in 2011. It also noted the percentage of women in film production stood at 23%, photography was 11%, and 40% in screenwriting.
But there’s hope in the findings of Professor Chiu Kuei-fen (邱貴芬) for women to establish themselves with documentary filmmaking. “One of the prominent features of documentary filmmaking in Taiwan is that women directors make up a large proportion of the documentarist population,” writes Chiu. “This is a marked contrast to feature film industry in which almost all celebrated directors are men.”
Chiu attributes this trend to the invention of light-weight cameras, low costs accessing computer facilities, and a much lower budget needed than traditional featured films. A number of film festivals since the 1990s further created a supportive community for female documentary filmmakers.
Chui says women are making their voices heard on social issues like the lifting of martial law in 1987, queer politics and nursing care for the elderly and the sick indigenous communities.
The proliferation of accessible data and research in the past two years has made it possible for these conversations to take place in the news and discussions around board rooms. What I see in the West is the beginning of what I hope to see more of in Taiwan and parts of Asia. That is, a consistent moral pressure by non-profit organizations, actors, journalists, editors, films executives, politicians, audiences, readers, to demand justice on screen so girls and boys don’t have to live in the confines of gender stereotypes.
First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Joey Chung