A friend of mine, from Europe, writes and draws a lot of comics. He’s small-press, indie-publish, self-publish, he’s worked for some of the smaller comic presses. Some of his books are pretty political. Fair disclosure: I tend to agree with his politics, tho’, of course, not always.

He wrote recently that he’d got a review of one of his political zines, from a woman who also publishes a political ‘zine, who agreed with his politics in general, and liked the work in many ways, but decried the sexist nature of his mostly-male cast. He didn’t agree with that part, at all, and asked what I thought.

What I think is: she’s absolutely right. Oh, it’s not intentional – it’s absolutely not. He lives in the States, and by US standards, he’s very progressive.

But his cast in these political zines is almost exclusively men. And that’s a big part of the problem, on a much bigger scale.

See, I was surprised to learn this summer that the average “crowd scene” in film is 83% male. 17% of a “random crowd” is women; the rest are men. Slightly less than one in five.

Further, this summer, in most markets, you could not go see a film about a woman. Of nearly 500 films released early this summer, a couple had female leads, but they were small films, and not shown in large markets. Most markets had zero.

This is a bad year – but not particularly an orders-of-magnitude-worse year. That crowd stat is accumulated over many years; it’s not new.

So what’s that mean, other than women don’t get the equity time that leads to opportunities and larger roles in film? Well, that matters itself, of course. But…

…the thing is…

…humans learn by storytelling.

Also by doing, but story is really important. Story – and story “sense,” or “coherence” – trumps facts, soundly. This has been shown over and over again, in study after study: known facts can be overwritten by coherent story, even if that story is flatly false.

So what does an “average crowd” being four men for every one woman mean, in our big stories?

Fortunately, people research this. Here are some examples. It means that men see a crowd of one-third women – a crowd wherein there are literally two men for every one woman – and think it’s “mostly women,” despite the fact that it is mostly men. And if it’s a crowd they think should be “gender-balanced” – in reality, overwhelmingly men – they’ll react against that, in ways small and large, and weird, with enemies lists, harassment, and in the largest cases, law.

This carries over into classrooms, too, and that’s important. The numbers are strikingly similar; men expect to dominate the discussion, and in that, think it’s equal, and fair. Recent studies I’ve seen sited (but not read firsthand) have shown that if discussion and student time in a mixed-gender classroom gets anywhere close to equal – if women get half the time of the discussion and the teacher…

…male students start to complain that they are actively discriminated against. And the horrible part is that the whole class does better if this doesn’t happen, or is kept in control by the teacher; women students speaking in class improves all performances. It’s not a zero sum game – but it’s treated as one.

And I don’t think I need to point out that this isn’t merely an academic matter.

Now, I know some of you guys reading this are mad at this point, but this has been shown enough times you should deal with it. These are numbers; these are the points at which these phenomena repeat, across environments. That 17% number keeps repeating – according to one story I’m citing below, 17% of cardiac surgeons are women, 17% of tenured professors are women…

…just like in those crowd scenes.

And when the number rises above that, men complain about being crowded out, and, eventually, complain about being discriminated against – long before equality is reached – and start harassing and pushing women out.

Not all men, of course. But enough. Some, actively; others, just by going along, or just not saying anything, even if they are discomforted by it. It’s easy to do that when it doesn’t affect you.

And I have to wonder, how much of that goes back to that expectation that’s set when just 17% of the people in our biggest, brightest stories are women; that “male” is the character default – just as is hetersexual and white – and that to be anything else requires a reason to be that. Humans learn by telling stories.

Seanan McGuire wrote last month about a fan asking why one of her minor characters was gay – essentially, why wasn’t he the default? What was the reason for him being gay?

Essential to this question is the assumption that this character needed an excuse to be there, in the eye of the fan. Being gay without a reason for it actually bothered the reader enough that they had to ask. They weren’t upset; but it raised a flag, in their brain.

And that’s because straight white men can be anything, in a story. But queers, women, and people of colour? They better have a reason, or their presence – their right to be there, to exist – is questioned. And pushed against.

And I think we all know how those types encounters tend to work out.

Particularly this week.

eta: TheMarySue.com has a highly relevant article on the lack of female villains (and supervillains). All I can say is 1: yep and 2: DOIN’ MY BEST TO FIX THAT!


This post is part of a series of articles on sexism and racism in geek culture.

Many numbers from this article are source from NPR, particularly those numbers related to women in film, particularly from the story “Hollywood Needs More Women.” Others are from a variety of papers I’ve scanned the last few months, but not kept records of reading, because my memory for these things is pretty good. If you want more than that, do your own research; it’s not hard to find.

Mind you – it could be worse. Whites start moving out of neighbourhoods when more than 8% of their neighbours are black. That’s why some people of colour with options are getting the hell out of Dodge. At least women get 17% before the pushback gets too mean.