Gender Inequality

Here's how gender stereotypes are plaguing Hollywood films despite progress

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Female presence in Hollywood is on the rise. Image: Unsplash/Martin Jernberg

Douglas Broom
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Gender Inequality

  • Women are making slow but steady progress towards equality in the movies.
  • New research says two-fifths of films in 2019 had female protagonists – a record high.
  • But much more needs to be done to close Hollywood’s gender gap.

For women aspiring to conquer Hollywood, the nominations for the 2020 Oscars made dispiriting reading. The nods for best director were all male – and not for the first time.

But a new study of the highest-grossing films of 2019 from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University shows that Hollywood is slowly changing.

Have you read?

Last year, 40% of the 100 highest-grossing films featured a female protagonist – the largest percentage ever. Women accounted for 37% of major characters, up one percentage point on the previous year.

hollywood oscars awards women men female male girls boys teenagers teens development gender gap parity equality diversity progress change femmine masuline woman man sex biology roles dynamic balance bias androgynous
Figure 1. Percentages of Films Featuring Females, Males and Ensembles as Protagonists. Image: Women in TV and Film

The study, It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World, analyzed 2,300 characters and concluded that progress towards closing Hollywood’s gender gap, although steady, is still painfully slow.

Seen but not heard

The author Dr. Martha M. Lauzen, professor of film and television at San Diego State University, says gender stereotyping persists in the way women are portrayed. For example, audiences were told the marital status of 46% of female characters, as opposed to just 34% of male protagonists.

Almost three-quarters of male characters had an identifiable occupation compared to fewer than two-thirds of female characters. And male protagonists were much more likely to be shown at work. Only just over a quarter of the characters who were leaders were women.

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What's the World Economic Forum doing about the gender gap?

hollywood oscars awards women men female male girls boys teenagers teens development gender gap parity equality diversity progress change femmine masuline woman man sex biology roles dynamic balance bias androgynous
Figure 5. Historical Comparison of Percentages of Females and Males as Major Character Image: Women in TV and Film

Male characters are more likely to be heard, too. Two-thirds of the speaking parts were male. Half as many women were given an on-screen voice.

Overall, audiences were almost twice as likely to see male than female characters in the top 100 films, says Lauzen.

Her research shows that men continue to dominate action movies, while women’s roles were concentrated in horror films and dramas, with only 16% of action characters portrayed by women. Science fiction fared even worse – only 8% of protagonists were female.

Generally, female characters were younger than their male counterparts – more than half were in their 20s and 30s compared to almost 60% of male characters aged in their 30s and 40s.

Mind the gap

Women directed twice as many of the top films last year compared to 2018. A fifth of all directors, writers, producers, editors and cinematographers on the top 100 grossing films of 2019 were women, according to the Celluloid Ceiling report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

Yet no female directors were nominated for this year’s Golden Globe awards or in the best director category at the 2020 Oscars. The report says the gender of the person behind the camera is key to delivering equality on screen. Lauzen’s analysis shows that when a movie has at least one female director or writer, women are more likely to be cast for key roles. When women direct, almost 60% of protagonists in a film are female, as opposed to fewer than a third when men are directing.

Hollywood is not alone in struggling with diversity. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report details how women around the globe are still paid less than men for similar work – and are seriously under-represented in senior roles.

The Forum says that at the current rate of progress, it will take almost a century to close the gender gap. Given the role of films and the wider media in influencing social attitudes, having more women on screen might be one way to accelerate progress towards equality.

This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that the Celluloid Ceiling Report is from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University not the Women's Media Centre, as previously stated.

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