Girls on Film: The Gender Equality Study and Why Discourse Matters

Girls on Film: The Gender Equality Study and Why Discourse Matters

Nov 24, 2011

Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.

The Ugly Truth poster

On this Thanksgiving, there are many things to be thankful for when it comes to women in cinema. We have incontrovertible talents like Meryl Streep. We’ve got a Best Director Oscar winner with Kathryn Bigelow. We’ve watched Bridesmaids become Judd Apatow’s most successful film to date. At the same time, these celebrations and moments of thanks seem minute and silly. In the year 2011, when we have the world at our fingertips no matter where we might be, when astronauts have walked on the moon and scientists have cloned living beings, it seems downright ridiculous that our thanks is relegated to such small parts of a larger whole.

As wonderful as Streep is, she’s become the lone tower of unbeatable talent, an anomaly defying all odds of sex and age; it took almost a century of awards before Kathryn Bigelow become the first Oscar-winning female director (before the field once again became a boys’ club); a basic comedy like Bridesmaids, starring a cast of talented women, is a shock to the box office. These examples reflect the Hollywood industry on a whole. Superficially, perfunctorily, all seems well for women in front or behind the camera; we can throw out names, examples in just about any area, but one doesn’t make up for many.

The basic fact of the matter is that although women make up half the population, and at least half of the movie ticket sales, there is no equality on the big screen. We can see it with our own eyes, and once again, we can read the numbers to support it. For the third year in a row, USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism has released a study on gender equality in Hollywood’s top-grossing films, and the results aren’t pretty. Even more sadly, they show little to no signs of improvement over the previous year.

Examining the 100 top-grossing films from 2009, the study looks at the number of men and women behind the scenes and in front of the camera, tallying how many women are on the screen and how they are presented, as well as how these numbers change with the involvement of female writers and directors. None of the numbers are great (please read it for yourself, it’s not long), but here are some key statistics of 2009’s box office bests:

  • 32.8% of the speaking characters are female (same as 2008).
  • Less than 17% of films feature casts where women make up 45-54.9% of the speaking roles.
  • 13-20 year old females are just as likely to be shown in sexy attire (or partially naked) as 21-39 year olds (33.8% v. 33.5% and 28.2% v. 30.5%, respectively).
  • Teens are more likely to be shown as attractive (21.5%) than 21-39 year olds (13.8%)…
  • 3.9% of women from 40-64 in these films are depicted as attractive, and only 22.2% of speaking female roles went to women in this age bracket (compared to 35.2% of men).
  • Women made up 3.6% of the directors, and 13.5% of the writers.
  • Actresses seen on screen increase by 10.2% when women are involved as screenwriters.

Remember, this is Sandra Bullock’s stellar year of The Blind Side, The Proposal, and All About Steve (we might want to forget it, but it does make the Top 100 cut) so just imagine the numbers for women 40-64 without her and Meryl Streep’s Julie & Julia. This was the year of The Hurt Locker, but it didn’t make the cut financially, so Kathryn Bigelow’s achievements mean nothing here, other than reminding us that the indie world would improve these numbers somewhat. …but that’s beside the point.

Table from study

This is about what is marketed, slickly packaged, and sold to the movie-going public. It’s about the lack of consideration, which is exemplified by the research stating that the number of actresses rose 10.2% when more women were involved in production. Men hold the powerful positions in Hollywood, and aren’t challenged about what gender is assigned to each character, so the cycle continues. 2009 is the year of Up, the year that many of us wondered how Pixar could create such a dynamic heroine as Ellie and not make her the star. It’s the year we giggled with glee at Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and saw our spunky lady once again play the marginalized love interest. Most of the times when a great, young heroine is created, she is marginalized, lover-ized, and side-kicked. Or she never gets a chance to exist at all.

Take this week’s big release, The Muppets. Jason Segel created a wildly enjoyable Muppets movie, one most certainly crafted with utter adoration for the characters. Unfortunately, he added in Walter, another boy Muppet, rather than finally giving us another central female character other than Miss Piggy (someone who is enjoyable, but antiquated as the fashion and romance-obsessed, irrational girl). Changing the sex of the new Muppet wouldn’t have changed anyone’s interest in the film and would’ve given many little girls a new, positive heroine to enjoy. In fact, a positive heroine is downright necessary when teen girls are the ones most often shown as attractive in the big box-office films, when they’re just as likely to be wrapped in sexy attire or disrobed as women who are 21-39.

We can shrug and shut up about it. We can accept that women are grossly underrepresented in mainstream filmmaking – that they often don’t get a chance to speak, to be seen in a frame of reference that is not dictated by sex. We can accept that girls are sexualized at earlier and earlier ages (Toddlers and Tiaras already shows that sexualization isn't bound by puberty). We can accept that the representations that do make the screen will often frame women into antiquated, gender-specific roles (in the 2009 list, the only two female-starring films that weren’t about romance, motherhood, fashion, or crap like The Ugly Truth were Coraline and Julie & Julia – and one of these is far from a flawless representation).

Table from Study


We can speak up. We can keep the dialogue alive. As much as Hollywood loves to craft us into the perfect little obedient viewer, they also cater to trends and mass audiences. If we stop making the desire for equally wonderful and plentiful female characters and real-life talent seem like some sort of niche craving, a notion that’s ridiculous when women make up half the movie-going public, the output will start to change. If a male writer or filmmaker hears about the demand and discourse, they will consider how they craft their characters and consider bringing on female talent. If female moviegoers become a more cohesive spending unit, more women will be employed to cater to the demographic. In the LA Times piece on the study, one woman commented: “I'm a female, and I would much rather stare at guys on screen than women. Partly because there are so few strong female characters. I am perfectly happy with the ratio.”

Instead of being thankful, be proactive. It’s ridiculous to just shrug and say you’re happy with not frequenting women-led films because strong female characters are rare. Hollywood wants to make money, so put in a little extra effort, find the films with great portrayals of women, and put your powerful movie ticket behind it. It might mean looking beyond the easy commercials and actively looking at reviews and discourse. It might mean thinking a little about what you say and do, but why not?

Once again, women make up half of Hollywood’s ticket-buying audience. Match that with some of the male movie-goers who would also like a more diversified treatment of women on-screen and you have a majority. Make the numbers count. 2011 brought the momentum; now we just have to keep it up.

Categories: Features
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