Male is the default. In film and on TV, programmes have largely been designed for men, and men have driven the medium’s development.

Now, as new and emerging technologies such as virtual reality (VR) gaming, social media, streaming sites like Netflix, and interactive television take off, there’s a real chance to ensure that women are actively included – both as designers and as audience members.

Dr Sarah Arnold of Maynooth University’s Department of Media Studies currently is engaged in research about these emergent media technologies. “While women are typically involved at the start of new technologies, something happens at key points of change and women tend to get marginalised, both within the technology, and within the content,” she says. “I want to explore why this happens.”

The treatment of women in video game culture exploded into the public consciousness back in August 2014, when the so-called “GamerGate” controversy saw female video game developers targeted and harassed – primarily, if not exclusively, by anonymous men -  through an organised online campaign. This kicked off when one developer, Zoe Quinn, was accused by a former boyfriend of getting romantically involved with a journalist in exchange for positive media coverage. The accusation was comprehensively disproven, but the issue shone a spotlight on the role and treatment of women in video game culture, with some GamerGate supporters lashing out against what they perceived as a growing influence of feminism and progressive movements in video games.

“GamerGate exemplified some of the issues about the participation of women in entertainment media, especially in terms of harassment and marginalisation. In the wake of this, I have been following some of the experiences of women in VR and similar issues seem to be arising,” says Arnold. “It has become clear that, when some of them link up with other players from across the world, they have been subjected to sexual harassment and other forms of abuse. In many instances, it doesn’t even get this far, because they are simply excluded from participating. This has led some games developers to take a second look at what they have designed and to consider how it could be a more inclusive environment for everyone, including women.”

Arnold says that there is a growing recognition that women need to be involved in the early development of emergent media like VR games and experiences so they are not excluded like this. It seems simple, but it is quite a challenge for industries that have for so long been male-dominated.

This comes across in other ways too. “The VR headsets are made to fit male heads, which are slightly larger. They go into the market not quite fitting smaller female heads, so already women are having a lesser experience. That’s before we even get into the type of content produced. It’s not that the designers consciously set out to exclude women from the outset, but that the prototypes tend to be produced by men, and they don’t necessarily think of it.”

There’s some evidence that women tend to experience a little more nausea in VR environments; one idea suggests that this is because of the slightly different ways in which men and women perceive distance and space. Again, Arnold says that this should be borne in mind by designers.

“Why would they not try to expand their audience? Yes, mobile gaming apps and Nintendo Wii have made attempts, but there’s a reluctance to interfere with, or try to change, the male-dominated market that already exists or to challenge the assumptions about gendered entertainment.”

Exclusion happens in all types of entertainment experiences, she says. “In the early days of television, men and women were equally invested as producers and viewers, but women were increasingly marginalised both in the production of television and as audiences.  Where they were involved, they tended to be compartmentalised and steered into genres like ‘women’s TV’.”

Male producers have, historically, chosen male leads in film and TV programmes that were primarily scripted by men. For generations, women were relegated to the role of supporting characters. “And where publicly-funded TV may have gender inclusivity as a value and an objective, commercial and market pressures have sometimes meant that organisations start to trust people who have been in the industry for longer—primarily men, who are assumed to have inevitable authority and expertise, even in an emerging medium. This meant that in TV’s early days it was easiest to draw from the male expertise existing in other mediums like radio broadcasting.”

Times are changing, however, and audiences are watching – and demanding – productions that star more women. Films and TV shows with female leads are making as much money, or more, than those with male leads.

Netflix is among those new platforms, but its algorithms betray an old-fashioned mentality, Arnold suggests. “If I watch Homeland, Blue Bloods, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend or The Good Wife, Netflix will tag me as liking the ‘strong female lead’ genre, when maybe I just like good drama. So a computer algorithm, which should be gender-neutral, has obviously had human influence. I note there doesn’t seem to be a genre for ‘strong male leads,’ because men are presumed to be strong and because male lead is the default.”

Men are hurt by this gender division too, as they lose out on female perspectives and are stereotyped into neat boxes themselves. “In the case of online advertising there often seems to be an assumption that all males aged 18-34 are interested in pornography, and are heavily targeted with advertisements for it even if they’re just online trying to do some shopping,” says Arnold. “It might cause them to wonder if that’s what they should be doing.”

The solution must lie in improving the journey of communications students. “I see courses with a 50/50 gender split, but when they start to move into production, women do tend to start pulling away from technical roles. Pre-existing assumptions about male and female roles can result in female students undertaking administrative rather than operational or technical jobs. We want to encourage them not to self-exclude and to know that they do have access to the industry.”

Arnold’s research looks to how new entertainment technologies are already coded in and shaped by gender discourses. For the past few years, the BBC is testing out “object-based broadcasting,” which is a form of interactive TV that allows the viewer to engage with different angles or, for instance, zoom in on a region during the weather forecast. In one of their early experimental films, Visual Perceptive Media users were profiled according to personal data input from mobile devices. The user’s gender formed part of the profile, with personalisation being manifested in terms of ‘male bias’ and ‘female bias.’ 

“For such a radical new technology, it was a very traditional way to imagine the audience,” says Arnold. “There’s going to be a lot of change in the coming years, and we need to make sure that we don’t repeat past mistakes.”

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