That there’s a gender disparity in Hollywood won’t come as a surprise to anyone, but a study recently published by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism brings to light just how uneven things can be. For example: It turns out that of the 4,342 speaking roles in the 100 highest-grossing films of 2009, just 32,8% were female. This despite the fact that women and girls, as estimated by the MPAA, bought over 50% of the domestic movie tickets that year — and, duh, make up half the population. After the jump, 5 other highlights from the survey.
- When women do appear in films, they’re more likely to be eye candy. Jokes about Taylor Lautner’s frequent shirtlessness in the Twilight franchise notwithstanding, it seems that if a character is scantily clad, she’s stil more likely to be female. Female characters were more likely to wear “sexy attire” (25.8% of females versus 4.7% of males), “expose skin” (23.6% versus 7.4%), and be described by other characters as “attractive” (10.9% versus 2.5). What makes this more icky is that this sexualization applies even to younger female characters, with similar statistics for those in the 13-20 age range as those in the 21-39 group. Meanwhile, those figures dropped sharply for women aged 40-64 (14.1%, 14.1%, and 3.9% for attire, skin, and attractiveness, respectively).
- Hollywood is not kind to older actresses. Maybe that anonymous actress who sued IMDb had a point — youth really is king in Hollywood, especially for women. The gender disparity was lower for characters in the 21-39 range, with females making up 36.9% of speaking roles, but in the 40-64 group, only 24% were female. Or to look at it another way: Over half (56.6%) of female characters were depicted as being between 21 and 39 years of age, while just 22.2% of them were in the 40-64 range. In contrast, 48.7% of male characters were 21-39, while 35.2% were 40-64. Well… at least older women characters get to keep their clothes on?
- Female filmmakers are still very, very rare. Much was made in 2009 of Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Picture and Best Director win over ex James Cameron, but for the most part it’s still men who dominate behind the camera. (Actually, The Hurt Lockerwasn’t even included in the survey because it didn’t gross enough.) Just 3.9% of the directors, 13.5% of the writers, and 21.6% of the producers behind the top 100 films of 2009 were women.
- Things haven’t really changed lately… And if you’re wondering whether 2009 was just an anomaly, the answer, sadly, is no. Most of the statistics for 2009 showed little change from the two previous years in which USC had conducted the survey, 2008 and 2009. In fact, the percentage of female speaking roles hadn’t budged at all since 2008. “We see remarkably stable trends,” noted USC Annenberg associate professor Stacy L. Smith to the LA Times. “This reveals an industry formula for gender that may be outside of people’s conscious awareness.”
- … But there’s still hope for change. One key finding was that including women behind the camera could be one way to bring more females in front of it. Films with at least one female director gave 47.7% of speaking roles to women, while including at least one female writer on staff increased the percentage of female characters from 29.8% to 40.0%. (Producers’ gender had no measurable effect on the representation of women onscreen.) “Some of this is a function of the fact that we see more males working behind the scenes than females, and they’re telling the stories that they know,” said Smith. “If the numbers behind the scenes move, we’re likely to see numbers on-screen move.”
The top-grossing films of 2009 that were analyzed for this survey included female-centric hits like The Twilight Saga: New Moon, Confessions of a Shopaholic, and Bride Wars, as well as more gender-netural or male-oriented blockbusters such as Avatar, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, and Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.
It goes almost without saying that these figures aren’t the whole story. For one thing, it leaves out indie films, which is one area in which I suspect (without the statistics to back me up) that women are doing a bit better. For another, the survey does little to delve into the types of characters being portrayed, aside from their sexiness or lack thereof, or the quality of the films they’re featured in. Et cetera. Still, the numbers are interesting to consider.
The reasons for these disparities are numerous and complicated, and if change is to happen it’ll have to come from all sides, including the audience. To be roughly the millionth person to bring this up, Bridesmaids was a step in the right direction. It proved that audiences of both genders can and will watch a movie about women, contrary to that obnoxious “conventional wisdom” that while female audiences can identify with a male protagonist, men and boys would rather die than watch a film with a female lead. Meanwhile, movies like Sex and the City have already proven that a female-targeted movie can do just fine commercially even without much of a male audience, though that’s one lesson Hollywood seems to have trouble remembering.