If she can see it, she can be it

Geena Davis Institute Visits WIA

I recently went to a Women in Animation (WIA) NYC chapter meeting that was so informative and encouraging that I wanted to share that on here. While my plans for this site are more focused on the production and analysis of the animated works themselves, one cannot deny the importance of who is involved in this process, both on screen and behind the scenes. Context is important and these things don’t exist separate from one another. A rep from the Geena Davis Institute visited to our group to discuss some frustrating statistics and discuss how we improve them, and director Mark Osborne also discussed his experience working with both the GDI and WIA. And for the sake of full discloser, I recently became the social media coordinator for the WIA NYC chapter, so go follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. ūüėČ

What is WIA?

For the uninitiated, Women in Animation is a non-profit organization that was started in 1995 in order to advocate for,¬† support, and serve as a resource to women working in the animation and related (i.e. games, graphic novels, VFX, motion graphics, etc.) industries. In a perfect world, the need for a group like this would not exist, but as data and movements as recent as #TimesUp have shown us, that is not the case. Regardless of your stance or how important you think representation is on and off screen, you can’t deny what the numbers show us. Research from the Institute and other groups consistently prove that the content we consume has real effects on us. In animation, this is particularly important as most animated content is geared towards younger, developing minds.

There will always be those who (indignantly or otherwise) wonder why there isn’t a Men In Animation, without doing the quick research needed to confirm that statistically it has always has been a boy’s club. A surprisingly good read about this with specificity to animation comes from BuzzFeed of all places (I know, just trust me), in a piece from a few years ago called Inside the Persistent Boys Club of Animation.

And, for the record, men, women, and non-binary people are all welcome to join WIA. The events happen to focus on issues that women tend to face on a proportionately larger scale than men. The events tend to spotlight women creators because for so long it took them that much more effort to get the same recognition. This data becomes even more complicated when you look at intersectional identities, factoring in things like ethnicity, sexuality, disability, and more, both in on-screen depictions and in the production crews.

Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media

This meeting was particularly interesting for me as it dealt with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, a non-profit organization that I’ve been following since I first learned about them in 2011 at a post-screening discussion for the documentary Miss Representation. In 2016, the Geena Davis Institute (GDI) opened a NY office, and so we were joined by the NY Council Lead and Advisor Mary Ellen Holden. Mary brought with her an arsenal of damning (but unsurprising) data about the film industry, discussed details and tools the Institute utilizes in their research, and how they use that information to help the film, television, and marketing industries.

One of those tools is called the GD-IQ, the Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient, an algorithm developed in partnership with Google and USC meant to analyze films for their representation. Like the Bechdel test (which¬†wasn’t intended to be any gold standard), it is not a perfect system, and Mary Ellen was honest about its shortcomings. The program incorporates Google’s machine learning technology to improve its readings of films in order to recognize things like when faces are on screen, and determine the sex and race of the person, as well as hear speaking roles and determine whether the voice is male or female.

These shortcomings weren’t any fault of the GDI or the GD-IQ though; it is very hard to gather such data without putting people into boxes, and the tool can only handle so many boxes right now. Already for me, I knew that while this was absolutely a step in the right direction, I wondered about transgender people, or people of mixed race like myself. Mary Ellen was quick to acknowledge the limitations and active work being done to improve it. She also shared the challenges that come with animation in particular, as many of the characters are not human and therefore cannot have their faces analyzed in the same way. At the meeting I also wondered about how this applied to CGI characters in live-action.

One character I brought was Drax, a character that is certainly humanoid (and created with practical makeup FX rather than CG). I brought him up specifically because he is a character who many feel is coded in a way that¬†puts him on the autism spectrum and I wondered about how the tool may one day be able to recognize cognitive and physical disabilities, or determine how they would classify him and other characters where it isn’t explicitly stated. Obviously I’m asking a very recently developed program to analyze the behavioral patterns and nuances of a character, so I can’t hold it against GD-IQ if it’s not quite there yet! You can read all about GD-IQ and some of the statistics it helped generate here. You can download that report as a PDF to have on hand. I keep one at my desk at work.

So. This tool provides automated analysis of screen and speaking time by gender, and screen time by race. Some more features they are looking to incorporate this year is the ability to identify age from audio and video (to help combat ageism), more work with background and crowd scenes (to identify the gender ratio in crowds), use their existing tools for gender, screen speaking time and race for international language content, and text. Mary Ellen was describing a “spellcheck” for gender bias in screenplays, job descriptions, briefs, and more.

In 2019 they hope to be robust enough to start analyzing animated films to determine the race, gender, age, speaking roles, and screen time. As I said, animation can be a bit trickier due to characters not always being the same species among other things. The Geena Davis Institute releases an annual report based on data from the ~50 most successful family-friendly films of that year. You can watch out for the data set for the 2017 calendar year at the end of April (the annual reports are always released the following year, in April).

Mary was forthcoming about her own journey, discussing her time working in TV and acknowledged how her unconscious biases allowed her to approve ads that were problematic, not yet realizing the impact they could have on viewers, women in particular. But now thanks to Geena Davis and others, we have studies and science to back what we’ve already been feeling for a while.

In addition to their own research, clients can commission the Institute to use the GD-IQ and other resources to troubleshoot their own projects, either evaluating past work, or advising for IP and future projects. One of those clients was Mark Osborne.

Director Mark Osborne

The second guest of the night was Mark Osborne, the award-winning filmmaker behind (among other things) the short More, and big animated features Kung Fu Panda and The Little Prince. He is currently working on new projects at Blue Sky Studios, which (full disclosure) is also where I work. Mark was welcomingly candid about his ever-growing awareness to the issues of representation in film and his journey to do better and his experience working with the Geena Davis Institute.

Mark is also a member of WIA, joining after realizing that these problems did actually affect him. He talked about¬†Kung Fu Panda and how he felt that with characters like Tigress and Viper, he wasn’t negatively contributing, but adding. While that is true, GD-IQ revealed that their on-screen and speaking time was very low. From¬†research from 2016:

Even though women played leading roles in action blockbusters such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Daisy Ridley), The Hunger Games Series: Mockingjay Part 2 (Jennifer Lawrence), and The Divergent Series: Insurgent (Shailene Woodley), overall, male characters appeared and spoke on screen three times more often than female characters in action films.

Another thing that was called out was the ratio of men and women in the crowds in¬†Kung Fu Panda. Mary Ellen revealed to us that in most crowd shots, usually only 17% of the people are women. So for¬†Kung Fu Panda, we have a pretty neutral film. It doesn’t do anything disparaging against women or minority groups–the women who are there are not as present, but when they are they’re great. Tigress’s struggle is very relatable.

It sounds like that experience coupled with having a young daughter who at the time expressed interest in filmmaking prompted him to actively do more. So when he took on¬†The Little Prince, he was very well aware that he was dealing with a book that has 19 male characters and one woman (who is literally a rose). While he’d already been considering a story outside of the existing material to serve as bookends to the story, he knew that that was an area he could improve on. This helped inspire the little girl and her mother. Just being aware of an ongoing, systemic problem allowed actual change to happen, even with a story that’s 75 years old.

So, What Can I do?

Having an open mind is half the battle. Really, though. It’s an ongoing process. Things that were fine a decade ago can now be seen as problematic. Big change can be slow. It can be hard for people to accept that maybe they’ve had privileges where others have not when they feel like they’ve worked their asses off to get where they were.

Being a good ally and listener. Some times the best thing is to just ask someone if you don’t know about something. Simple as that. Most of my team are straight white men, and I’m more than happy to talk to them and point them to resources I think could help them. I’ve had plenty of interesting discussions about the differences between cultural appropriation vs appreciation, LGBT representations in animated film, and just general character/story talk of course. It all feeds into each other to create stories that are as nuanced and complex as our world (and beyond).

I think the other side of this advice is to also not pressure someone who is from a minority/underrepresented group. Things like tokenism still exist, and some times there’s a pressure that when you speak you speak for ALL of your ethnicity or gender. Not everyone wants that pressure and shouldn’t feel forced to always call things out. A more diverse workforce overall certainly helps with that!

Some times the best thing is to just admit things. “You know what, I’ve never experienced anything like that so I can’t say that I can relate to that. But please tell me about it.” It’s so easy to dismiss something just because you’ve never experienced it first hand. “People don’t really say things like that to Chinese people, do they?” What would you know, you’re not Chinese (unless Miko is reading this. Hi Miko).

Add it in yourself. Ideally, you are in a position where you can influence a project, adding in specificity to, say, your script can help. Specify if a speaking role for a background character is a woman, or that a crowd is half male and half female. If your dealing with a story with mostly male characters see if you can just make some women by changing the names.

Call things out constructively.¬†If you’re not the creative lead on something, that doesn’t mean you can’t find the time and place, and proper channel to voice your concern. If you’re on a production with a story featuring a gay couple and you feel like some of the dialogue seems stereotypical, be sure to voice that. Ideally, if enough people express their concern they will feel that it’s a note that has to be addressed, but if you’re able to call it out while also offering suggestions or someone they can talk to hear about authentic experiences they may be more receptive. Change can be daunting, but if you start them off right it will be that much easier to enact.

Call things out early.¬†These things need to nipped in the bud, before changes become impossible due to budget/production/scheduling. Calling things out early can ensure a production can do any research they may need to (i.e. consulting a behavioral therapist for a character with a cognitive disability) or can redo some crowd shots with more proportionate representation. So often we hear about controversies in ads and such and you can’t help but wonder how no one thought this was a problem and how it got so far along the chain of command only to be blasted on Twitter. That’s because no one says anything and then it becomes too late even if someone did. This also shows the value of a diverse workforce who will collectively have more varied experiences.

Don’t shame people for past mistakes. It doesn’t help. If someone is willing to hear you out and learn than that progress should be celebrated. That was something Mary Ellen was particularly proud of–that they don’t shame companies when they reach out. Because reaching out to the GDI shows a lack of awareness of the problem, and a step in the right direction. Past mistakes should be used as teachable moments, but not something to never let someone move past.

Think of rebuffs in advance. In the same way you can bring up an issue and supply a solution, you can sort of expect the kind of pushback that you’d get from people and be armed with the facts to counter them. There are some people who are instantly put off the moment you start discussing such things, complaining about “PC culture” and people being “overly sensitive” or that feminists hate men. There’s just IMMEDIATE pushback some times. That’s why it’s usually in your best interest to have your ducks in a row. Knowledge is power. The Geena Davis Institute has so many statistics you can pull up. Of course, you can’t spend your life trying to inform people who just refuse to listen. There are so many counter-examples and different ways to spin something. An example I used once was an uncomfortable discussion I had about Black Lives Matter, where someone very seriously told me that it didn’t make sense because all lives matter. You try to argue that statistically black people are disproportionately mistreated by law enforcement and show them reputable resources disputing arguments. For me, it boiled down to tigers. When someone says “Save the Tigers” they aren’t saying “But don’t save the whales!” You are focusing on the group that in that moment is more heavily affected. That’s why feminism is called feminism–it’s meant to create equality by raising up the group that’s underrepresented.

Usually people need time to accept and understand that they might have had their own subconscious biases, or recognize that some of their own privileges made them unable to relate to someone else until something specific draws attention to it. Maybe an able-bodied person learns how hard it is for wheelchair bound people to navigate their city only after they are in an accident and are in a wheel-chair.

Support women and non-binary creators.¬†Hire them. Buy their art. Share their work. Boost their words, their work. Go see those films opening weekend. Read stories about characters with completely different experiences and ideals than your own. Diversify the media you consume. Listen to others. Check your privilege. Do better. That’s all any of us can do.

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