How to use circular logic to back up your bias

O.W. at Poplicks recently found my post, Why film schools teach screenwriters not to pass the Bechdel test and had the following to say about it:

To use her example, if Hollywood has traditionally catered its products to white male moviegoers, it builds an expectation amongst audiences – and executives – that the only successful movies are those that cater to…white male moviegoers. Thus, there is no financial incentive to break the cycle and the very bias that exists helps to perpetuate that bias into the future.

In class, I talk about the relationship between ideology and structure and how ideological bias – the idea that women are inferior, for example – influences structural inequalities – say occupational segregation – that then can be used as “evidence” to support the very ideological bias that helped produce the structural inequality!

I’m quoting and sharing this because I think it states the case better than I stated it myself. The problem is not the demographic numbers; the problem is how the people in charge selectively interpret them, and the circular rationalizations they employ to support the existing ideas. It runs something like this:

Women can’t be leads in mainstream films without costing us profits. We know this because the 14 mainstream films featuring women leads since 1976 were not successful. Except for the ones that were, but they don’t count because they were just flukes. Therefore, we cannot make mainstream (read: “non-chick-flick”) movies featuring women in order to test the possibility that they could be profitable, because we know they’re not.

Imagine the frustration involved in arguing this point with someone who not only believes it, but actually thinks it is logical. That is why I left film. So I could once again have conversations with people who actually understood basic logic and critical thinking. Like, fundamentalists and self-identified racists. I swear, I’ve had more luck critically discussing the fallacies of racism and fundamentalism with their adherents than I ever had with film pros, because overt racists and fundamentalists don’t enjoy the privilege of their beliefs being mainstream. This makes them more open to arguments against their beliefs, and even when they downright refuse your logic, they often acknowledge the rationality of it: “I get what you’re saying and it makes sense, but it’s against my faith/belief/the way I was raised, and I’m not going to change that.” Fair enough. If only the film people spouting this garbage realized their ideas are not unassailable, and proof does need to be provided at some point.

Because where are studies proving that boys won’t watch women-led action films, or that women don’t like sci-fi, or any of the many assertions that keep women on the sidelines when it comes to movies and the movie industry? They keep saying numbers don’t lie, but where are the numbers?

They don’t have them, they can’t provide them, and I don’t even think most of them realize it. Critical thinking is less valued than dogmatism: people who stick to the party line are more valuable than people who ask where our current assumptions came from and whether or not they’re still relevant. Attempts to apply critical thinking are more often than not interpreted as attacks on one’s ideas rather than a straightforward, pragmatic attempt to find the best possible solutions and innovations.


  1. Fraser says

    I’m reminded of an article in Glamor well over a decade ago discussing the claim that the reason the top-paid stars are all male wasn’t at all sexism, it was that by sheer coincidence, the stars who qualified–by guaranteeing a good box office–were all male. The article pointed out that didn’t add up (Jack Nicholson was fresh off the flops Man Trouble and Wolf, Eddie Murphy of Harlem Nights).

  2. says

    I’ve had more luck critically discussing the fallacies of racism and fundamentalism with their adherents than I ever had with film pros, because racists and fundamentalists don’t enjoy the privilege of their beliefs being mainstream.

    Hrm… I enjoyed the post, and I get your point, but I would be careful about picking out certain bigotries as “not mainstream.” By “confirmed racist,” do you mean “self-identified”? Because there are plenty of racists in Hollywood (like anywhere with lots of white people), and racism is mainstream in America.

  3. Pocket Nerd says

    A great example of this type of cycle:

    Nextwork X has a show centered on a strong female character. But Network X’s execs know that people (or the ones that count, anyway) don’t want to watch TV shows about chicks, so they air the show in a terrible time slot. The show fails, the network execs are vindicated once again, and will smirkingly point to this show the next time some junior executive gets the idea of marketing specifically to women.

    Nobody ever seems to ask “What would have happened if this show weren’t aired in such a time slot?”

    (No, I’m not referring specifically to Dollhouse, or The Sarah Connor Chronicles, but they’re symptomatic of the problem.)

  4. says

    Fraser, no one ever suggests that when a movie starring a man flops, it’s because no one wants mainstream movies featuring men. 😉

    Softestbullet, thanks for pointing out that distinction. Yes, I did mean “self-identified” and have edited the post. :) Self-identified, proudly owned racism is definitely not mainstream, and that’s what I had in mind. You’re absolutely right in saying that racism in general, especially of the not-so-conscious kind, remains mainstream.

    PocketNerd, exactly. Anytime something fails, there are tons of possible reasons. Leaping to the one that suits your prejudice and stopping there is just stupid.

  5. says

    I found this site from Poplicks! Love them both.

    This problem (which saddens me as a former film student) is not limited to just major mainstream but when it comes to queer media, representation for women is completely lacking. I wrote a post about that very problem for my magazine:

    Are women not an integral part of the queer community? They make up at least half of it, and as far as minority groups go, shouldn’t we be trying to make as many connections as possible to other marginalized groups? Strength in numbers.

  6. says

    That’s a great post, Kevin!

    We are such a male-centric society that women are always an afterthought in any poorly represented group where they appear alongside men. It’s mind-boggling how many people in explaining their objections to homosexuality or gay marriage unconsciously limit all their comments to men and what men do to each other in bed and how some gay men act like women (which seems to be nearly the worst crime of being gay to some people, interestingly enough). If you ask them how they feel about lesbians, they start trying to make something up because, clearly, they’ve never thought about it before.

    Then again, the same happens with race. There’s an awesome scene in Scrubs where Elliot (white woman) and Turk (black man) are bickering over whether it’s tougher to be female or black. A black woman walks past and says hello, and at least they have the good grace to get the point.

  7. says

    It’s somehow still surprising how ingrained these biases are. Lots more work to do, I suppose.

    And any point that can reference Scrubs as an example I will hold in highest esteem. Love that show.

  8. Gwen says

    Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing is painfully relevant here. Take all of the excuses on the cover, adjust them so they’re “That movie was about women, but” instead of “She wrote it, but”, and I already recognize all of them.

    That movie wasn’t about women. That movie was about women, but it shouldn’t have been. That movie was about women, but look what else it was about.
    That movie was about women, but there was only one woman in it. That movie was about women, but they weren’t really that great of characters, and it was just a popcorn flick. That movie was about women, but it only did well because of the…. That movie was about women, but it’s an anomaly.

    Even when male and female characters get equal time and focus, the movie’s assumed to be about him. Even when a movie’s main characters are all or mostly women, “that doesn’t count” when it’s time to run the numbers. (There was an article a while back which listed all the Fox shows that were about angsty solitary male characters saving the world all by themselves. Sarah Connor Chronicles was on the list.)

    Well, sure it starred a woman, but that was just because of some PC crap. She was really just a man with breasts, when it comes down to it. (Ripley should have
    been a man.)

    The Devil Wears Prada was about women, but it was also about fashion. You can’t expect us to let icky girl cooties into our movies like fashion and
    motherhood and feminism and romance and family, do you? (Note how carefully the Disney princess [and non-princess, like Mulan] movies are excluded from discussions of the conventional “girls will watch movies starring boys, but boys won’t watch movies starring girls” wisdom. And women just aren’t worth targeting, except in the soap opera and rom-com industries. Oh, and fashion shows. And cooking shows. And, really, any home and garden show without manly things like construction.)

    Elizabeth and Storm and Leia and Hermione and Sarah Connor and Rose and and… none of them count, we’re all just watching for the guys, amirite?

    When was the last time movies about men had to be Great Works of Art in order to “count” in this kind of discussion? I’m reminded of the Wuthering Heights re-classification, after it was discovered to have been written by (gasp!) a woman, from a book about the nature of good and evil and the influence of nature versus that of nurture on our moral character, to a romance. Because it’s written by a girl, don’tcha know.

    It was a movie about women, but it only did well because of… the explosions, the aliens, the cursing, the sex, the men. Because the real question to ask when it comes to movies about women that do well is, what got the men watching? (Apparently the idea that red-blooded straight men can like watching good-looking women having lives or saving the day [even without gratuitous nudity!] is as weird as the idea that there exist any red-blooded straight wome who can watch movies just to see the good-looking men.)

    And, of course, fall back on “that’s an anomaly. So’s that one. Yes, that one too. And that one. All of the many high-grossing movies about women are anomalies!” excuse when all else fails.

  9. Dan says

    You really “left film” because industry officials were deluded about the Bechdel Test? First of all, in what capacity were you “in film”? A writer? Actor? And you left your passion because people refused to see things your way? Why not create something that would prove them wrong, or at least satisfy your own tastes?

    Weak. Sauce.

  10. says

    Dan, we love debating and disagreeing about opinions around here, but we have a rule against characterizing the human beings who make them as you just did, so you are now on moderation and your comment got struck through so everyone can see it as an example of what not to do.

    Your assertion is, first of all, uninformed. First, the reasons why I quit are explained in the article linked from this one. Second, had you read it, you would know that there is already plenty of “proof” that movies featuring or appealing to women can be highly successful, and has been throughout the “blockbuster” formula era, and yet the people running the industry continually dismiss them all as “flukes” so that nothing ever constitutes “proof.” You may also want to read this article:

    Please note how I managed to critique your weak argument without characterizing you as “weak” or anything else.

  11. Anemone Cerridwen says

    I have a database of 914+ films from 2001 -2005 with data on % of women and box office, if anyone wants to play with it. (It’s on my website.) I don’t have complete financial data because I was restricted to what I could find for free on the internet, but when I partialled out a few factors, I didn’t see any significant relationship between % women in cast and box office. I’ve got a related paper in press, but it doesn’t include the relationship between cast and box office (it concentrates on film content e.g. sex, violence). Maybe we’ll get lucky and researchers will investigate relationships between content, women, and success more objectively. There is enough data to run numbers and argue results most entertainingly.

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