Does Hollywood Still Have a Princess Problem? (Ep. 394)

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Disney’s classic princess movies, which some critics see as promoting outdated role models, are being updated to reflect more modern sensibilities. And the strategy is paying off. (Photo: Harrison/Getty)

For decades, there’s been a huge gender disparity both on-screen and behind the scenes. But it seems like cold, hard data — with an assist from the actor Geena Davis — may finally be moving the needle.

Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

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Geena DAVIS: In my opinion, the biggest problem we have in the world — of all the problems that we have — is gender inequality. If we were able to fix that, so that women were no longer second-class citizens, I think it would impact every other problem that we have — hunger and the environment and war. I don’t mean to say that it will cure the other problems, but it would go a long way toward improving these other stubborn problems.

I mean, women in most sectors of society — well, in every single sector — there’s big gender inequality. But as far as the leadership positions go, a lot of times, progress seems to stall out at about 20 percent. Congress is 20 percent women, and so many other areas of society are similar. So we’re not using, by any means, all of the talent of women. And the evidence has shown that if you correct that, and get all of the best minds working, things will improve. And women and men just have a different view of the world. There’s all these studies that show that when a body is more blended, where it’s not homogenous, it makes smarter and better decisions.

You may recognize that voice. But it’s not one of the academic researchers we usually speak with on this show. Nor does she run a big institution like the World Bank or the Federal Reserve. That voice belongs to Geena Davis. The Hollywood actor — not some random Geena Davis.

DAVIS: Yes. Yes. In fact, I put that in my email to you in the subject. It was from “Geena Davis, the actor, not some random Geena Davis.”

Why did Geena Davis send us that e-mail? Well, it really goes back to the 1991 movie that made her super-famous: Thelma and Louise.

DAVIS: Did you see how polite he is? He’s so sweet.

Susan SARANDON: Thelma.

DAVIS: What?

Davis played a timid housewife who goes road-tripping with her not-at-all timid friend, played by Susan Sarandon.

DAVIS: And they make horrible decisions along the way. But they live and die by them, and live and die by them.

As Hollywood films go, it was a huge outlier: two female leads, a female screenwriter, and the kind of raucous, thorny story that didn’t usually involve female characters. Also, a wild gut-punch of an ending. Making Thelma and Louise changed Geena Davis, from the very beginning.

DAVIS: It started happening within minutes of meeting Susan for the first time. We were having a meeting with Ridley Scott.

Ridley Scott was the director. Davis and Susan Sarandon were asked to give him some feedback on the screenplay.

DAVIS: And I had gone through it to see if I had any ideas. And there were some very little things, maybe a little line change or something.

Keep in mind that by this point in her career, Davis had already won an Oscar for best supporting actress.

DAVIS: And I figured out the most girly possible way to present these. Maybe I could make him think it’s his idea somehow, and maybe I’ll tell this one, I’ll make it sound like a joke. And this one, I could wait until on the set, because I don’t want to bring up this many things.

DUBNER: So you’re treating yourself like a second-class citizen, essentially, yes?

DAVIS: Exactly. I was definitely one of those people who had a thousand qualifiers before they would say anything. Like, “I don’t know if this is true,” and, “it’s probably wrong, but what do you think about—?” So anyway, so we get there, and page one, Susan says, “Now, this first line of mine. I think we should just cut that line, or maybe put it on page two, but it just doesn’t seem right.”

And I’m like, wait a minute. My mind was blown. Wait a minute. Women can be like this? I became her acolyte. I couldn’t get enough of her. And just observing how she moved through the world. She just seemed like she thought her opinion was valuable. And so she would say it. And it’s astounding to me that I never saw a woman behave like that.

Why had Geena Davis never seen a woman behave like that? Perhaps because she, like many people, had absorbed so much media imagery of women and girls who behave nothing like that. And it starts early. For girls in America particularly, it’s almost a rite of passage: the watching of, the obsessing over, and perhaps the imitating of the princesses in Disney movies.

Sarah COYNE: Being highly engaged in the Disney princess culture at a young age tended to be related to more girly-girl behavior.

Today on Freakonomics Radio: what messages do those princess movies send?

Anya DUBNER: This idea that you could make a wish and it’ll come true and that you don’t have to work hard for what you want.

How does this princessism trickle up into the economics of the broader movie business?

Caroline HELDMAN: Hollywood is leaving money on the table.

What’s Geena Davis doing about it?

DAVIS: I’ve been there hundreds of times to talk to every possible division they have.

So is it working?

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Stephen DUBNER: Let’s just play word association for a minute. When I say the word “princess,” you say what?

Anya DUBNER: Beauty.

Stephen DUBNER: When I say the word “Disney princess,” you say what?

Anya DUBNER: Strict guidelines.

Stephen DUBNER: So how do we go from “beauty” to “strict guidelines” just by adding “Disney”?

Anya DUBNER: Because of the easy access that we have to this media as five-year-old girls.

That’s my daughter, Anya.

Anya DUBNER: I’m a rising senior in high school.

Actually, we recorded this over the summer, so by now she’s fully risen. When she was little, Anya was heavily into the Disney princesses.

Anya DUBNER: Snow White, Belle, Aurora. What little girl wouldn’t want to be a Disney princess? Wouldn’t want long, flowy hair and, wouldn’t want to make a wish in a well and have the perfect life?

Stephen DUBNER: Do you remember going to Disney World?

Anya DUBNER: I do. It felt so magical. You meet all the princesses.

Stephen DUBNER: You would just—

Anya DUBNER: Jaw drop. It felt like I was meeting a celebrity. It felt like, oh my God, this is who I want to be. This is so exciting.

Stephen DUBNER: Was there one princess in particular?

Anya DUBNER: It was always Belle.

Stephen DUBNER: Now, which one was Belle?

Anya DUBNER: Beauty and the Beast. And even though I had a mind that made everything and anything possible, she was the most achievable to me because I looked like her. So I would wear that yellow dress and I instantly felt like her. I would wear it everywhere. Do you remember?

Stephen DUBNER: Yeah, everywhere. To visit grandparents, to go to school.

Anya DUBNER: Yeah.

Stephen DUBNER: Doctor’s office. And what’s her story? What’s the plot?

Anya DUBNER: She gets trapped in a castle. She meets this big beast. He’s hideous. Everyone thinks he’s really aggressive and terrible and a monster. And she gets to know him, and he becomes nice and gentle and he starts to love her. And then somehow he becomes a handsome prince.

Stephen DUBNER: Right.

Anya DUBNER: This is actually one of the very few princesses I admire, because in the beginning of the movie, she was always reading books, walking around town. And she turned down the handsome town man who everyone loved. She had no interest in him. And then suddenly she meets the beast and she falls in love with someone for something other than his looks. And I think that’s an important message, yes. But at the same time, there’s still this weird sense of the man being obsessed with her, and it still revolves all around her being beautiful.

Anya’s been thinking a lot about Disney princesses lately because of a writing project she had in school, for ethics class. The assignment was to explore any scenario that showed a marked imbalance of gender or power.

Now, you’ll have to take my word for this, but Anya is not an injustice collector; she doesn’t try to turn molehills into mountains, and she’s not punitive. I mean, take it with a grain of salt — I’m obviously biased. But I think she’s a kind and thoughtful person.

Anya DUBNER: I want to study psychology. I think it’s kind of like a superpower, you can know what’s going on in someone’s mind. It’s just such an exciting thing.

And yet when she looked back at the Disney princesses she loved as a kid — she wasn’t crazy about the messages they sent.

Anya DUBNER: There are such strict gender roles and guidelines that represent how women should act and how women should perform in a household, and what they should want in life. I don’t blame them. Because all of these movies are reflections of the time.

What I’m curious about is why people continue to watch these, and why parents continue to show their kids because, hopefully, these societal norms have improved in some ways, and they’re not like they were in the 1930s, when Snow White came out. I think Disney makes possible this idea that you could make a wish and it’ll come true, and that you don’t have to work hard for what you want.

And what you want is probably, because of Disney, this fantasy life that everything is so easy, and everything is perfect and that, you know, find a prince. And having your ideal life be so easy to achieve is a really bad message to send to anybody. But in my opinion, especially to girls. Because for me as a girl I always have to work really hard to prove myself, because—I feel that subconsciously, people expect men to be smarter or just to be more successful and because of that, I think women need to have an extra layer of armor.

Stephen DUBNER: It makes me proud of you to hear you think this through like that. But it also makes me feel bad.

Anya DUBNER: Sad. Yeah, right.

Stephen DUBNER: Yeah. As the father of a daughter, you know, that you feel that you’ve got that additional burden.

Anya DUBNER: I like it. If you think of it in a certain way, it adds a certain type of determination.

COYNE: There’s a debate right now, where a lot of critics say media has no impact on us at all.

That’s Sarah Coyne. She’s a psychology professor at Brigham Young University; she studies how children and families are affected by the media they consume.

COYNE: We’ve been researching this for over two decades, and lots of things that have an impact on behavior. Lots of things influence body image, or prosocial behavior, or aggression, or pick whatever you want, gender. But media is a significant and an important one.

Just how significant, and in what directions? Coyne and some other researchers set up a study to find out.

COYNE: The major aim of the study was to find the longer-term impact of princess culture on a variety of different outcomes, such as prosocial behavior, body image, and gender stereotypes.

The study included roughly 200 young children, girls and boys. The researchers factored in each kid’s viewing habits, their play habits, and a lot of other factors; they also interviewed the kids’ parents and teachers. What’d they learn?

COYNE: So we found that girls in particular who were really into princess culture at age four tended to be more gender-stereotyped the next year after controlling for how gender-stereotyped they were that previous year. So in other words, being highly engaged in the Disney princess culture at a young age tended to be related to more girly-girl behavior the next year.

“Girly-girl behavior” meaning what, exactly?

COYNE: Characteristics would be kind of submissive and passive but really friendly and sweet, whereas boys are more assertive and aggressive.

Coyne and her colleagues published their findings in a paper called “Pretty as a Princess: Longitudinal Effects of Engagement with Disney Princesses on Gender Stereotypes, Body Esteem, and Prosocial Behavior in Children.” The reaction was not so great.

COYNE: I even got physical hate mail to my office. It was the only time that’s ever happened. I think when we tell parents, “Just be thoughtful about this,” or “There could be a darker side to princesses,” they get really defensive about their own choices as parents. I think that a lot of people thought, well, you’re saying girls can’t be feminine. Which is not the case at all.

There’s a difference between being feminine and being stereotyped, right? What we find is that girls who are highly gender-stereotyped tend to limit themselves in a number of key ways. So they don’t think that they can do well in math or science. They’re less likely to want to go on to college when they get older. So it’s really about limiting yourself and what you could become.

Hearing Sarah Coyne talk about the “lasting effects of princessism” of course made me think about my own daughter, Anya.

Stephen DUBNER: So looking back on your, let’s say, five-year-old self now as a 17-year-old, what effect do you think all that princessism had on you, as a person?

Anya DUBNER: Yeah, that’s something I was wondering. I mean, I like the way I turned out, and I think my values adhere to the beliefs that I admire. But the values presented in these movies may have been instilled in me in ways that I’ve not particularly noticed.

DAVIS: My 17-year-old daughter is exactly the same as yours. Princess-mania. And now, so self-possessed and stubborn.

That, again, is Geena Davis. And this is exactly what she wanted to talk about when she sent us that e-mail a few months back. Because she sees a connection between princessism and what she calls “the biggest problem in the world”: gender inequality.

When Thelma and Louise came out, Davis says, she was convinced things were moving forward really fast.

DAVIS: The press had a field day with saying that Thelma and Louise would change everything. “Now everything is going to change.” So many more movies starring women. And it didn’t happen at all.

It wasn’t only in Hollywood where it didn’t happen, but in finance and tech and many other areas.

DAVIS: All the evidence shows that if there is progress being made, it’s at an absolutely glacial pace.

And Geena Davis is starting to get impatient.

DAVIS: It should happen right away. I keep saying, this is the only direction it’s going, toward equality. So can we just get there already?

Her real awakening came when she started having kids.

DAVIS: So when my daughter was a toddler, I decided to start showing her preschool shows and G-rated videos and things like that. And the very first thing I sat down to watch with her was a kid’s TV show. And within five minutes I was saying, “Wait a minute, how many female characters are in this show?”

DUBNER: Was this Sesame Street?

DAVIS: I never bust anybody publicly.

DUBNER: So do you want to cough if, uh—

DAVIS: I’ll tell you what, I’ll blink. Yeah.

DUBNER: Okay.

DAVIS: And I started counting on my hands. And then I looked online to see what it said about this show. And it had 19 male characters before they added one female character.

Davis started to notice this pattern everywhere. If a show didn’t happen to have a princess in it, there probably weren’t many females. Like in the hugely popular animated movie whose title Davis, again, won’t say, but I’m pretty sure rhymes with “Shminding Shmemo.”

DAVIS: That had only one female character in the entire movie — an important character, but nonetheless — and I was horrified and absolutely stunned to learn this. And I asked my friends — my best friends, mothers of daughters, had they noticed, and none of them had noticed, so—

DUBNER: They’d literally not noticed the disparity, you’re saying?

DAVIS: Yes. They had no clue about the disparity.

She seemed to have stumbled across an invisible problem.

DAVIS: So, because I have meetings all the time in my industry with producers or directors, whoever, I started bringing it up in every meeting I took. I would say, “Have you ever noticed how few female characters there are in movies made for kids?” And every single person — I’m talking about dozens and dozens of people — said, “Oh, that’s not true anymore. That’s been fixed.” And it wasn’t that they were like, “Oh no, that’s not important” they were passionate about it, they were telling me how much they care about it at the studio, at this company.

That’s what made me realize, I need the data, because I can’t believe that I’m the only person to notice this, but the people making this stuff don’t even see what they’re doing.

In 2004, Davis started the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. First step: collect data to see if her observation about the on-screen gender imbalance was true.

DAVIS: So that’s what I did. I raised funds and helped sponsor the largest study ever done on kids’ TV and movies made for kids.

This study, released in 2008, looked at hundreds of top-grossing movies released between 1990 and 2005, along with a sample of TV shows. It found that in G-rated films, only 28 percent of the speaking characters were female; and an even smaller percent when you looked across all ratings.

This gave credence to what’s known as the Bechdel Test, which was inspired by a comic strip drawn by graphic novelist Alison Bechdel. It’s a gauge of whether a movie includes at least two women talking to each other about something other than a man.

The study Davis commissioned also found a disproportionately high share of white characters in movies and TV shows. So: an overwhelming representation of white maleness — which, perhaps not coincidentally, could also describe the personnel in many Hollywood studios at the time.

DAVIS: And my plan was, I’ll go back to them in a private way, not bust anybody publicly, and see if that has any impact. So that’s what I did.

And what happened?

DAVIS: What happened was all these people who couldn’t see the problem whatsoever and literally thought that things were 50/50 were horrified. And I think because people who make kids entertainment do it because they love kids, they were completely nonplussed that they hadn’t realized this.

But maybe — just maybe — there was good reason why so many characters in films and TV were male. Maybe it had to do with economic theory — or at least what passed for an economic theory. It went like this: the way to make money in Hollywood was to make movies geared toward a male audience.

DAVIS: That’s something that Hollywood has sort of lived by and made every decision about, that men don’t want to watch women so we must make everything about men. And we’ll stick one in or something who’s pretty or hot.

Sean BAILEY: In the ’90s, I think the belief was that teen males and 20-something males were the ones that will show up and knock down your doors on a Friday night at a movie theater.

That is Sean Bailey. He is president of production at Walt Disney Studios.

BAILEY: And that was the way you could get a huge opening weekend. And that’s what a lot of places played primarily to. And by the way, it’s not altogether untrue, either.

But just how true is it — or was it, at least, back in the ’90s? And even if very true back then, how much has it changed? And if it hasn’t changed much, why not? One reason, of course, could be discrimination. Let’s first talk about what economists mean when they talk about discrimination.

Aislinn BOHREN: Discrimination is typically defined as differences in observable outcomes such as wages, or such as performance evaluations, that cannot be attributed directly to underlying differences in performance.

That’s Aislinn Bohren. She’s an economist at the University of Pennsylvania.

BOHREN: So for example, if you’re looking at gender discrimination, economists would define discrimination as occurring if a male and a female generated similar performance, but they were treated differently in terms of how they were paid, or in how they were evaluated, based on differences that are not attributable to any performance differences.

There are, however, different flavors, or sources, of discrimination.

BOHREN: The first would be a preference- or a taste-based source, which would say that the discrimination occurred because the evaluator, who’s determining the wage or the performance evaluation, has some sort of preference or dislike for the group that they’re discriminating against.

Geena Davis does not think that’s what causes gender disparity in Hollywood. Her belief is based on how the studios responded to the gender data she showed them.

DAVIS: This was a few years ago, but we did a survey of top executives to see what they thought about what they learned. And something like 90 percent said it was definitely having an impact on them, and that they thought it was very important to show gender parity.

Okay, so let’s accept, at least for the sake of argument, that Hollywood doesn’t exercise taste-based discrimination against female characters.

BOHREN: A second source would be a belief-based source. And this would be when there’s no preference or dislike for a particular group, but because the underlying quality is not perfectly observable, the evaluator is going to form a belief about performance that’s based not only on any signal of performance from that individual, but also from some underlying belief about whether different groups have different average performance differences.

Belief-based is also known as statistical discrimination. And historically, when economists use the words “statistical discrimination,” they’re referring to belief-based differences that are actually based on correct beliefs.

This gets to what Geena Davis said earlier, regarding Hollywood’s belief about male moviegoers.

DAVIS: That men just don’t want to watch women.

And was this belief-based difference based on a correct belief?

HELDMAN: It is true that a decade ago, films led by men made a lot more money on average than films led by women.

That’s Caroline Heldman, a political scientist at Occidental College — and the research director at the Geena Davis Institute.

HELDMAN: So in terms of box-office revenues, what we found is that in the past decade, the gap in terms of films led by men and films led by women has closed.

DAVIS: And in fact, we studied 2015, ‘16, and ’17 and found that in all those years, movies starring a female character made more at the box office.

Indeed, the three top-grossing domestic films of 2017 were Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which had male and female leads; a live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, interestingly, with Emma Watson playing Belle; and Wonder Woman, starring the Israeli actress Gal Gadot.

And yet males continue to be cast much more often in leading roles. They’re also paid a lot more: one analysis found that, even after controlling for an actor’s past performance, including awards, female stars were paid 56 percent less than male stars, or around $2.2 million less per film. Caroline Heldman again.

HELDMAN: Hollywood is leaving money on the table if they continue to cast men at twice the rate that they cast women to lead major films.

DUBNER: So you’re saying the Hollywood idea is that boys and men need to star in films because audiences prefer them. But if the data show that films with female leads generate more money, and since it’s an industry, why on earth is that gap still existing?

DAVIS: Ah ha. You ask a very good question. And I will say that the evidence has been clear for a while now that if a company has more women on the board, it will make more money. And yet the percentage of women on boards, the progress is absolutely glacial. Nobody seems to be saying, “Oh my God, this is a great idea. Let’s just do this.”

And there’s other examples of that, where people know that including women is going to make them more money, and they don’t do it. So as far as the film industry, it’s the same. They know that, and yet they can’t seem to overcome their own conscious or unconscious bias.

BOHREN: So there’s a third source of discrimination, and that is inaccurate statistical discrimination.

The economist Aislinn Bohren again.

BOHREN: And as I mentioned previously, there’s two main sources of discrimination that economists have historically looked at. One is this taste- or preference-based discrimination. The second is belief-based discrimination, with the implicit assumption that beliefs are correct. The third category is still belief-based discrimination, in the sense that the employer or the evaluator believes that there are performance differences at the group level between two different groups — for example men and women — but now their beliefs may be inaccurate or incorrect.

You can imagine why it’s important to identify the difference between accurate and inaccurate statistical discrimination.

BOHREN: From a policy perspective, it’s important because the policies to try and reduce discrimination are going to be different if you’re trying to correct for employers or people who have a preference against a certain group, versus people who have correct or accurate beliefs about performance differences across groups, versus people who have inaccurate beliefs about these performance differences.

Bohren did an experiment to look into this, with fellow economists Kareem Haggag, Alex Imas, and Devin Pope.

BOHREN: We wanted to see whether a simple informational intervention, such as presenting employers with the actual performances of workers from the different groups would have any effect on their beliefs and therefore the discrimination stemming from inaccurate beliefs.

To run their experiment, they recruited people from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform. Some would act as employers, and some employees. First came a group of roughly 600 “employees.” Two-thirds of these research subjects were American; the rest were from India. In the first phase of the experiment, the researchers had all these “employees” answer 50 math questions, and they were paid according to how well they did.

BOHREN: We found that workers from the U.S. perform slightly better. It was about 37 questions on average correctly for workers from the U.S., and about 36.3 for workers from India.

Then the researchers turned to the employer group. They would have a chance to hire potential employees from this pool of 600 people. But they were only given basic demographic information — including country of origin; they were not given the results of the math test. The employers were then asked how much they’d be willing to pay each employee.

BOHREN: So if there was accurate statistical discrimination, the employer would say, “Look, on average, American workers are outperforming these Indian workers and therefore, because I don’t know the performance of a particular individual worker from the U.S. or an individual worker from India when I’m choosing to hire them, I’m going to use these group averages to form my beliefs about the performance of the individual.”

And is that what happened?

BOHREN: So we actually observe the opposite. The wages offered to workers from India were about $2 higher on average than the wages offered to the workers from the United States.

So the offers weren’t consistent with performance — but they did seem consistent with the employers’ beliefs about performance, which was that Indians would score better than Americans on math.

BOHREN: We find that the employers believe that Indian workers outperform American workers by about 2.8 or so questions on average. So when we look at this, we find that the wages offered by the employers are consistent with their beliefs. That’s suggestive of belief-based discrimination rather than any sort of preference favoring Indian workers.

Okay, so that sounds like inaccurate statistical discrimination in action. What would happen if the employers were given accurate information? That’s exactly what Bohren and her team now did: they divulged the actual math scores for each group and asked the employers to do a second round of hiring. So what happened now?

BOHREN: We found that once we provided information on the performance differences, the gap in the wage paid to these two groups shrunk. So this is suggestive that one potential intervention to try and correct for inaccurate beliefs is just provide employers or provide evaluators with the actual performance of different groups.

Say, “Look, here’s the average performance of workers from this group. Maybe you should rethink how you’re evaluating them or how you’re choosing to pay them, because the performance differences are not as large as you thought.”

And that, it turns out, is exactly what Geena Davis has been trying to do in Hollywood: tell all those studio executives and producers and directors that women are the target of inaccurate statistical discrimination. At least one studio has taken the message to heart.

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We’ve been talking today about Disney princessism — how the main female characters in a lot of traditional kids’ movies were prized mostly for their beauty, but they weren’t really protagonists: things happened to them, but they didn’t have much agency.

We’ve also been talking about how, in the earlier days of kids’ TV, there weren’t many female characters at all. Here’s what the actor Geena Davis — by the way, she prefers “actor” to “actress” — here’s what she told us about the beloved educational series with a cast of puppet characters.

DAVIS: It had 19 male characters before they added one female character.

For the past 15 years, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has been updating its numbers on gender representation in kids’ entertainment.

HELDMAN: It’s kind of like Super Bowl Sunday when I get the data and I open it up, because then I get to see whether or not we’ve made significant strides.

That, again, is Caroline Heldman, the institute’s director of research.

HELDMAN: And I’ll tell you, the last couple of years, the story has been so positive. It’s small, but it’s been in the right direction.

DAVIS: We have a brand-new research study that we’re profoundly psyched about. Because we just relooked at TV shows made for little kids. So we’re talking 11 and under. And for the first time—

HELDMAN: Female characters accounted for 55.3 percent of screen time and 50 percent of speaking time. And—

DAVIS: The percentage of female lead characters has gone up to 46.8 percent, which is pretty much parity. And we’re over the moon about that.

DUBNER: What was that number maybe 10 or 20 years ago?

DAVIS: The ratio was two- or three-to-one, male to female lead characters. I’m pretty sure that this is the only sector of gross gender inequality in the entire business, in front of and behind the camera, that has changed dramatically.

HELDMAN: A lot of folks don’t know that Hollywood actually, in its very early years, the silent years, was more gender-equitable than it is today. But as soon as it became big business, it became a male-dominated sector. About 20 percent of the key decision-making roles in film are held by women, and in television that number hovers around 30 percent.

“Key decision-making roles,” meaning executive jobs as well as producers, directors, cinematographers, and so on.

HELDMAN: It’s especially the case for women of color. And while there have been small gains in recent years, we have seen very little traction for the last couple of decades that we’ve studied this.

DUBNER: What’s your — not evidence, necessarily — but what’s your reckoning as to how much that is a supply issue and how much it’s a demand issue?

DAVIS: Right. So I definitely think that the interest, and in many cases the supply, is there. For example, only four percent of films are directed by women. And people have said exactly what you said, that, “Well, they’re not as interested.” But 50 percent of film schools are now women. They want to be directors, they graduate with the same abilities.

But there is one major studio that has substantially changed the status quo.

DAVIS: Yes. Yes, they just announced that 40 percent of their directors coming up are women. And I mean, that’s like 10 times better than anybody else is doing. So that’s really incredible. They also make more movies starring a female character than not. 

Which studio might that be? I’ll give you a hint. We heard from someone there earlier, talking about why so many films have male leads.

BAILEY: Teen males and 20-something males were the ones that will show up and knock down your doors on a Friday night.

And who is that?

BAILEY: My name is Sean Bailey and my title is president of production at Walt Disney Studios.

The Walt Disney Company is so massive, it’s split into a few different studios. Disney Animation and Pixar Animation oversee the animated features. There’s also Marvel and 20th Century Fox, which Disney bought earlier this year. As head of Walt Disney Studios, Sean Bailey oversees the live-action divisions. In recent years, this has included live-action remakes of Disney’s own classics.

BAILEY: Many of those had been animated in terms of what we’ll call the broadened definition of a Disney fairy tale. And we sort of thought that those were largely for a family audience. And then we started to realize, wait a second. There’s a hugely underserved portion of the audience here that is not only family but clearly — women are more than half of the population. Everybody’s sort of caught up in making movies for the teen and 20-something male. We may have a tremendous opportunity here.

When Bailey joined Disney in 2010, he inherited a live-action remake of Alice in Wonderland. Tim Burton directed; it starred Anne Hathaway, Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, and Helena Bonham Carter. It was a huge hit, grossing a billion dollars worldwide.

BAILEY: And we really spent some time thinking about it. And there was a quote from Walt that I won’t get precisely right, but I’ll paraphrase it here, which is someone once said to him, “You make these animated movies for children.” And he responded fairly forcefully, and he said, “No I don’t. I make movies for all of us, whether we’re six or 60. It’s just that many of us have forgotten what it feels like to be a kid.”

I think what the breakthrough was, was sort of this audience we felt was underserved, tied to this idea that we aren’t making movies for just families and just for kids. We’re trying to make movies for everybody. And once we do that, the female audience in particular is huge, and these can become really, really significant films from a global box-office perspective. And I think there is, by the way, not just the commercial returns but there are great stories to tell that we don’t think any of our competitors are really focused on currently.

Stories like Maleficent, for instance, based on the evil godmother from Sleeping Beauty. And, as we noted earlier, live-action remakes of old princess movies, including:

BAILEY: Beauty and the Beast.

That’s the one with Belle. And, if you’ve forgotten, here’s the plot summary, as told by Anya Dubner.

Anya DUBNER: She gets trapped in a castle. She meets this big beast and he becomes nice and gentle. And then somehow he becomes a handsome prince.

If you’ve seen the 2017 remake, with Emma Watson, you probably noticed some tweaks.

BAILEY: We did recognize that from a gender perspective, it’s a complicated story. We really worked to sort of bolster and ballast parts of the story, such as, why does Belle live in the provincial town? And we gave a back story that the mother had fallen ill with the plague in Paris and they’d moved away and that the father Maurice was incredibly overprotective and why he didn’t want her to leave. We really worked on the idea that — why doesn’t Belle just leave?

So we worked hard on the scene where, for example, the Beast saves her from the wolf attack. And he’s in mortal peril. And so she stays with him because she’s such a good soul that her conscience couldn’t allow her to leave him to die, which gave them a little time to bond. And we also thought it was really important to, have her try to escape, have her not engage with him, and at a certain point in the movie — and I’m not going to get the dialogue exactly right — but he says, “Could you ever be happy here?” And she says:

Emma WATSON: Could anyone be happy if they aren’t free?

This neo-princessism model seems to be paying off: Beauty and the Beast became one of the highest-grossing films in modern history. Which, along with the other high-grossing films with female leads, you might think would naturally lead to even more starring roles for more women in more films. But that’s not quite the case. Why not? Sean Bailey from Disney has a theory.

BAILEY: One thing we’ve seen that I think is interesting and relevant is directors tend to be very visual, and I’m talking from both a gender and sort of inclusion and diversity perspective. If you send a script to a director, they’re going to read the script and envision things in their mind. And once a director has painted a picture in his or her head, it’s more difficult to sort of disavow them of that vision. We’ve started trying in our screenplays to more specifically call out gender, ethnicity, so that they can have a different opinion, but they aren’t starting from whatever their baseline bias and assumption may be.

The other thing we often find is — let’s talk in these fairy-tale movies as example — the filmmaker says, “I’m being true to the period of the film. I’m being true to the historical period.” To which we say, “Well, what on earth are you talking about? Because we have spells and magic mirrors and candelabras that used to be people. So there is no period. We can make the history as we would like it to be.”

There’s also the delicate issue — well, you wouldn’t think it would be delicate, but it is — of casting an African-American actress to play Ariel in a live-action remake of The Little Mermaid.

BAILEY: With Halle Bailey, that’s just sort of a case of, for us, we looked for the very best Ariel.

Halle Bailey — no relation to Sean Bailey — is a 19-year-old R&B singer.

BAILEY: I remember specifically all of us sat in the room and heard her sing and saw her perform and we thought, that’s her. And we heard some criticism.

Criticism especially from the Twitterverse. The cartoon Ariel had white skin and red hair — how could Halley Bailey replace her?

BAILEY: And I heard things like, when the announcement went out, some friends of mine who were at the Essence event in Atlanta described it — they didn’t know why, a cheer went up through the hall. I heard all sides of it. And for us it was just as simple as I say, talent wins.

The original Little Mermaid was also considered problematic on the gender front. Because Ariel, in order to get her man, has to give up her voice, her most magical and distinctive quality. You can see why this might fly in 19th-century Denmark, when Hans Christian Andersen wrote the Little Mermaid fairy tale. But in 21st-century, anywhere: the idea of a woman literally silencing herself in the pursuit of romance feels—well, pretty 19th-century. The new Little Mermaid is scheduled to come out next year, and we asked Sean Bailey about that.

BAILEY: Well, I don’t want to say too much about it because they do involve some, sort of, plot changes. It’s something we’ve talked a lot about. And we are definitely working to still sort of deliver the beautiful foundations of that story while being cognizant of the times we find ourselves in.

I will say, on a more personal front, I have a daughter. I took this job around 10 years ago. She was around seven-years-old. And I watched, as I was preparing to take the job, a lot of the old animated pictures. And while they’re wonderful in many, many ways, I was watching them with my daughter and thought if—if we’re going to tell them now, there’s a lot of things we should probably do for little girls who are going to watch these versions. And for young men, by the way, as well. So what’s the world that we want to reflect, while respecting what is clearly timeless about the stories?

*      *      *

Stephen DUBNER: Think those are pigeons or doves?

Anya DUBNER: I hope not pigeons. She looks a little like a Dubner.

Stephen DUBNER: So this is what you’re talking about, of the—?

Anya DUBNER: Right.

Stephen DUBNER: Yeah.

Anya DUBNER: I think this is like the first time we really hear her speak and we don’t know anything about her except she wants to find a prince. And then here he comes.

My daughter Anya and I wrapped up our princessism conversation by watching Snow White. That was the movie that led her, as a teenager, to start rethinking how she used to think about princesses. I asked her what, specifically, had bothered her.

Anya DUBNER: Mainly what she wanted. She wished to meet a man, that was her one wish. She adhered to the stereotypical woman-of-the-house role. I watched this as a kid and was unfazed by how objectively suggestive this movie was. The feeling that took over me most was confusion. Why did my parents let me watch this? What were they thinking? No — I mean, what were you thinking? Did you realize it was problematic in any way or —?

Stephen DUBNER: Honestly, I think the opposite. So you were born in 2002? So, and Snow White was made in the 1930s, I believe.

Anya DUBNER: Yes.

Stephen DUBNER: So I think most parents in my generation probably thought that going back to then was not only normal, but, like, it was the right kind of traditional.

Anya DUBNER: Right.

Stephen DUBNER: Because it’s not full of weird, modern, terrible things.

Anya DUBNER: Right.

Stephen DUBNER: And it’s kind of sweet and lovely.

Anya DUBNER: Right.

Stephen DUBNER: And did you think that back when you were a kid too? I mean, did you like that stuff?

Anya DUBNER: Yeah! I mean it’s fantasy. Who wouldn’t want to show their kids that? I think it’s just the underlying factors that make you take a step back and be like, “Wow, that can be really impactful.”

Stephen DUBNER: What do you mean when you say underlying factors?

Anya DUBNER: The ideals of princesses wanting to be beautiful. Finding a prince and having your wishes come true is fun, of course. And I don’t think that they should completely be frowned on. The only thing is that they shouldn’t be exclusive of being a badass woman and being really, really determined and having your life go well and working hard for what you want.

Stephen DUBNER: So let me ask you this. If you were running, let’s say a Hollywood studio right now, or a TV network, what do you think are good solutions? Should it be like a quota system? Should you ban men from certain production facilities?

Anya DUBNER: That would be the worst thing to do.

Stephen DUBNER: Because why?

Anya DUBNER: Because that would send out a big middle finger to all men, and then more people would be angry. We need men. We just need women too. And I think that that’s probably the biggest misconception in feminism. And if that’s what feminism were, I’d be the opposite of a feminist.

But I think the only people that really are able to have the biggest impact on movies and how they affect children are the people in the industry themselves. Emma Watson, she’s somebody that I admire greatly. She was Princess Belle in the most recent movie, and she refused to wear a corset. And it was this big deal. Why would you wear a corset in 2019? She refused to perpetuate the body that little girls are supposed to look up to, she said, “No, this is going to be my real body.” And I think that’s a small, really small action, but I think it speaks volumes. My initial reaction would be that society has to change first. But I think it has. So why haven’t the movies?

*      *      *

Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Daphne Chen. Our staff also includes Alison CraiglowMatt HickeyHarry HugginsZack Lapinski, Greg Rippin, and Corinne Wallace; our intern is Ben Shaiman. And we had help this week from Nellie Osbourne. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple PodcastsStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:

SOURCES

  • Geena Davis, actor and founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.
  • Sarah Coyne, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University.
  • Caroline Heldman, professor of political science at Occidental College and director of research at the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.
  • Sean Bailey, president of production at Walt Disney Studios.
  • Aislinn Bohren, economist at the University of Pennsylvania.

RESOURCES

EXTRA