Women Chronically Underrepresented in Film and Media: The Way Ahead for Taiwan

In a globalized movie economy, Taiwan can reverse the status quo of gender inequality on-screen starting with its own young and smaller film industry
Jenny Peng

A day after attending an award ceremony for writing, I was randomly flipping through the conveyor belt of movies on a flight back to Vancouver when The Golden Era (黃金時代) caught my eye. Not knowing anything about the honors received by director Ann Hui (許鞍華) at the Hong Kong Film Awards, nor the film’s quiet but trailblazing showcase in renowned film festivals around the world, I decided to give it go.

Looking back, it’s still a mystery why I chose that film, or why it made a lasting impression. Perhaps it’s because of how closely it related to my progression as a journalist. It was probably a faint fascination with a picture of lead actor Tang Wei (湯唯), who portrays Chinese literary giant Xiao Hong (蕭紅), fashioning a braided hairstyle and plain country clothes from the 1930s. They were fragments that reminded me of my childhood in Taiwan’s countryside steeped in Hakka traditions.

What unfolded on screen was a cinematic masterpiece akin to the timeless essays and novels written by young writers. Tang Wei brought Xiao Hong alive with the nuances of her struggle with poverty and loneliness. She invited the viewer into the inner life of the flawed writer of seemingly questionable morals contradicted by her talents for writing lyrical observations, sometimes child-like in their simple and colorful verses.

What I appreciated most about the portrayal of Xiao Hong was the depth of a female character Ann Hui brought to the screen. I didn’t realize how much I was starved for strong, intelligent and fully developed female characters until I reflected on the film’s storyline and subtext, in an age where underrepresentation of women in mainstream film and media is chronic.

While women make up half of the world’s population, less than a third of all speaking characters in some of the most profitable films are female. Only 22.5 percent of the on-screen workforce is comprised of women. When they are employed, women are visibly absent from powerful roles. Women portrayed as business executives, political figures, or science, technology, engineering, and/or math (STEM) employees, are less than 15 percent, says the Gender Bias Without Borders study.

In response to the first global study on female characters in popular films, UN Women said the report revealed “deep-seated discrimination and pervasive stereotyping of women and girls by the international film industry.”

The connectedness of the film and media industries means that Taiwanese need to find ways to stop perpetuating inequality on screen. Legislation can only go so far without infringing on democratic liberties, which are the cornerstone of the arts, film, and media landscape. However, given Taiwan’s relatively small and young movie industry, education on the appalling statistics can spur moral action and reverse the tide of gender inequality.

In a highly integrated, transnational movie economy, the Taiwanese and greater Asian market can’t be singled out without discussing the pervasive trend stemming from the box office king, Hollywood. Taiwanese moviegoers should know that a wave of criticism and disapproval are chipping away at the larger-than-life reputation of Hollywood. Its glaring shortfall is bubbling to the forefront of news reports and major studies indicating a gaping disparity between female and male representation.

The disappointing numbers tell the story. A study examining the top 100 grossing American films of 2014 conducted by a film and television research center found that women accounted for 29 percent of major characters, an increase of only 2 percent from 2002. Female protagonists made up a dismal 12 percent. Conversely, 75 percent of protagonists were male.

Unfortunately, age discrimination is also evident with the majority female roles involving actresses in their 20s or 30s. Meanwhile, men 40 and over accounted for 53 percent, compared to 30 percent for all female characters 40 and over. Furthermore, the report also confirmed what we as consumers are sadly immune to. “Sexualization is the standard for female characters globally: girls and women are twice as likely as boys and men to be shown in sexually revealing clothing, partially or fully naked, thin, and five times as likely to be referenced as attractive.”

Unsurprisingly, the most obvious way to reverse the chronic underrepresentation is to foster more female directors and commission studies to raise awareness and inform policy. According to the Executive Yuan’s Gender Equality Committee, in 2011 women directors in Taiwan accounted for only 21 percent. It also noted the percentage of women in film production stood at 23 percent, photography 11 percent, and 40 percent in screenwriting.

But there is hope in the findings of professor Kuei-fen Chiu (邱貴芬) for women to establish themselves with documentary filmmaking. “One of the prominent features of documentary filmmaking in Taiwan is that women directors make up a large proportion of the documentarist population,” Chiu writes. “This is a marked contrast to feature film industry in which almost all celebrated directors are men.”

Chiu attributes this trend to the invention of lightweight cameras, the low-cost access to computer facilities and editing suites, and much lower budgets than for traditional feature films. Also a number of film festivals from the 1990s onwards have created a supportive community for female documentary filmmakers.

“The emergence of prominent women documentary filmmakers has significant implications for the formation of civil subject in contemporary Taiwan. If, as many critics have pointed out, documentary filmmaking in Taiwan since the mid-1980s has been deeply involved with various social movements and public debates on what constitutes a civil subject (Chiu 2007; Lee 1994; Jin 2005), the active participation of women in documentary filmmaking opens up a space for women to intervene in the debates.”

In other words, women are making their voices heard on social issues such as the lifting of martial law in 1987, queer politics and nursing care for the elderly and suffering Aboriginal communities.

The proliferation of accessible data and research in the past two years has made it possible for these conversations to take place in the news and around editorial boardrooms. What I see in the West is the beginning of what I hope to see more of in Taiwan and other parts of Asia. That is, a consistent moral pressure by non-profit organizations, actors, journalists, editors, film executives, politicians, audiences, readers, to demand justice on screen so that girls and boys don’t have to live in the confines of gender stereotypes.

I’ll never forget being an editor at my school paper when I noticed we were profiling interesting community members at a ratio of eight men to two women. I can hardly remember any female professional receiving proper space on a page, yet I could easily name impressive men who we considered newsworthy. I raised this issue in front of the other editors and news manager (and to the shock of many of my classmates). Some laughed off the “scene” I had caused. Nevertheless, I believe the goal of gender equality in film and media starts with one person taking a small step towards what they know is the right decision rather than accepting the status quo.


Jenny Peng is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist specializing in global affairs and international reporting.

2 Responses to “Women Chronically Underrepresented in Film and Media: The Way Ahead for Taiwan”

May 07, 2015 at 9:46 am, Mike Fagan said:

It is unclear what the moral premise is here. Is it that unequal numbers of men and women in a given field is wrong per se? If so, why is it there are so few women bemoaning gender inequality in such fields as education, where almost all state school and private school teachers are women?

And if that is indeed the premise – inequality of outcomes is wrong per se – then it begs the question of why this is wrong.

If the premise is that inequality of outcomes is significant because it may indicate inequality of opportunity, then we really need to ask how far down that rabbit hole we are willing to go. Strong families for example bestow “unfair” advantages on their children which lead to better opportunities later in life than do weak and troubled families: should the family be abolished or otherwise regulated in order to ensure equality of opportunity?

Unfortunately it is too often the case that journalists simply present one or another sort of outcome inequality as self-evidently bad, without any explication of the underlying premise as to why that particular pattern should be judged bad.


May 07, 2015 at 10:12 am, Mike Fagan said:

In other words, why is “gender equality” in film (or any other field) a moral objective in the first place, as opposed to the more limited goal of establishing equal rights and obligations?


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