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Ladies Through the Wrong Lens: The Importance of Authentic Female Representation

Written by Paola Ojeda-Villegas, Aedyn Gorenberg, Danielle Bass and Paulina Trujillo, Edited by Camille Hagins, Graphic by Bryce Chan

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we can reflect upon the strides women have made towards equality. Although things have been greatly improved, there is still a long way to go. Time and time again, women in the media are patronized by “traditional” male perspectives. 

So let’s talk about female representation! Historically, media meant for women has been tailored to men by men. See the issue here? 

We’re here to break the glass ceiling!

Let’s Set the Scene

Not all women look the same, but Hollywood still doesn’t seem to get the picture. Female representation in the mainstream media fails to portray the many identities of women. Film and television industries hold a misconception that female characters must look and act a certain way to be well-received by an audience. When we talk about the portrayal of women on screen, there are two problems to consider.

Take 1: Not Just Your Juliet

First, let’s look at female characters and the role they play. It’s uncommon to see feature films led by a strong female character — and when they do play a major role in the narrative, they are often watered down as eye candy for viewers and arm candy for their male counterparts. In 2018, 33.1% of speaking roles in the 100 top-grossing films belonged to women. Since nearly two-thirds of speaking roles belong to men, it’s clear to see that women are rarely given the opportunity to reach their full potential on screen. Unsurprisingly, men are usually the ones at the table writing these scripts and producing these popular films. 

Iman Zawahry, an accomplished filmmaker and lecturer at the University of Florida, recalls her experience as a Muslim woman in the industry, “There is a plethora of males to work with, but you do have to research and make an effort to find the females in production,” Zawahry said. She specifically looks to hire women because they share similar experiences, and because she knows others typically aren’t looking to add a woman to their production team. Here’s a good rule of thumb: to have quality on-screen representation, you need quality off-screen representation. 

Take 2: Breaking the Mold

It may be 2021, but the media is still behind the times when it comes to how female characters are portrayed. Women of different races, ethnicities and nationalities are not common in the mainstream media. Even though it is these differences that make women so beautifully unique, they are frequently overlooked since those who are white and skinny are deemed the “default.” When women who don’t fit this mold are featured on screen, they are often tied down by harmful stereotypes that have been perpetuated by the industry. Some of the common cliches that women of color play include the “spicy Latina,” the “sassy Black sidekick” and the “oversexualized Asian.” While these women are getting their screen time, the unfortunate caveat is that their existence in these productions is minimized as the butt of the joke. Women of color deserve to be recognized for more than just their race, and these entertainers deserve to play more than one type of role.

Unfortunately, women with different body types receive similar treatment. Plus-sized women are typically used as comedic relief — and it’s their weight that’s usually the punchline. For men watching, these instances are nothing more than a quick laugh. For young, impressionable women, these stereotypes are pushing a false narrative that you need to look a certain way to be valued. This needs to change, but sadly these unhealthy standards live beyond the mainstream media and are present in the world of advertising as well.

It’s A Material World

When it comes to ads, plastic is preferred. Women are photoshopped, airbrushed and altered to look like the perfect Barbie doll, without an “imperfection” in sight. The standard for the perfect body has been around for decades (even explicitly promoted in the 1960s), constantly pressuring women to change themselves or be ignored by brands.

But, it’s 2021 now, right? The expectations of women have progressed, but so much has stayed the same. Although the average American woman wears a size 10 to 14, a 2019 article states they were displayed in less than 2% of advertisements. Maybe the media isn’t as explicit in telling a woman that having a pear-shaped body is unacceptable, but the lack of representation sends the same message. How is any woman supposed to feel supported in the way her body looks when she can never find an advertisement that normalizes a size other than zero? 

When women of different sizes are featured in commercials, it is seen as being empowering instead of normal. Most of the time, an advertisement can’t just be about a woman – it has to be about the fact that she is also plus-sized. Advertisers aren’t normalizing these body types at all when they draw attention to the differences between them. 

Beyond Barbie

What does it really mean to live in Barbie’s World? The era of Fourth Wave Feminism has brought intersectional feminism to the forefront and has shown there is no singular definition that encompasses what it means to be a woman. To satisfy forward-thinking Gen Z customers, advertisers must know the difference between authenticity and inauthenticity and recognize that representation matters.

Victoria’s Secret had a difficult time rebranding itself after former Chief Marketing Officer Ed Razek told Vogue that there was no place for “transsexuals” (by the way, 1980 called and wants its word back) in its popular fashion show because “the show is a fantasy.” In the last fiscal year, Victoria’s Secret sales decreased by 46% in the first quarter as more consumers began to realize that the brand’s one-size-fits-all mentality of sex and fantasy doesn’t really fit all. 

So, what does authenticity look like when it comes to representing all women? Take a page from Aerie: since 2014, the clothing brand has harnessed this power in its #AerieREAL campaign. In an effort to champion authentic, unfiltered beauty, Aerie opted to end airbrushing and editing on its models and began downplaying sex appeal. Last year, it relaunched the initiative on TikTok with influencer Charli D’Amelio, generating 2 billion views and an astounding 855% increase in traffic sales to the Aerie website. 

The key difference between Victoria’s Secret’s branding failures and Aerie’s success story is simple: one company placed value on the marketability of women and one placed value on women. Let’s not forget that it helps to have a woman in the room. According to former employees, Ed Razek and the Chief Executive Officer of L Brands (the parent company of VS), Les Wexner, held all creative vision over the brand until 2019. This oversexualized, white, cisgender narrative was perpetuated by two white, cisgender men. Meanwhile, American Eagle Outfitters credits Chief Creative Officer Jen Foyle with the vision behind the inclusive #AerieREAL initiatives. Hopefully in the future, more and more brands will take a page from Aerie and showcase women as they truly are. 

Gen Z: Where do we come in?

The communications industry is only growing, and Gen Z is starting to enter this male-dominated industry, likely ready to take it by storm. There’s no denying Gen Z-ers have become known for being changemakers, and it’s important that this change highlights women across the board. We are do-ers, pushing back against the barriers that stand in our way. It’s important to pass the microphone to women, especially underrepresented women, recognizing that these individual perspectives deserve a role in the conversations around media representation. Brands like Aerie have acknowledged the value of having women in the room — and even better, in a top seat. 

When women have a voice, companies prove that their efforts to improve representation are authentic, and can gain the trust of Gen Z. This generation wants to feel seen and heard, know they belong, and will break barriers to do just that. They want to know that someone that looks like them has a say in decisions made. Female representation is one of the key steps in making sure every voice is heard. Iman Zawahry’s experience has taught her that everyone should be authentic in order to tell the best story. She recommends females trying to enter the industry to “work with others that share your passion, who will not judge or diminish your light. Once you find your circle you will be able to create a space that inspires you, motivates you and allows you to tell your authentic story.” As 50% of the world but far less than 50% of the media, women deserve to be portrayed across platforms. As we look towards the future of advertising and entertainment, we hope to see a shift as brands view female representation not as supplementary but as essential.