Why do we ignore the female audience?

Fantasy – especially epic fantasy – has been long perceived as a predominately “male” interest, and perhaps prior to the past ten years the majority of fantasy fans were male. Most fantasy was marketed towards men, and sadly – it still is. It has only been in the past month that Marvel has announced female-led blockbusters Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, where the past ten years they have been producing exclusively male-led superhero films. There are only two Avengers who have yet to receive a standalone film, and one of them is the franchise’s only female superhero, Black Widow (and there are no solid plans for this film). The opening weekend of this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy had a 44 per cent female audience, and yet the main female character in the film, Gamora, was the only main character to not receive merchandise.

It is only later this year that Marvel is producing a miniseries based on Captain America’s Peggy Carter. A female fan who attended the 2014 San Diego Comic Con related her experience asking for merchandise for the show on her blog:

“This was a t-shirt for their upcoming show Agent Carter, which will be their first and thus far only female-led property, and it sold out almost immediately. When my friend asked if they would be getting more shirts in, the attendant said no. “We didn’t expect them to sell out,” she said, as though baffled that their fanbase was not comprised solely of people who were or had once been fourteen-year-old boys in basements.”

Doctor Who is another fantasy series with a large female audience, and yet the show’s current head writer, Steven Moffat, has been criticised for his handling of female characters on the show. There is a noticeable lack of diversity in the characters’ personalities.

“River Song? Amy Pond? Hardly weak women. It’s the exact opposite. You could accuse me of having a fetish for powerful, sexy women who like cheating people. That would be fair.”

Additionally, there has not been one single female writer on the show during Moffat’s tenure.

According to statistics from Nielsen, approximately 2 million women are tuning in to Game of Thrones on average each week – about 42 per cent of their total 4.8 million viewers. A rather large number, considering its show runners draw female viewers in with promises of strong female characters while simultaneously including a large gender disparity with shown nudity, sexualised violence that is extraneous from the source material, and behind the scenes problems such as firing a recurring actress because she amended her contract to include “no nudity.”

Why don’t these franchises respect such a large portion of their audience?

It would appear that there is still a lack of awareness of the audience of science fiction and fantasy media, furthering a need to undertake more comprehensive audience studies in the area. Women make up more than half of the film-going audience, and yet only make up 15 per cent of leading roles – and this doesn’t even take into account the representation of women of colour and LGBTQ women (most female characters in mainstream film and television are straight and white). This misunderstanding of the audience’s desires is reductive both to the audience and to the profitability of the media itself.

Representation is also important to the audience on a personal level, as there is a noted link between self-esteem and representation. Whoopi Goldberg once spoke of her understanding of the significance of representation through her memories of watching Uhura, played by African-American actress Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek.

“When I was nine years old, Star Trek came on, I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘come here, mum, everybody, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”

Studies have shown that correlations between self-esteem and media are reflected by the representations of the characters themselves. Coded messages within media helps young white boys believe that anything is possible, through constant depiction of white male characters as powerful main characters, while in contrast, female characters are portrayed as love interests. What results is white men having greater positive media representation from a young age.

All in all, it is evident that there is a long way to go before female characters and the female audience is afforded respect in what is perceived to be a male-dominated media.

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2 thoughts on “Why do we ignore the female audience?

  1. I read this with great interest. I enjoy Fantasy and Science Fiction, and couldn’t agree more about the limited positive representation of women within the genres. I like watching Game of Thrones – yet at the back of my mind always feel a little guilty for doing so, because of the way it depicts women. When women are main roles, they are still overly sexualised in a way male characters aren’t – Cat Woman and Wonder Woman spring to mind.

  2. I don’t know about Dr. Who, but am mostly okay with the female characters in Sherlock. Especially Molly is very refreshing in a lot of ways. All in all, I think Moffat gets slightly more flak than he deserves. Nobody is perfect, after all, and all writers tend to default to certain kinds of characters, no matter of female or male. And honestly, I rather watch that than another round of “finding reasons to show off breasts” in Game of Thrones.

    But yeah, all in all there is a looooooong way to go. It is ridiculous that there are as many high prolific movies with female Superheroines as Batman, Superman and Spider-man have alone! And that every single of those movies is bad, worse or unwatchable.

    But I am optimistic. Between Vikings, Orphan Black and Outlander, I have currently more female characters to root for than I had in years.

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