Insights into the quantitative media and film studies research project Moving the Needle on the representation and portrayal of gender and diversity in Austrian feature films between 1997 and 2017 at Film Academy Vienna.
The mdw’s Department of Film and Television – Film Academy Vienna is known for outstanding artistic training in filmmaking and as the birthplace of many renowned cinematic works. Somewhat less prominently, it has also served as the academic home of a small but sophisticated media and film studies programme led by Claudia Walkensteiner-Preschl since 2012. Alongside the module Media and Film Studies, which supports and accompanies the artistic BA and MA degree programmes with respect to research and theory, the core responsibility of this division is to function as a home for the research work being done by the department’s doctoral candidates. Their activities cover a diverse field ranging from film analysis to feminist film theory and from questions on cinematic history to artistic research, as well as (most recently) quantitative studies and the development of methodologies for research on the filmic medium.
Quantitative film research—which aims to generate evidence-based data on both the methodical and substantive levels using a transdisciplinary methodology—is a relatively young but promising and in some respects unduly neglected area of the film studies field, which more typically works in a qualitative manner; as such, film studies has so far been anchored more in media studies than in other social sciences (Redfern, 2014).
Since feminist film theory and film studies first arose in the late 1960s and 1970s, spurred on in part by the pioneering essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” by Laura Mulvey (1974), research in feminist film studies, gender studies, and diversity has become broadly established at universities. In practice, however, there continues to be a clear disparity in terms of gender representation and portrayals of diversity in film (Friedman, Daniels & Blinderman, 2015) as well as insufficient representation of women as authors and as filmmakers (Flicker & Vogelmann, 2018; Smith, et al., 2018; Prommer & Linke, 2017). But particularly in the arts and in the media world, there often exists a lack of hard facts—i.e., we lack quantitative studies that would provide transparent data on prevailing distributions in the cultural industry as well as methods of reliably generating such data.
Doctoral candidate Barbara Wolfram addresses this field of research in her dissertation by putting onscreen factors (i.e., that which is actually visible when watching) firmly in focus. Wolfram proceeds in a transdisciplinary manner in her research, transferring psychometric theories that are used to ascertain latent (i.e., not directly observable) personality traits in differential psychology (Stemmler et al., 2016) to the study of films’ latent characteristics in terms of how they portray and represent gender and diversity on both the descriptive level (cast, shares of dialogue, shares of visibility) and the substantive level (dramaturgy, traits exhibited by characters, film structure). This is done by developing an onscreen surveying tool using established test construction methods.
Conducting a quantitative longitudinal analysis of feature films produced in Austria over a representative period of time (1997–2017) makes it possible to methodically evaluate the testing instrument as to its test quality (= quality as a measuring instrument) and compare its results with offscreen data (cast, crew, budget). Up to now, there has been no standardised instrument for the collection of such data, nor has there been any quantitative onscreen data for Austria covering a period longer than five years. This study hence also closes a gap in research on cinematic history that has existed with regard to Austrian feature film output.
Film refers back to reality and, in doing so, gives rise to its own possible reality. How this reality looks, what (im)possibilities it entails and projects as realms of the (im)possible, depends on the individuals who create the films. Whether the realm of possibility thus created is an open, inclusive, and fair space depends on research, teaching, and cultural policies that lead to evidence-based decisions on the stories and realities that are ultimately created and seen thanks to their having been financed. Films, with the stories, ideational content, and human characters that they show, have the power to create visions for the present and future. And in contemporary cinematic output, inequality, discrimination, and marginalisation should have no place. Visual representations convey significances, which in turn open up realms of possibility thanks to the attention that they are paid. Film therefore has a responsibility to assume responsibility.
In her research, Wolfram perceives an opportunity to make an important contribution to this vision as well as to motivate others—above all those involved in film and in the arts at large—to assume responsibility in the interest of achieving an egalitarian, fair, and inclusive world.
Flicker, E. & Vogelmann, LL. (2018). Österreichischer Film Gender Report 2012–2016. Österreichisches Filminstitut, Bundeskanzleramt Österreich, Sektion II Kunst und Kultur.
Friedman, L., Daniels, M. & Blinderman, I. (2015). Hollywood’s Gender Divide and its Effect on Films. Examining the Gender of Writers, Producers, and Directors who make films that fail the Bechdel Test. Polygraph.
Mulvey, L. (1975). “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen, 16 (3), pp. 6–18.
Prommer, E. & Linke, C. (2017). Audiovisuelle Diversität? Geschlechterdarstellungen in Film und Fernsehen in Deutschland. Institut für Medienforschung, Universität Rostock.
Redfern, N. (2014). Quantitative methods and the study of film. Invited Lecture, Unversity of Glasgow.
Smith, S., Choueiti, M. Pieper, K., Case, A., & Choi, A. (2018). Inequality in 1,100 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race/Ethnicity, LGTB & Disability from 2007 to 2018. USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, Los Angeles.
Stemmler, G., Amelang, M., Hagemann, D., Bartussek, D., Spinath, F., Hasselhorn, M., Kunde, W. & Schneider, S. (2016). Differentielle Psychologie und Persönlichkeitsforschung. Kohlhammer, 8th edition, Stuttgart.