I never thought of Disney as being especially conservative or orthodox in its views on gender, even by the standards of Hollywood. However, I guess it pays to make very sure of these things, since the media giant is now going to “spellcheck” proposed scripts for any signs of political incorrectness.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, the artificial intelligence program, unveiled earlier this month, “will prevent film and television works from perpetuating underrepresentation and stereotypes — and their pernicious real-world effects.”
Hollywood and Big Tech collaborating to try to root out that kind of stuff? I see no way this could possibly go wrong.
The Hollywood Reporter’s piece is supposed to be straight news, so pay special attention to the language used by reporter Patrick Brzeski in this paragraph: “Geena Davis, the Oscar-winning actor and a tireless advocate for female representation onscreen, touched down Thursday in New Zealand to deliver the closing keynote speech at the country’s pioneering Power of Inclusion Summit, which was held in downtown Auckland.”
Anyway, the tirelessly pioneering program from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is called “GD-IQ: Spellcheck for Bias.” While it’s billed as focusing on “gender bias,” the program seems to go well beyond that.
Brzeski reported that “the new tool leverages patented machine learning technology developed at the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering to rapidly analyze the text of a script to determine its number of male and female characters and whether they are representative of the real population at large.”
“The technology also can discern the numbers of characters who are people of color, LGBTQI, possess disabilities or belong to other groups typically underrepresented and failed by Hollywood storytelling.” (For those who’ve lost track, that string of intitials in the middle, according to TheFreeDictionary.com, stands for “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and intersex.”)
And that’s not all the AI program does. It also assesses how many lines characters have, how they speak and what their socioeconomic status is, among other things.
“I’m very proud to announce we have a brand new partnership with Walt Disney Studios using Spell Check for Bias,” Davis said at the pioneering conference, no doubt in a manner that exuded tirelessness.
“They are our pilot partners and we’re going to collaborate with Disney over the next year using this tool to help their decision-making, identify opportunities to increase diversity and inclusion in the manuscripts that they receive. We’re very excited about the possibilities with this new technology and we encourage everybody to get in touch with us and give it a try.”
This is fantastic. Have you ever watched one of those PBS cartoons with your kids where it’s clear the creators have made it painfully obvious they’re including someone from every possible background just for the heck of it? You know, the ones that always make sure to have a supporting character who uses a wheelchair?
If this AI works as well as advertised, prepare yourself for a lot of Disney movies that feel just like that, only for adults.
“Nearly every sector of our society has a huge gender disparity, particularly in leadership positions,” Davis said, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “So how long is it going to take to correct that, to reach parity? No matter how hard we work, we can’t snap our fingers and suddenly half the corporate boards are women. It’s going to take a long time to make some of these changes.
“There’s one category of gross gender inequality where the underrepresentation of women can be fixed absolutely overnight — and it’s onscreen,” Davis continued.
“The very next project somebody makes — the next movie, TV show — can be gender-balanced. We can make this change happen very fast. In the time it takes to create a new show or a new film, we can present a whole new vision of the future.”
It’s difficult to grok too many details of what kind of change GD-IQ will represent at Disney, inasmuch as Brzeski’s article is the most in-depth explication of it and it couldn’t be more fawning if it had been a news release written by Davis herself.
Consider this paragraph: “The Davis Institute’s mantra is ‘If girls see it, they can be it.’ The organization has commissioned numerous studies showing how screen representations influence real-world behavior of both women and men. One of the actress’ favorite examples is the way the number of girls taking up competitive archery more than doubled shortly after the simultaneous release of ‘The Hunger Games’ and Pixar’s ‘Brave’ in 2012 (Davis herself took up archery as a hobby in the late 1990s, and later nearly qualified for the U.S. Olympic Archery team.)”
There are telling moments, though. At one point, Brzeski quotes Davis saying that the new technology isn’t meant to “shame and blame” screenwriters or creators.
Instead, he writes that it’s “to reveal the unconscious bias that commonly manifests in even the most well-meaning screenwriter’s work. With the data in hand, informed adjustments can be made to scripts so that they don’t perpetuate stereotypes and their pernicious real-world effects.”
That actually sounds a lot a polite version of shaming and blaming, telling the creators they have an unconscious bias and that, armed with data — data from a program produced by people who in no way have unconscious biases of their own, mind you — they can tweak it so it’s no longer perniciously stereotypical.
There’s an interesting irony here, inasmuch as Hollywood, the most putatively liberal corner of our cultural landscape, always seems to get called out for its retrograde attitudes. After all, consider the very existence of the “Bechdel test.”
However, the kind of thinking this represents could actually backfire spectacularly if you’re an underrepresented demographic. Executives could look at a certain movie and say, “Oh, stories with <insert group here> don’t sell.” And that’s not true — they just don’t sell when scripts are “spell-checked” to make sure “they don’t perpetuate stereotypes and their pernicious real-world effects” so that the end product ends up being artless box-checking.
Just because a movie tries to cram representation into a screenplay doesn’t make it good. Hollywood, I’d posit, is about to learn that in a very painful way.
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