Artificial Intelligence is helping make us immense progress in science, technology, health care and almost any field you name it and now it has emerged that AI has managed to quantify imbalance between female and male characters in Hollywood movies.
Time and again movies have been released that carry or indicate a rather strong female dominance in Hollywood. However, that’s not the case according to a team of scientists who used machine-learning-based tools to analyze the language in nearly 800 movie scripts, quantifying how much power and agency those scripts give to individual characters.
Researchers found subtle but widespread gender bias in the way male and female characters are portrayed in Hollywood movies. The team has also created a searchable online database showing the subtle gender biases in hundreds of Hollywood movie scripts, which range from late 80s cult classics like “Heathers” to romantic comedies like “500 Days of Summer” to war films like “Apocalypse Now.”
In their analysis, the researchers found that women were consistently portrayed in ways that reinforce gender stereotypes, such as in more submissive positions and with less agency than men. For example, male characters spoke more in imperative sentences (“Bring me my horse”) while female characters tended to hedge their statements (“Maybe I am wrong”). However, the bias is not just in the words these characters speak, but also in the way they are portrayed through narratives.
To study the nuanced biases in narratives, the University of Washington researchers expanded prior work presented in 2016 on “connotation frames” that give insights into how different verbs can empower or weaken different characters through their connotative meanings. The study evaluated the power and agency implicit in 2,000 commonly used verbs, where the connotative meanings were obtained from Amazon Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing experiments.
The power dimension denotes whether a character has authority over another character, while the agency dimension denotes whether a character has control over his or her own life or storyline. For each verb, turkers were asked to rank the implied level of power differentials and agency on a scale of 1 to 3.
Verbs that imply low power or agency include words like ask, experience, happen, wait, relax, need or apologize. Verbs that confer high power or agency include words like finish, prepare, betray, construct, destroy, assign or compose.
Using the movie scripts, the researchers automatically identified genders of 21,000 characters based on names and descriptions. Using natural language processing tools, which employ machine learning, they looked at which characters appeared as a verb’s subject and object. They then computed how much agency and power were ascribed to these characters, using their crowdsourced connotation frames. The researchers also accounted for the fact that male actors spent more time on screen than female actors and also spoke more, accounting for 71.8 percent of the words spoken across all movies.
The team calculated separate power and agency scores for male and female characters in each movie. They also created scores based on words that the characters spoke in dialogue and on words that were used in narration or stage direction to describe those characters — exposing subtle differences and biases.
In 2010’s “Black Swan,” a movie centered around a female lead — a perfectionist ballerina who slowly loses grip on reality — the movie’s dialogue gives more agency to female characters. But the language used to describe the characters in stage direction and narration gave male characters more power and agency in that film.
In the 2007 movie “Juno,” about an offbeat young woman who unexpectedly gets pregnant, male characters’ scene descriptions and narratives also consistently score higher in power and agency, though the two genders come closer in their dialogue.
The UW team’s tool yields a much more nuanced analysis of gender bias in fictional works than the Bechdel Test, which only evaluates whether at least two female characters have a conversation about something other than a man.
The tendency for male characters to score higher on both power and agency dimensions held true throughout all genres: comedy, drama, horror, sci-fi, thrillers. Interestingly, the team found the same gender bias even for movies with female casting directors or script writers.