Gender Roles in Storytelling

Storytelling is one of the most powerful ways to inspire, motivate, influence and educate people.

For thousands of years, we’ve passed down knowledge and made sense of our world through intergenerational storytelling. A good story has the ability to make you feel seen and understood. It plucks at your emotions and helps you relate to people whose experiences may differ drastically from your own. Storytelling connects us.

For millennia, the vast majority of stories have been told by men. White, privileged men. When so many of our values are influenced by stories, it isn’t hard to see how a lack of female point of view stories impacts our society deeply. Think of the classic stories that have been adapted into films and chances are, they are about a male. Robin Hood, Lancelot, The Three Musketeers, Zorro, Dracula, Robinson Crusoe, Scrooge, Sherlock Holmes, Hercules, Achilles, Peter Pan, Tarzan, Luke Skywalker, Froddo Baggins, Indiana Jones, Vito Corleone, Captain Kirk, Superman, Batman, James Bond, Rocky, Marty McFly, Harry Potter. Many of these movies contain strong female roles – Princess Leia or Hermione Granger for example. However, their roles still served to forward the story line of the male hero, with little recognition of them as separate individuals.

In 1985, cartoonist Alison Bechdel created a tool for determining the significance of a female character’s role in movies, called the Bechdel Test. To pass the test the movie needs to meet 3 criteria –

  1. It has at least 2 named women in it
  2. These women have a conversation with each other
  3. That topic is not about a man.

It doesn’t seem like a difficult test to pass, however many favourite movies don’t. Amongst the blockbuster movies that fail are – The Lord of the Rings triology, Star Wars, Avatar, The Avengers, Finding Nemo, Toy Story 1 & 2, A Star is Born and, most of the Harry Potter series. Failing the test doesn’t indicate the movie is sexist by any means, it is merely designed to point out how each gender is represented in films.  

The power of stories can be shown by the visceral reaction many women experienced after watching the 2017 superhero movie Wonder Woman. For generations, young boys looked up to a universe full of superheroes they could aspire to be, yet their female counterparts were few and far between and usually overly sexualised.  While the actress playing Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot, was undeniably beautiful by today’s standard, it wasn’t a major feature of the movie. She led battles and kicked ass, without needing to be rescued by a stronger man.

One tweet from a movie goer summed it up perfectly –


The recent emergence of strong female leads is proving to be profitable too. Flims like the Hunger Games and the Divergent series or the new Rey led Star Wars films. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (GDIGM) examined the top 100 movies from 2017 and reported that women-led movies earned 38% more at the box office. The GDIGM research has shown that when women and people of colour are underrepresented in media, or shown in stereotypical ways, it limits the aspirations of young viewers. They call on film and TV makers to produce high-quality portrayals of girls and women, such as showing them in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) professions, to inspire the next generation. Their motto is ‘If she can see it, she can be it’.

When you consider film and books as a reflection of what interests and impacts society, it makes sense that more female led stories need to be heard. Currently stories about men are considered gender neutral – appealing to both sexes. Whereas stories about women are relegated to being only for women, along with patronising terms like chick flicks and chick lit (literature). There is no matching term for male led stories as they are the ‘norm’. What are we saying about society when we embrace male-orientated stories as existing for general consumption, but consider female stories a niche topic?

We also need to change the narrative around female roles. More research from the GDIGM showed that of the top grossing movies in 2018, 42% of male roles were depicted as leaders, compared to 27% female leaders. Those women who were leaders were almost twice as likely to be shown partially nude than male leaders and were often sexually objectified within the movie. Interestingly, not one of the top grossing movies analysed were directed by a woman either. In fact, only 7% of directors, 13% of writers and 20% of producers are female. How do we champion the voices of women with such a lack of representation in the people creating the stories?

If we want to see more women in leadership positions in the real world, girls need to see more women leaders in the fictional worlds of entertainment media.

Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media