The Current Representation of Women in the Film Industry

After the invention of film cameras the first woman to be considered a true screen actress was Lillian Gish, making her screen debut in the 1912 American silent film, An Unseen Enemy directed by D.W. Griffith. Although today there are no laws prohibiting women from acting, and women have won awards and received recognition for their talent and ability in the same way men have, the question of whether there is equal representation of the sexes in the industry, and what exactly that representation is, is still unignorably relevant.

Each year the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism’s Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative produces a report examining gender and race/ethnicity on screen and behind the camera across the 100 top-grossing fictional films. ‘Inequality in 700 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race, & LGBT Status from 2007 to 2014’ is a report examining the research acquired from seven years of analysis. The research showed that ‘only 30.2% of the 30,835 speaking characters evaluated were female’. As a drama school student fast approaching graduation and therefore the reality of the industry I’ve been training for, I do not find these statistics encouraging. As a white, middle class, Western woman I realise that I am incredibly privileged. However this privilege is nothing, it seems, in comparison to the white, middle/upper class, Western male who makes up the majority of the other 69.8% of speaking roles the research evaluated. 

“In 2014, no female actors over 45 years of age performed a lead or co-lead role”.  Dr. Martha M. Lauzen, who has written several studies on women’s representation in the industry reported that “The majority of female characters [in the 100 top-grossing films of 2013] were in their 20s (23%) and 30s (30%)” . These figures are not the same for men, with males aged 40 and over accounting for “53% of all male characters”. The speaking roles performed by women in the top-grossing films are therefore more likely to be played by younger women. Sofia Coppola became the third woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director in 2003 for Lost in Translation. All of her films to date have mainly focused on female protagonists, however they have only featured women under 30. When asked in an interview with Tavi Gevinson what continually draws her specifically to the subject of teenagers, she said “I always like characters who are in the midst of a transition and trying to find their place in the world and their identity. That is the most heightened when you’re a teenager”. Coppola’s films focus on young woman so she can explore the transitions we all experience in our teenage years artistically. However artistic exploration of a different, not age-specific subject should not be something that excludes women over the age of 40. The film industry has an unexplained fascination with youth that some consider harmful. Carolyn Gregoire has said “obsession with youth also reflects and perpetuates a widespread societal fear of aging”. However, this obsession with youth seems to apply mainly to women. If the pool of women mainly shown on screen is limited to young women, then at least this pool should be a diverse one. However further research shows that this is not the case.

From Dr. Lauzen’s studies we see that in the 100 top-grossing films of 2013, “73% of all female characters were Caucasian”. With the other 27% left to represent women of all other ethnicities, it was as likely for a moviegoer in 2013 to see an Asian woman as it was to see a supernatural character as both comprised 3% of female characters. The nominations for the 87th Academy Awards held in 2015 caused outrage over potential whitewashing and the topic of lack of diversity became very popular. The following year all actors nominated for the 88th Academy Awards were Caucasian, despite several successful films featuring non-White leads. The backlash of this caused some actors to boycott the ceremony and many to accuse Hollywood of being racist.  Actor and comedian Chris Rock who presented the event said, “You’re damn right Hollywood’s racist”.

However, despite recent events inspiring global campaigns to diversify the industry and The Academy president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, saying she was “heartbroken and frustrated” by the lack of diversity and “it’s time for big changes” vowing that these “dramatic” changes would reform the organisation, some, such as Rory Carroll, have said they “think the protests are overzealous political correctness. And others doubt Academy members will support meaningful changes”. Charlotte Rampling, one of the nominees for the 2016 Best Actress for her role in the British drama 45 Years, from director Andrew Haigh, said while in an interview with French Radio network Europe 1, “one can never really know, but perhaps the black actors did not deserve to make the final list” and that the anger and backlash from the all-White nominees list was “racist to whites”. Although the publicity recently given to the topic of diversifying the industry is thought by many to be a positive step in the right direction, this step should not be one that is exclusive to male actors. The actors used as examples for who should have been nominated for an Oscar in 2016 were all male (Idris Elba for Beasts of No Nation, Michael B Jordan for Creed), and although white men dominate the top-grossing films, they do not dominate as much as white women. However, even when women of all ethnicities are represented, they are not always represented well.

 According to the Annenberg study “In 2014, females of all ages were more likely than males to be shown in sexy attire… with some nudity… and referenced as physically attractive” and “female teens (13-20 year olds) were just as likely to be sexualised as young adult females (21-39 year olds)”. Not only does there appear to be a fascination with youth on screen, but this fascination seems to be based on looks and at times the sexualisation of these looks. Dr. Lauzen’s research shows that in the 100 top-grossing films of 2013 “female characters were more likely than male characters to have an identifiable marital status” and “a higher proportion of male than female characters had an identifiable occupational status”. In a Ted Talk about the representation of women in pop culture, Tavi Gevinson discussed the misconstrued idea of what makes a strong female character, criticising the “two-dimensional super women who maybe have one quality that’s played up a lot… she plays her sexuality up a lot and it’s seen as power” calling them “basically cardboard characters… When in actuality women are complicated, women are multifaceted, not because women are crazy, but because people are crazy, and women happen to be people”. Statistics suggest that women are most likely to be represented on screen for one characteristic or feature (either a relationship, or a job), but rarely both, which can therefore make them seem one-dimensional which is problematic because “people expect women to be that easy to understand, and women are mad at themselves for not being that simple”.

Although the representation of women in the top-grossing films appears to be lacking in age range, diversity, and fully formed multifaceted characters, this does not necessarily extend to the entire film industry. The independent film industry seems to produce more female characters who do not fit within the under 30, white, one dimensional character type that repeatedly appears in top-grossing films. Patricia Arquette won the Best Supporting Actress award at the 2015 87th Academy Awards for her role as Olivia Evens in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. The footage for the film was recorded over 12 years from 2002-2014. Arquette was 34 years old when they began filming and by the time she received an Oscar for her performance in Boyhood she was 46. Her character was a single mother who went back to college to get a better education and then went on to become a lecturer at a college. She balanced emotional ties to her children and partners throughout the film, with a career, and also other burdens and hardships she experienced throughout the 12 year period. Unfortunately other independent films which, like Boyhood, feature a character like Patricia Arquette’s Oliva Evens, do not become one of the top-grossing films of the year. Progress can be seen on the small screen with successful award winning television programmes such as Lena Dunham’s Girls, and Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black featuring a mainly female cast who are refreshingly diverse in age, and ethnicity and who are all completely multifaceted. Why the popular television industry seems to be opening up to a place for such stories and characters, but the film industry still seems reluctant remains to be explained.

If the first ‘true’ screen actress was hailed as such 104 years ago, the speed at which the progress of the representation of women on screen in the film industry has occurred till now seems oddly slow. In the past 104 years women who live in the parts of the world where the top-grossing films are made have won the right to vote, receive the same qualifications as men through education, divorce, and have their own back accounts. To have an artistic industry which is famous for being liberal, but yet is, in a sense, old-fashioned about its representation of contemporary women, seems illogical. If the world is ready to see women that have both families and careers be in positions of power but not exclusively be White and not be limited if they are under 30 years old, then the industry should not only represent this too, but go one step further to change people’s conceptions of women to enable the progress that still needs to happen for true equality of the sexes to become a reality. If progress cannot be made in what is already understood as a liberal artistic industry, then what hope is there for the rest of the world?