Hollywood guides the narrative about who matters in our society. So when zero women were nominated in the best director category for the Oscar 2020, we would have been amazed, even if the homogeneity does run deep into the roots of the film industry.
In the 92-year history of the Oscar, only five women have been nominated for best director. In December 2019, men represent 68% of Oscar voters and 84% of all Oscar voters are white. This lack of diversity comes at a time when America’s confidence in the mass media is at an all-time low. Will Hollywood become the next institution to lose our trust? It doesn’t have to be that way, not if we make the choice now to improve gender equity in films.
Hollywood sets the narrative for our country and the world
The films create the cultural narratives that quietly control our society. The images and messages we see on the screen inform our understanding of the world and critically tell us how we should present ourselves as individuals. How should we behave? What is acceptable to me? What not?
At present, the greatest films of our society silence the voices of 51% of the population, of women, and marginalize 39.5% of the country that is not white.
Social priming starts early: “Hollywood has the ability to offer dreams to girls and boys around the world about how they can be and how this world can be,” says Stacy Smith (from the documentary Half of the image).
For women and girls, the film teaches them that their value is based on their body: beauty, weight and sexual attractiveness. From 6 to 8 years old, half of the girls and one third of the boys believe that they should be thinner. The film also teaches women and girls who are not leaders. In fact, a study of films in 10 countries revealed that men take on the role of business leaders 86% of the time, political leaders 91% of the time and entertainment leaders 84% of the time.
It is not only women who suffer from Hollywood gender equality. Men also suffer. The films reinforce toxic masculinity, the idea that “being a man” means hiding vulnerability, ignoring emotions and showing aggression. As we are discovering, traditional concepts of masculinity play an outsized role in explaining why men represent 79% of all suicides in the United States. Our country is not alone. In Canada, men are four times more likely to die from suicide than women. What about the single biggest killer of British men under the age of 45? Suicide.
Gender inequality right before our eyes
When the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism began the “most comprehensive and intersectional” investigation of gender representation in films, the invisibility epidemic had already been established. The report, which analyzed the best 1,100 films between 2007 and 2017 and included 48,757 characters, shed light on how hard the epidemic was.
The researchers found that female-speaking characters occupied 30.6% of all roles on the screen between 2007 and 2017. In other words, there is a 20-point gap between women speaking roles and women in percentage of the population.
Looking exclusively at the top 100 films of 2017 covering a total of 4,454 talking characters, the researchers found that only 19 stories were gender balanced, a term used to indicate that women or girls employ 45% to 54.9% of the roles of a film. The 2017 analysis also revealed that 68.2% of roles were for men while 31.8% of roles were for women. This distribution does not represent a big improvement compared to 2007, when the percentage of women on the screen was “only” 1.9% lower.
A significant boost, however, came from the films starring and co-starring. A meager 20% of 2007 films featured a woman as protagonist or co-host. In 2017, that percentage rose to 34%. And of the 100 best-selling films of 2019, 43% featured a woman as the protagonist or co-protagonist. However, it leaves room for improvement, which brings us to another aspect of the under-representation in the film: intersectionality.
In 2017, black female characters were missing in 43 of the top 100 films of the year. Asian female characters were missing from 65 of the top 100 films, and Latinas were missing from 64. In addition, 94 movies were launched without a single lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender female character. Only one of the top 400 films between 2014 and 2017 included a transgender character. In total, 29.3% of the characters in the top 100 films of 2017 represented under-represented racial / ethnic communities and less than 1% of all characters were part of the LGBTQ community.
Even more iniquity behind the screen
Hollywood also claims gender inequality behind the screen, as evident among those who direct, produce and write films.
First, let’s take a look at the directors. The best film schools in the United States male and female graduate students at almost identical rates. The problem isn’t the offer, it’s “the huge lack of people willing to offer filmmakers opportunities,” according to Oscar-nominated director Lexi Alexander. You are right. Women directed 15.1% of the top 200 films from 2018 to 2019 and only 10.6% of the 100 most grossed films of 2019, which translates into a director ratio of 8.4 to 1 male-female.
Including all the directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors and filmmakers of the 100 most grossed films in 2019, women occupied 20% of the positions.
Speaking of behind-the-scenes iniquity, we must not forget the gender pay gap for the stars on the screen. Actors earn about $ 1.1 million more than actresses with similar experience. And while the gender gap is narrowing among the stars with 10 or more years of experience, an “unexplained” gender gap of $ 1 million per film remains strong. It is worth noting that for stars over the age of 50, unfortunately, the gender pay gap rises from $ 1.1 million to almost $ 4 million.
When we intensify our attention on the highest paid stars, we find an even greater disparity between wages: in 2017, the actors received an average salary of $ 57.4 million while the actresses took home $ 21.8 million, 38 % of what men earn. More generally, the pay gap damages our economy. We can do better.
The business case for gender equity in cinema
In addition to socio-cultural reasons, studies should also pay attention to the financial side of gender equity in cinema. For those unfamiliar with the Bechdel Test, ask the following three questions about any film:
- Are there more than two female characters named?
- Do the two female characters have a conversation at any time?
- Is that conversation about anything other than a male character?
If the answer is yes to all three questions, the film passes the test. Based on a study of 1,794 films from 1970 to 2013, the test is complicated: almost half of the films have failed. Passing movies enjoyed a higher return on investment than those that weren’t.
Why? Perhaps because making films more recognizable increases their chances of success. Let’s not forget that half of all people who buy movie tickets are women.
Four ways to eradicate inequality
We don’t have to face Hollywood’s iniquities, we don’t uproot them. The choice is ours. Will we continue to let our children aspire to the stereotypes they see in the film? Or will we take concrete steps to move towards gender equality in Hollywood? Here are four ways we can move forward.
1. Support the inclusion pilot
“I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion pilot.” Frances McDormand used those words to close her acceptance speech at the 2018 Academy Awards. McDorman’s use of the “inclusion pilot” refers to the clause that actors and actresses may request to be added to their contracts. The inclusion pilot determines that the cast and crew of a film must represent a certain level of diversity.
2. Consider political solutions
Public policies can move our world towards gender equity by encouraging entertainment companies that favor inclusion. As states often extend tax incentives to companies to subsidize the costs of their projects, elected officials can add requirements to tax incentives that impose certain levels of gender equity between the cast and crew.
3. Focus on off-screen roles
The positive correlation between the genre of a movie director and the genre of characters on the screen presents another way for progress. Female-directed films have girls and women in 43% of the language roles, while male-directed films have girls and women in only 30.9% of the language roles. The same goes for writing teams. Films written by women include more girls and women in plots than films written by men, respectively 37.3% against 29.5%. These data suggest that gender equity behind the scenes helps strengthen gender equity on the screen.
4. Just add five
To quickly standardize gender representation in films, we should “add five” women to the scripts every year. Based on Dr. Stacy L. Smith’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative, we could achieve gender equality in four years if each new film added five extra roles for women. The initiative does not provide for filmmakers to remove or change male roles; rather, he advocates adding five women to the scripts.
We use movies to make our world a better place for everyone. We ask Hollywood to step up, prioritize inclusion and be a catalyst for progress.
Katica Roy is CEO and founder of Pipeline Equity.