Quantifying gender stereotypes in pop culture

We all noticed the gender stereotypes in films, books and video games, and we all know that they shape how we behave in real life (or is it the other way around?). But it would nice to know how common these stereotypes really are. Intuitively, it’s tempting to resort to the availability heuristic, that is to recall a bunch of films where you remember seeing a stereotype, and assume that the number of examples you can find is proportional to its actual prevalence. But the availability heuristic is quite bad in general, especially for pop culture where authors try to subvert your expectations all the time by replacing a stereotype with its exact opposite. Thus, it would be useful to put actual numbers on the frequency of various stereotypes in the entertainment media, before we make any extravagant claim about their importance.

But how do you measure stereotypes in pop culture? The only way would be to go over all the films, books, comics and theater plays, systematically list every single occurrence of every stereotype you see, and compile them into a large database. This would of course represent an astronomical amount of mind-numbingly boring work, and nobody in their right mind would ever want to do that.

But wait – that’s TVtropes! For reasons that I can’t fathom, a group of nerds over the Internet actually performed this mind-numbingly boring work and created a full wiki of every “trope” they could find, with associated examples. All there is left to do is statistics.

Of course, editing TVtropes is not a systematic, unbiased process and there will be all kinds of bias, but it’s certainly better than just guessing based on the examples that come to your mind. In addition, TVtropes have clear rules for what qualifies as a trope or not, and I believe they are enforced. Also, TVtropes is a “naturally-occuring” database – contributors were not trying to make any specific statement about gender stereotypes when they built the wiki, so there should not be too much ideological bias (compared to, say, a gender studies PhD student looking for evidence to back up their favorite hypothesis). I’m almost surprised it has not been used more often in social sciences1I looked it up. Somebody wrote a Master’s thesis about TVtropes, but it’s about how the wiki gets edited, they are not making any use of the content..

So I went ahead and wrote a TVtropes scrapper. It goes through a portal (a page that lists all the tropes related to one topic), visits all the trope pages, then goes to the description of each medium that contains the trope. I even hacked together a small script to extract the publication date of the medium, looking for things like “in [4-digit number]”, “since [4-digit number]” and so on. It’s not 100% accurate, but it should be enough to see how the different stereotypes evolved over time.

I then ran my script on a large portal page called the Gender Dynamic Index, that has all the tropes related to gender in one place. Scrapping it and the pages it links to took about one full day, because TVtropes kept banning me for making too many requests. Sorry for that, TVtropes. Anyways, the scrapper code can be found here, and the dataset in CSV format is here. Using this dataset, we can look into the following questions:

  • What are the most common tropes about female characters? About male characters?
  • Are some tropes more common in specific media, like video games, television or manga?
  • How did trope frequency evolve over time? Did some new tropes emerge in the last decades? Which old tropes went out of fashion?

As a sanity check, here is how the different media are represented in my dataset for each year. You can see the rise of video games starting in the 1980s, so my attempt at extracting the dates is not so bad. There also seem to be a few video games as early as 1960, which is weird. Maybe they are just video games whose story takes place in the sixties and my script got confused.

So what does pop culture say about women? Here are the top 50 tropes, ranked by the number of examples referenced on their wiki page. You can find an absurd lot of detail about any given trope on the dedicated TVtropes page (example).

And this is the top 50 for men:

I was a bit surprised to find “drowning my sorrows” so high in the list of stereotypes about men. It’s about how, in fiction, men tend to drink alcohol when they are sad. Interestingly, this one is equally frequent in all kinds of media, even cartoons2That being said, I don’t know how many of these are children cartoons. It is possible that TVtropes contributors are more likely to mention cartoons for an adult audience.. That does not sound like a very healthy message.

TVtropes also has a special category for tropes that contrast men and women. Here they are:

The tropes are not evenly-distributed across media. Here are a few selected examples, with their relative frequency in different supports:

Next, I took advantage of my super-accurate date-guessing algorithm to plot the evolution of various tropes over time. Guys Smash, Girls Shoot is primarily found in video games, so it’s not surprising that it became more frequent over time. More surprising is the fact that Men Are the Expendable Gender increased so much in frequency in the last decades – given how harmful it is, you would expect the entertainment media to stop perpetuating it. The famous Damsel in Distress trope peaked in the 90s, possibly because it was the scenario-by-default in video games from the 90s3I’ll admit I know very little about video games, I don’t usually play them, so please correct me if that’s wrong.. It does not look like there are that many Damsels in Distress left nowadays. The Girl of The Week, which is how male heroes appear to have a new girlfriend at every episode, has become much less prevalent since the 90s, which is certainly a sign of progress.

Finally, here is a combined plot that show how much each stereotype has changed between the pre-2000 era and the post-2000 era. I chose 2000 as a discontinuity point based on the plot above, but the results stay mostly the same if I move the threshold to other years.

Notice, in yellow, the “corrective” tropes, which are reversed versions of classic gender tropes. As you can expect, most of them became more common after 2000. To my surprise, the two corrective tropes that became less common are the Damsel Out of Distress and the Rebellious Princess, which both fit the “empowering girls” line of thought. On the other end, tropes like Female Gaze or Non-Action Guy are thriving, even though they are less about empowerment and more of a race to the bottom.

Let me know what you think about all of this. Does it match your expectations? If you were a writer, what would you do? If there are further analyses or plots that you would like to see, don’t hesitate to ask in the comments. For instance, I can easily plot the evolution over time, or the distribution by medium, for other tropes that the ones I picked here.

PS: If you enjoy this kind of things, check out this analysis of the vocabulary associated with men and women in literature on The Pudding. They did a great job blending data visualization into illustrations.


Update on 16 nov: one commenter wanted to see the evolution of tropes related to double standards over time. Here is what it looks like:

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