Connotation Frames of Power and Agency in Modern Films

The framing of an action influences how we perceive its actor. We introduce connotation frames of power and agency, a pragmatic formalism organized using frame semantic representations, to model how different levels of power and agency are implicitly projected on actors through their actions. We use the new power and agency frames to measure the subtle, but prevalent, gender bias in the portrayal of modern film characters and provide insights that deviate from the well-known Bechdel test. Our contributions include an extended lexicon of connotation frames along with a web interface that provides a comprehensive analysis through the lens of connotation frames.

A viewer’s impression of a movie character is influenced by how they are written and portrayed, which can in turn influence how people form stereotypes on gender norms (Behm-Morawitz and Mastro, 2008). A character’s actions can be projected with varying levels of power and agency, depending on the specific verbs used. For instance, somebody who “accepts” things is implied to be a passive decision-maker (or of lower agency) than somebody who “assesses” things. While not explicitly stated, these connotative meanings projected by different verbs can influence the assumptions the audience makes about the people being described. These assumptions can have negative consequences if they reinforce negative stereotypes (Walton and Spencer, 2009). To formalize this implicit information about people projected by actions, we introduce power and agency connotation frames, two new types of The man with the roses beckons Irene forward. agency Another man steps in behind her, trapping her... She slices upwards with a razor-sharp knife... The move ends with Irene's finger over her own mouth... He obeys, eyes bulging. agency agency agency power + power + + power — power ... Going beyond the surface level analysis such as screen time or number of female characters (Google, 2017), our study aims for a more focused and precise analysis of power differentials between fictional men and women. 

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