Depictions of powerful women are the first step to encouraging female leadership.
On January 3, 2017, the 115th Congress was sworn in. While fourteen women won seats, 14 women also exited, leaving the total number of women in Congress at 104. This means that while women comprise more than 50 percent of the American population, they make up less than 20 percent of Congress’s 535 members. On the state level, the number of female governors dropped from six to five. Following the defeat of Hillary Clinton, our nation’s first major party female presidential nominee, these numbers feel like a punch in the gut — particularly when considering that Clinton received nearly 3 million more votes than her opponent.
It’s no wonder that issues such as parental leave, cost of child care, reproductive rights and the gender pay gap have historically been ignored and are now coming under serious threat. But the fight for equality continues. On January 21st, millions of women and allies will march in Washington D.C. and cities across the nation to protest the policies of the incoming administration. The recent Martin Luther King Jr. holiday reminds us that this action is not without precedent.
While the Civil Rights movement has since been crisply memorialized in films like Selma and The Help, popular culture of the 50s and 60s was overwhelmingly white. Similarly in 2017, movies and television perpetuate a false universe where there are two males for every female. An analysis by polling site FiveThirtyEight found that women in film are significantly overrepresented as waitresses, teachers and secretaries. Such outdated stereotypes often play a role in driving social norms which, consciously or not, inform the career choices of young women.
Simply put, when we don’t see women in leadership positions, we come to believe that women cannot lead. As women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem said, “If we can’t see it, we can’t be it.”
After scanning list after list of top political films and television shows, it’s easy to see that even series like Veep and Scandal, where women (briefly) hold the top job (and are kicked of out office in dramatic and humiliating circumstances), are exceptions to the norm. Other high-powered women, such as gun control lobbyist Miss Sloane, transcend perceptions of weakness by completely rejecting their femininity. Many of the fictional female presidents have shown up in sci-fi films, suggesting that we’re likely to elect a female president around the same time that we discover aliens. This is not what Liza Cowan and Alix Dobkin meant by The Future Is Female.
On-screen female presidents, CEOs and other power brokers with career ambitions show young female viewers that they also can have high ambitions and achievements. The importance of seeing women of all ethnicities succeed in positions of power that generally are reserved for white men cannot be overstated.
In fact, we can have strong female roles in financially successful film and television. Just ask Taraji P. Henson, whose film Hidden Figures recently beat out Rogue One for to become the biggest movie in the country — in a recent Instagram post, she clapped back at naysayers who told her, “Black women can’t open films domestically or internationally.” Hidden Figures celebrates the brilliance and fortitude of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, three black women who persevered through racist Jim Crow laws to help launch NASA’s space program into public acclaim. The film reminds us that although white males dominate NASA, genius has no race nor gender. In fact, such discrimination often gets in the way of technological progress.
Disappointingly, the slate of highly-anticipated movies for 2017 seems to have missed this memo. While we look forward to Wonder Woman, we’d rather see women in our universe, of all ethnicities, playing CEO, head engineer, U.S. senator and president. As our soon-to-be-former President Obama said in his recent farewell address, “If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing.” We’ll be out there marching this weekend — will you?
— Alina R. Evans is a communications associate with AndACTION