Back in January during my trip in Los Angeles, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Caroline Heldman, research director at the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, associate professor of politics at Occidental College, and executive director of The Representation Project. Dr. Heldman also cofounded the New Orleans Women’s Shelter and the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum, End Rape on Campus (EROC), Faculty Against Rape (FAR), and End Rape Statute of Limitations (ERSOL). She’s been a professional pollster, campaign manager, and commentator for CNN, MSNBC, FOX News, and CNBC.
Caroline Heldman is probably the most intelligent woman I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a lot of intelligent women! Her personal story increased my admiration for her even more. After we met, I was reignited to learn more about the landscape and climate of female representation in film and media.
REBECCA MARTIN: Where did you grow up?
CAROLINE HELDMAN: I grew up in a town of five hundred in Washington state in the foothills of Mount St. Helens. I was one of six, raised Pentecostal Evangelical. I was homeschooled and wasn’t allowed to see media until I left and went out on my own.
MARTIN: What brought you out of your small town?
HELDMAN: I started college pretty young, and once I graduated, I hopped on a plane and went to D.C. to work for Congress. I got out as soon as I possibly could.
MARTIN: What drew you to politics?
HELDMAN: My first political campaign was when I was seven years old. I lobbied for people in our town to turn on their lights because it was a high fog area. My parents are not political, but my father was very religious and instilled the idea of “unto the least of these”—helping those most in need. So I grew up with the sense of fixing injustice. I was a business major in undergraduate [at Washington State University], and I had a mentor/professor, Brent Steel, who encouraged me to pursue politics.
I headed to Capitol Hill to handle health care, women’s issues, and environmental issues for congresswoman Jolene Unsoeld. Then I did my graduate work at Rutgers because it had the only Women in Politics PhD program in the world.
MARTIN: Are you starting to see a change in the industry?
HELDMAN: There is greater awareness of misogyny and patriarchy with the #MeToo movement, but I don’t think as a culture we have established mechanisms of accountability. The #MeToo conversation started the national conversation back in 2013, then the Cosby survivors came forward en masse in 2015 with the women who blew the whistle on sexual harassment at Fox News. Attention peaked with the Weinstein survivors, but even today, institutions have not established effective methods to prevent sexual violence. Colleges and universities are still not doing a good job, and Hollywood is certainly not doing a good job addressing it. It really comes down to the fact that these are masculinist institutions, dominated by men, with rules that prefer and protect men in subtle ways.
MARTIN: What is your opinion about female voices in film, specifically with film criticism?
HELDMAN: I appreciate creating new spaces to hold entertainment media accountable, like CherryPicks, a new website that elevates female film critics. But I would really like to see the mainstream sites, like Rotten Tomatoes, elevate women’s voices as well.
GEENA DAVIS INSTITUTE ON GENDER IN MEDIA
MARTIN: How long have you been with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media?
HELDMAN: Four years.
MARTIN: What is the work that the institute is doing? What is it trying to do to impact media culture? How did it get started?
HELDMAN: Geena Davis started her research organization in 2006 when she was watching a film with her daughter and realized that the content was quite sexist. She was a pioneer in raising awareness of Hollywood’s gender inequity through research and advocacy.
MARTIN: I’ve been doing a lot of research, because I want to be more aware of the problem of the lack of representation of women in media. That’s why I wanted to speak with you. I think it’s important to have the cold hard facts and data to back up your awareness.
HELDMAN: Male characters outnumber female characters 2 to 1, and we find similar gender inequities in television, advertising, and mascots. We have also published some important impact studies. For example, lots of little girls left the theater and bought a bow and arrow after watching Princess Merida (“Brave”) and Katniss Everdeen (“The Hunger Games”) in 2012. We also did a study of the impact of Dana Scully’s (“The X-Files”) character and found that over 60 percent of women in STEM say she was an inspiration.
MARTIN: Have you seen “Girlhood” (2014), directed by Céline Sciamma? We will be covering that film later in the year. I feel that coming-of-age films are less represented by women.
HELDMAN: Especially for women of color. Their stories are the most underrepresented in Hollywood. As bad as representation is for women in general, it’s far worse for women of color. They’re virtually erased as leading characters. A lot of it has to do with that we have very few women behind the scenes. Only 17 percent of the people that are directing, producing, and writing are women. And that’s because the hiring practices in Hollywood look like the 1950s. It is quite extraordinary that it’s been going on this long.
REPRESENTATION IN 2018 FILMS
MARTIN: For 2018, did you have any favorite films that you thought were good for representation?
HELDMAN: “Black Panther.”
MARTIN: Oh yes.
HELDMAN: Also, “Crazy Rich Asians” featured people of color and women in ways that we don’t typically see on the big screen. My favorite content last year, that hit nearly every point for me, was the Netflix movie “To All the Boys I Loved Before.” It stars a Korean American teenager—a coming-of-age film, but updated from the days of John Hughes because it’s more thoughtful, inclusive, and fantastic. My only critique is that none of the boys she loved before are Asian American boys. It’s rare to see Asian American men cast as romantic leads. I also love “Nappily Ever After.”
THE POWER OF RESEARCH
MARTIN: When you’re doing your research for the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, what drives you in your research direction?
HELDMAN: We conduct research for clients who want to know whether their content is inclusive. We also publish the See Jane Report each year that measures the representation of women, people of color, LGBTQIA individuals, and people with disabilities in the top-viewed movies and television shows.
MARTIN: And that’s on your website?
HELDMAN: Yes, our reports are available to everyone! We also have a very unique tool called the GD-IQ. It’s the first automated tool for measuring screen time and speaking time. It’s two algorithms that can measure this automatically for characters by gender and race. We find that men appear and speak twice as often as women in the top-grossing films.
MARTIN: Who’s using this tool?
HELDMAN: The Geena Davis Institute developed this tool, in collaboration with Google and the Signal Analysis and Interpretation Laboratory (SAIL) at USC. We are the only public research organization that has the capability of automated media content analysis.
MARTIN: That is amazing. Before I started Cinema Femme magazine, I did a lot of research, specifically with women in Europe, and their studies about women in film. Having writers from Egypt and the UK, I realize this is not just a US problem, it’s a world problem, for representation in film and media.
HELDMAN: I’m glad we are in a time in history where we have access to a lot of data about media content—from the Geena Davis Institute, the Inclusion Initiative at USC, and the Center for the Study of Women in Television in Film at San Diego State University. A decade ago, things were much different. Now we know exactly how underrepresented women, people of color, LGBTQIA folks, and people with disabilities are on the big and little screens.
In the fall, The Representation Project is hosting the first annual State of Media Summit to bring all of the public media research organizations together to talk about their findings.
MARTIN: Is that something anyone can go to?
HELDMAN: Yes, it will be open to the public, the press, other researchers, and media justice advocates.
MARTIN: And where will the summit be?
HELDMAN: The State of Media Summit will take place in Los Angeles.
MARTIN: I definitely will want to attend that. I want to thank you for taking the time to speak to me. What you’re doing is very important. Thank you for doing what you’re doing.
HELDMAN: Thank you for doing what you’re doing!