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Women Underrepresented In Hollywood On Screen And Behind The Camera

First Posted: 04/26/10 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 04:40 PM ET

Kathryn Bigelow

(The following story by Jessica Youseffi comes courtesy of Neon Tommy, the voice of Annenberg Digital News. )

Females in Hollywood continue to be just as significantly marginalized, hyper-sexualized and underrepresented as they were 30 years ago, according to a study released Tuesday by USC Annenberg professor Stacy Smith.

A study of the 100 top-grossing films of 2007 showed a shocking discrepancy between males and females, where only 29.9 percent of speaking characters in the films were female, while 83 percent of all directors, writers, and producers were male. However, the study also found that when women were the decision makers in Hollywood--whether that role be director, producer, or writer--the number of female characters in a film dramatically increased.

Smith sat down with Neon Tommy reporter Jessica Youseffi to discuss her latest findings:


1. Could you summarize your findings?

We have three major findings:

The first is that women do not represent half of the cinematic sky. Despite gains from the women's movement, despite civil rights, only 29.9 percent of all women characters in the 100 top-grossing films in 2007 are female.

Equally problematic is that if you turn to who's behind the camera and you look at the total number of producers, writers, and directors, only 17 percent are women. The ratio of males to females is 5 to 1, which is really quite staggering. Females seem to be undervalued both on screen and behind the screen

The second major finding is that the few women who do work behind screen have a significant influence, and this really is where a lot of hope lies.

For example, when a male directs the screen, 29.93 percent of the characters are female. But when a female directs the films--that jumps to 44.6 percent. That's a 15 percent increase in the amount of females shown on screen, just by hiring and selecting a female at the helm.

The third major finding is that females are often over-sexualized in films.

Twenty-seven percent of women are depicted wearing tight and alluring clothes, compared to 4.6 percent of men. Over a fifth of all females are shown partially naked and only 6.6 percent of males are.

All of this really reinforces lookism and the whole appearance focus for women in the industry.

So that's a lot that we found.

2. What surprised you most about your findings?

When we did a study a couple of years ago on 150 Academy Award Best Picture nominated films from 1977-2006, we looked at the relationship between the percentage of females in film, and the sex of producers, writers and directors. In that we found only a handful of films had female directors, but when women were directors, the representation jumped for female characters on screen.

When we found almost the exact same pattern again in this study of 2007 top-grossing films. In films between 1977-2006, 27 percent of characters on screen were female, and we found in 2007 films, 29 percent of characters were female. It's been 30 years, and there is very little difference.

That was both an encouraging find, but also an interesting trend, that seems to suggest that females are either drawn to properties that feature female characters, or they are advocating on behalf of other women.

3. Why are women still such a minority behind the scenes? Why the discrepancy?

That's also an interesting question and lots of different people have written about that. Some say, people hire other people that look and act like themselves. There are lots of men in the industry so they may be more comfortable with hiring other men. Some say women step out to raise kids.

I think there are lots of possible explanations and not just one. We are working on a study to figure out some off those questions right now.

4. Do you think people are aware of the discrepancies in gender characters?

No absolutely not, I also don't think many people in film industry are; that's why the data is so interesting.

Most people think things are getting better and that's why work like this is so important to reveal what the status quo really is when it comes to cinematic content. So people are always surprised that things aren't really better.

That's why it's so important to do this kind of work because it provides a benchmark to speak empirically about women in Hollywood. We need more research so people know exactly how different minority groups in film are doing.

5. If you could talk to one key industry figure on gender representation in the media, who would it be, and what would you say?

I wouldn't say much, I would listen, and unequivocally I would bring Amy Pascal who is Co-Chairman of Sony Pictures, and one of the most powerful women in the industry. I'd ask her about her legacy in the field of entertainment, and how she's navigated that. And what's interesting about Sony, is that in 2007 Sony released four of the top 100-grossing films that featured a solo-female protagonist.

Really just to pick her brain about her experience in the industry as someone who is responsible for green lighting content in the years, and what her legacy and experience has been, and all the obstacles and opportunities on the way.

6. What draws you to research gender in the media?

I was a media effects researcher concerned with violence and youth, so this was a bit out of my wheelhouse. Though I was familiar with work done, I didn't have a particular interest, but my students were very fired up for these issues.

The student's fascination and push is what got me very excited and fried up about doing research in this venue. But now that I'm into it I find it absolutely fascinating to see these patterns emerge and to explore why things haven't changed since the 1940s; I find that fascinating.

7. How have your other research on gender and the media impacted the industry so far?

I think it's confirming what concerned people in the industry already know to be true. But for others who aren't thinking about inequity, I think it's a bit of a surprise, which goes back to when people think things are getting better.

In terms of the impact, I guess we'll find out pretty soon. We're looking on a follow up study of 2006-2009 films, and we will know an answer in a couple of months.

But I don't think we'll find any difference to be perfectly honest, and that's fine, it takes years to make a motion picture from green lighting the process to what you actually see in exhibition. 3 or 4 more years is when we should expect to see the fruits of our labor. I think it would be a bit presumptuous to expect change quickly given the gestation of films.

8. What do you hope to accomplish in your research?

I'm not going to say that all films should be 50 percent male and 50 percent females. It may make sense for a war film to have more males than females, and so on. But across the entire industry film line up, as a whole, there should be more balance.

It's thinking about what makes sense for story, but in the bigger picture how diversified are films when you step back and consider a whole series of films by a studio. That's a fair way to think about it.

People aren't motivated to change unless they are shown where the inequity is.

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Filed by Billy Silverman  |