Hollywood has awoken to female representation: when will adland follow?

Last year's Star Wars toys were criticised for not including Rey, the main character in The Force Awakens
Last year's Star Wars toys were criticised for not including Rey, the main character in The Force Awakens

Adland should learn from Disney putting Jyn Erso, the female protagonist of Star Wars spinoff Rogue One, at the centre of the film's merchandise.

In a matter of days the merchandise for Star Wars spinoff Rogue One hits the shelves. The movie, out in December, features an independent and courageous lead female character, Jyn Erso; she follows in the footsteps of the wonderfully spikey Rey, who led the cast in The Force Awakens.

No one who saw last year’s film could forget the expression on Rey’s face when gallant Finn tried to take her hand as they legged across the desert away from Storm Trooper aggressors. However, despite the fact that the force was strong in Rey, the faith of Disney, and toy partner Hasbro, in her ability to make merchandising dollars was clearly not.

When The Force Awakens merchandise launched last year, Rey was notably missing. The internet went wild and the Disney/Hasbro response – that they didn’t want to spoil the plot – was deemed B.S. and unspeakably lame by all right-thinking Star Wars fans. This time round they’re not going to make the same mistake again: Jyn merchandise is already poised for sale from this Friday.

Despite the righting of this really pretty remarkable wrong by Disney, the truth can’t be avoided - Hollywood still favours the male lead. In 2015 male characters received twice the amount of screen time as their female counterparts, and spoke twice as often. In fact, in only 17% of Hollywood films is there a female lead at all.

Women are still awarded only a very limited kind of role across film and TV.  When a business executive appears on screen, it will be a man 86% of the time, and a woman in only 14% of cases; when the role is a doctor, it will be a man in 70% of cases; with academics 73% are men, and so on and so on.

TV has perhaps been quicker than film to introduce strong female characters, with a burgeoning number of female-led series taking position front and centre from as early as 2011: 57% of Netflix subscribers tuned into Orange is the New Black (about 16 million viewers), 22% watched Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (about six million viewers); over 100 countries each showed Scandi Noir hits The Killing and The Bridge.

And to be fair, Hollywood is starting to do what it does best – it’s following the money. Hollywood has had a (very) gradual awakening to the draw of strong female characters. Audiences are flocking to see them: films with female leads made considerably more on average than films with male leads in 2015 ($89.9m vs. $75.7m). Films led by the likes of Jennifer Lawrence, Daisy Ridley, Amy Schumer, Tina Fey and Anna Kendrick are beginning to look more like the norm. And the more they prove the box office case, the more we’re going to see interesting, complex female characters appear.

No wonder then that Disney is correcting its tone-deaf omission of Rey from The Force Awakens monopoly board. If audiences are delighted and drawn to see strong female characters in film then why would they not be drawn to see that character in the game/embodied in the doll/on the lunchbox?

Advertising, with all the commercial risk attached to any change, tends to be the last media to reflect a cultural shift.  But the lava-like slowness it embodies around gender depiction feels particularly offbeat in light of the demand for strong female characters that the above findings highlight.

Yes, there has been a spike in advertising that calls out for the female cause (aka "femvertising"). But, in the day-to-day representation of women in ads, stereotypes still dominate: women are only shown in managerial professional roles in 3% of cases; they are twice as likely as men to feature in commercials for domestic products; male voiceovers are preferred over female because they’re deemed more authoritative; women are presented as sexual objects in half of magazine ads. One in three ads distorts the female model to conform to a largely unattainable beauty ideal. Most models used in advertising are 20% below a healthy body weight.

The box office is telling Hollywood that women and girls don’t want to hear that stuff any more. They want to see their strength and their character reflected in what they watch. They will pay more to see that than they will to see content that tells them they can’t be doctors or successful in business, and that their role is just to support the male lead and occupy the domestic space.  

Hollywood is responding.  

Let’s see adland respond with some more commitment too.

Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts are co-founders of consultancy Pretty Little Head, which develops marketing strategies for a female audience.

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