It’s an argument everyone’s heard a million times before. Yes, female characters are rare creatures in movies (especially genre movies like fantasy, sci-fi and superhero movies), in video games and in non-“chick lit” novels. Yes, these forms of entertainment are male-heavy. But that’s not because of industry sexism. Of course not. It’s pure sense. Studios and publishers must cater to their audiences, and as the majority of these audiences are men, of course men are more represented.
This idea of men as the majority is incredibly pervasive, despite the fact that it’s completely baseless. In fact, in some cases, the reality is the precise opposite.
It’s well-known that the majority of readers are women. And they’re not just reading romance. Some extensive googling brought up no hard figures, but some estimates can be extrapolated from this 2010 survey. If we assume an equal number of male and female readers in the population, we can estimate that women make up 38% of sci fi readers, 45% of literary fiction readers and 35% of graphic novel readers, as well as 59% of readers of thrillers, mysteries and crime books. However, as there are more female readers of fiction than male readers, these estimates are likely too low. If someone can find me clearer or more up to date figures, please share them with me: I’ve seen people referring to the idea that 50% of sci-fi/fantasy readers are women, but my googling brought up no actual survey to support it.
Meanwhile, according to a survey by the MPAA, 52% of movie goers in 2013 were female, and they bought 50% of the tickets. Before the phrase “chick flick” shows up, these women were seeing all kinds of movies, not just the ones specifically marketed to them. For example, according to The Atlantic, 40% of the audience for The Avengers were women.
Gaming is known to be the most male-dominated form of entertainment, yet 48% of gamers in 2013 were women, according to the ESA, and despite stereotypical assumptions, women over 18 are a much larger proportion of gamers than boys under 18 (36% vs 17%). And before people mention “casual gaming” and “Candy Crush,” 38% of Xbox players are women, 50% of Nintendo players are women, and women are 46% of the most frequent game purchasers. Strangely, the gaming areas where women are least represented are all-male violent games and misogynistic games, like Call of Duty (women are 20% of players) and Grand Theft Auto (15% of players).
And as for comics, a survey in 2014 suggests that 46.67% of comic readers are women. Not a majority, but hardly a chunk you want to ignore.
To be honest, we shouldn’t even need statistics to tell us that this is true. I don’t think I’ve ever met a girl or woman who wasn’t interested in going to the movies, watching television, reading novels or playing video games. Most of the women I’ve met are interested in many if not all of those things. Yet we’re constantly told that women just don’t like that stuff — don’t like adventure stories, don’t like superheroes, don’t like thrillers, don’t like video games — because it sounds like a nice, safe, non-sexist reason for the dearth of female representation. We ignore common sense in favor of a comforting lie.
But it’s even nonsense from a business perspective. Let’s assume, for a moment, that the naysayers are right. Let’s assume that women are a minority in seeing these movies, in reading these novels, in playing video games, whatever. This “fact” still wouldn’t excuse studios failing to create female characters or cater to this audience, because reaching previously untapped audiences is what good business growth is all about. We can’t assume that women don’t like good stories, or that they’re somehow impossible to reach as a demographic. Companies should be attempting to increase the percentage of female consumers, because women are 50% of the population, and so represent a huge opportunity for growth. And if competitors aren’t catering to this audience, it’s the perfect market to expand into.
Yet they don’t. And it’s not because of the statistics, because those show large female audiences, and it’s not because of economics, because common sense shows female consumers as a great target for expansion. It’s because they simply don’t want to. They don’t think to. And when they do, it’s on purely “girly” titles, “chick flicks” and pink versions of games and often poor quality, superficial offerings, as though women are an entirely separate species, too difficult to understand.
Of course, some studios say that they’d like to make stories with female protagonists, but they can’t, because women will read stories and play games with male protagonists, but that men won’t read stories or play games with female protagonists. And there may be some truth to that, although it’s a perspective that won’t change unless studios put out high quality movies and games featuring female protagonists to show they’re not just silly things for women. But there isn’t as much truth in this as some people seem to believe. Catching Fire was one of the highest grossing movies of 2013, and 41% of its audience was male. Frozen‘s audience was 43% male, and Gravity‘s audience was 54% male. Perhaps the male/female percentage was skewed more female than if the movies had had male leads, but that doesn’t mean the movies lost money as a result. These movies all made massive amounts of money, and we can assume that any minor slump in male viewers was compensated for with female viewers glad to finally see quality genre movies with female protagonists.
Women are consumers, and they’re there, money in hand, ready to spend on games and movies and books where they’re actually represented. Heck, a large chunk of them are already spending that money and catapulting series to success. Imagine what would happen if studios actually embraced the statistics and common economic sense and started catering to them as well.