Make Our Story, Not History
Make Our Story, Not History
  • Kim Ma Seunghee
  • 승인 2019.03.03 22:53
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Movie posters of 2018

The keyword that shook society in 2018 was feminism. Covered extensively in the last several issues of SMT, feminism has come to light in many ways such as the Me Too Movement, anti-corset movement, the demonstration against digital crimes, and gender inequality. The wave was also felt in various industries, particularly the film industry. Feminism is not an issue related solely to sexual crimes, but it affects the consciousness of people. More and more people started to watch films centered on perceptions of gender equality. Along with changes to the culture of consumer characteristics, changes were seen in the 2018 film industry. How exactly did it change? Was the change strong enough to accomplish gender equality? This article details and analyzes the various aspects of gender equality in the film industry.


Time for Enlightenment

Film is one industry that people enjoy as culture consumption. According to statistics by the Korean Film Council (KOFIC), the annual average number of films watched per person in Korea is 4.25 times, the highest in the world. In other words, films in Korea affect society’s culture since movie is one of pop culture. However, even the most popular films, enjoyed by huge audiences, are criticized by experts for their gender inequality. Inequality in the film industry can be separated into two areas, according to the 2017 Annual Final Report by KOFIC. The two areas of concern are on and off-screen. As the name implies, on-screen refers to gender inequality in a film as it appears on the screen. It includes the ratio of main characters’ gender. Among the 29 Korean movies of 2018 that attracted over 1 million moviegoers, the number of films with female actors’ names appearing first in the ending credits of the films was 7, which is 24%. Off-screen inequality refers to movie production. The number of female directors, writers, and camerapersons is an indicator of off-screen gender equality. Among the 29 movies of 2018 mentioned above, only 2 films were directed by female directors. They were <The Accidental Detective 2: In Action (2018)> and <Little Forest (2018)>. While the two types of gender inequality seem like separate concerns, KOFIC said they are correlated positively based on research done in Australia. That is, off-screen inequality is as severe as on-screen inequality.
To evaluate gender inequality in the movie industry, especially on-screen inequality, several tests have been designed. One of them is the Bechdel Test, which assesses gender equality based on three criteria: whether the film stars two leading female actors, whether two female actors have speaking roles, and whether the content of female actor conversations is unrelated to the male characters. The Test was designed by cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 to highlight male dominance in movies. The Mako Mori Test is another test that analyzes gender equality. It complements the Bechdel Test and was created after release of <Pacific Rim (2013)>. The Test focuses on female character importance rather than the number of female characters in a movie. This Test also has three criteria: whether there is more than one leading female character, whether the lead female has her own narrative, and whether the female character’s part merely supports the male actors’ narratives. A movie passing the Mako Mori Test is said to treat women as humans who have their own unique storylines. Because gender equality has spread among societies, people are starting to watch movies with this idea in mind.

1985 edition of Alison Bechdel's comic strip

Not Successful, but Progressing

People are now conscious of gender, so the film industry has incorporated some changes based on criteria from the above two mentioned tests. One of the most notable changes is the number of female actors. To analyze gender equality more strictly, all the movies analyzed in the article are top 25 movies that reached over 1 million audiences. In 2018, the number of movies in which a female actor appears first in the ending credits (7 movies, 28%) has increased compared to 2017 (3 movies, 12%). The percentage has more than doubled in one year. Besides the number of females appearing first in the ending credits, the percentage of females appearing as main characters has also increased. In 2017, the percentage of female leading actors was 21.7%, but that percentage rose to 30.4% in 2018. While the roles of female characters differ according to movie, females are now playing more starring roles. Movie release posters also indicate gender equality. In 2017, 9 movie posters (36%) included the female actors, but that number rose to 12 (48%) in 2018. Though the increase in number of female actors does not mean a film is absent of misogynic content, it does imply that the film industry is changing and women are playing stronger parts.
Besides this, more movies in 2018 passed the Bechdel Test compared to 2017. In 2017, 5 movies passed the Test, and they were <The Battleship Island>, <I Can Speak>, <The Mayor>, <The Mimic>, and <The Villainess>. However, 13 films among the top 25 films released between January and November 2018 passed the Test. This number is more than double that of 2017. Movies that passed the Test include <Intimate Strangers>, <Default>, and <Keys to the Heart>. Passing the Test, however, does not mean that the film equally presents males and females. Naturally, some movies, though they pass the Test, focus more on one specific gender narrative like the film <Keys to the Heart>, which is about two male characters. In other words, passing the Test doesn’t mean a film focuses on women narratives. Instead, the three criteria of the Bechdel Test indicate basic requirements for gender equality. That is, this change shows that more movies are meeting the basic requirement at least.
Another change in the film industry is the image of the female character. In most movies in Korea, female characters are supporting roles to male characters. Typically, females are seen in the company of men, waiting on a male to provide assistance, and even acting as the helpless victim. In the movie <V.I.P. (2017)>, 2 of the 11 female characters in the movie were victims of sexual harassment, and the other 9 were corpses. Moreover, the 9 female actors who played the dead females were merely referred to as “female corpses” when the ending credits were scrolled. After much criticism, the names of the actors were changed to “female role”. This is indeed an extreme example, but it shows the difficulty of seeing strong independent female roles in films. In 2018, among the films with leading female actors was <Miss Baeck (2018)>. The main character is an independent lady who doesn’t rely on men. Miss Baeck doesn’t ask for a man’s permission but makes her own life decisions, which is rare for females in Korean movies. The movie <The Witch (2018)> also stars a strong leading female character of superpower with action scene. These types of films show how progress is slowly but surely taking place.


Not Enough

Progress has been made. Many experts in the film industry, however, claim that there is still much to do. One of the problems is the lack of statistical data, which would show how biased the film industry is when it comes to gender equality. Statistical data would also help to break stereotypes society has towards female directors. Shim Jaemyung, representative of Myung Film, said there are a lot of unfounded stereotypes of female directors. He said that there is little data on female directors and their movies since there are few female directors in reality.1) To address this problem, KOFIC included gender recognition in its annual final report on the film industry, starting from 2017. The report now includes statistical data on the proportion of women in the profession and analysis done on the data. However, data on gender balance is needed more frequently because at present the findings are only announced at the end of the year in the annual final report, which is released in February of the following year. It makes difficult to find current and timely statistically information related to gender balance. In the case of Britain, the British Film Institute (BFI) established a website to examine gender equality in real time. Their data goes beyond the number of female directors to include all film crew and staff. The data on the website is updated almost every day. Establishing regulations and tests to assess gender balance in the film industry more frequently could be one way of enhancing gender equality.
Also, movie should not only analyze the number of females in the field but also their narratives because evaluating narratives can produce more qualitative results. Since the results would be related to the characteristics of each gender, they could help break gender stereotypes such as the idea that female characters should support male character roles. Hence, it is important to analyze narratives in movies by conducting tests such as the Mako Mori Test. Currently, there is no analysis or statistics of movie that evaluates gender equality qualitatively. Korean films rarely address the idea of gender balance in the narratives of their movies. To guarantee more diversity in the narratives among the genders, film industry institutes should analyze the balance of narratives in movies by regularly conducting tests such as the Mako Mori Test.
Moreover, there is a need for regulations that guarantee women survive in the film industry. The number of female directors is important because it is related to on-screen equality as mentioned earlier. According to the 2017 Annual Final Report, the gender ratio of males to females majoring in film at university is 50:50, but the ratio changes to 70:30 in the short film industry, 88:12 in the independent and low budget film industry, and 95:5 in the commercial film industry. This implies there is a lack of opportunities for women in the field. These ratios could also be interpreted as financial people are unwilling to support or invest in female directors. Lee Oenhee, director of <The Accidental Detective>, said, “The budget I received for <The Accidental Detective> was the highest budget any female director has received. I received 5 billion won, which, honestly, is not that large, but media reported it as being the largest budget for a female director.”2) This reporting clearly shows how hard it is for a female director to succeed or even survive in the field. Other nations have recognized the problem and have changed policies so that female directors receive comparable financial backing for a film. In Britain, the BFI announced a commitment to a 50:50 gender balance in 2017.3) Australia and Sweden are also implementing similar policies. Cho Hyeyoung reported through her research that she hoped that Korea would also implement similar policies, offer incentives to female narrative films, or provide tax cuts for films directed by female directors so that true gender equality could flourish and be seen in statistical data and analysis.4) The suggestions by Cho could also be ways to resolve structural problems.


Diversity in Stories

Movies are platforms in which viewers relate. The 21st century is a time of diversity and the recognition of diversity as being highly important. When a film only focuses on one gender, it is against diversity, and people would learn to adapt those one-sided views of gender. Everyone has a unique story regardless of gender. Society has started to recognize this recently, and people are more conscious of gender equality and looking for diversity in films, especially those showing people of different genders. To actualize this, more diversity is needed in the film industry along with the structural changes mentioned above so that genuine equality among the genders is achieved and society finally recognizes the stories of various people.


1) Kho Heejin, “The Age of 20 Million Moviegoers to Korean Movies…Behind the Scenes, the Difficulty to See Women”, Kyunghyang, March 1, 2018

2) Lee Yeongsil, “[Woman in Korean Movies Have Changed ③-1] Director Lee  Oenhee , Confront the ‘Stereotype’’’, Sisaweek, December 31, 2018

3) Directors UK, “The BFI Adopts Directors UK’S 50:50 ­­­­­­Gender Balance Recommendation”, Directors UK, October 12, 2017

4) Cho Hyeyoung, “A Study on the Global Initiatives for Gender Equality in Film Industry”, Film Studies Association of Korea, 2017

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