Hey, remember back when Bridesmaids came out, and everybody was all, “It’s your social responsibility to support female-driven comedy,” and then it was a hit, so yay for funny ladies? And then The Hunger Games came out, and everybody was all, “It’s your social responsibility to support a female-driven blockbuster,” and then it was a hit, so yay for lady ass-kickers? Well, as it turns out, none of that mattered a lick, because according to a study released yesterday by the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, female representation in popular films is at its lowest level in five years. So thanks for nothing, Hollywood.
The study looked at the 100 highest-grossing 2012 movies, and then considered the percentage of female speaking roles in those films. Last year, that number was an embarrassing 28.4% — down from 32.8% three years ago, and, as the Los Angeles Times notes, “a number that has stayed relatively stagnant despite increased research attention to the topic and several high-profile box-office successes starring women.”
So why does that schism exist? Simply put, the exceptions get attention. We make a big deal when a breath of fresh air like Bridesmaids comes along but forget that every year we also get two braindead Adam Sandler vehicles where the only female role of note is a blankly smiling, blandly supportive wife. Katniss may be the star of The Hunger Games, but for every Collins adaptation, there are a dozen action blockbusters that only make room for women as eye candy. We only got Brave after more than a decade of male-led Pixar ensembles. And there’s certainly no big box-office equivalent to last year’s #5 and #13 movies, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Lincoln, each of which had two or fewer female roles.
And 2013 doesn’t look much more promising. Here’s what we’ve seen thus far in summer blockbuster season:
- Pain & Gain, which features two important female characters among Michael Bay’s usual bevy of bikinied beauties. One, played by Rebel Wilson, is mildly sympathetic, though the object of several jokes based on her weight. The other is a painfully naïve stripper named Sorina (Bar Paly), who is passed from Mark Wahlberg’s character to Dwayne Johnson’s like a completed video game, and is the subject of the film’s most reprehensible joke (and that’s quite the competition): as Mark Wahlberg’s nouveau riche thief conducts a neighborhood crime prevention workshop with his neighbors, he asks Sorina to play a potential rape victim in their little dramatization. “Who’ll play the rapist?” he asks the assembled yuppie couples, and all the husbands volunteer eagerly. Haw haw!
- Iron Man 3 features two important female characters: a scientist played by Rebecca Hall, whom Tony Stark once slept with (she gets three or so scenes), and his current girlfriend and the company’s president, Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow). She’s a smart, independent businesswoman, but when she’s kidnapped and rescued by Tony, she spends the back half of the movie clad in a sports bra and yoga pants.
- Star Trek Into Darkness has two women as well: Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, who is tough and smart, although most of her screen time is devoted to the particulars of her romantic relationship with Spock, and the new character of Dr. Carol Marcus (Alice Eve), a brilliant scientist who nonetheless gets an underwear scene that plays like the dictionary definition of “gratuitous.”
The coming summer blockbuster season doesn’t look much more promising: we’ve got the latest chapter in the notoriously objectifying Fast and Furious franchise, the male-driven buddy comedies The Hangover Part III, Grown-Ups 2, and The Internship, and the male-driven buddy action flicks The Lone Ranger, 2 Guns, and R.I.P.D. In this summer’s movies, ladies can look pretty, but they’re mostly confined to the sidelines. If audiences would like to experience female characters with any more depth than that, they’re going to have to head to the art house.
So, why is Hollywood continuing to fail at representing women, despite recent high-profile examples that female-driven movies can be blockbusters? First and foremost, it’s impossible to overstate the extent to which men dominate movies, not only in front of the camera, but behind it. It’s even worse back there, in fact; as another recent Annenberg study found, the past decade has seen only 41 women make films that landed in the year-end top 100 lists. Put simply: the male-to-female ratio among studio filmmakers is 15.24:1. The stats are about as bleak for female screenwriters, so there’s your first problem — there aren’t enough women given opportunities to create complex roles for women, and most male screenwriters and directors are either afraid to write good roles for women or bad at it. So you end up with female non-characters who solely exist in proximity to the more important male characters, as girlfriends and wives and possible girlfriends and possible wives and maybe a bitchy boss; the relationships of substance and heft (like Kirk and Spock’s in Into Darkness, or Wahlberg and Johnson’s in Pain & Gain) are instead platonic male friendships.
And the other excuse that you’ll often hear is the old “hey, we’re just giving people what they want” standby — that the reason we see so many movies aimed squarely at teenage boys and thus unconcerned with girls (EW GROSS COOTIES) is that they’re the audience that’s going to the movies, so Hollywood is merely making the comic book flicks and gross-out comedies that they demand. Trouble is, that notion is bullshit. Earlier this year, the MPAA released their annual statistical rundown of who goes to the movies — and guess what, women go. More than men. (It’s not the first time they’ve discovered this.) According to the report:
Females have comprised a larger share of moviegoers (people who went to a movie at the cinema at least once in the year) than males during 2009-2012. The trend is relatively consistent, but in 2012 there was an increase of 1 percentage point in the share of females that attended the cinema (52%) relative to 2011.
So the conventional wisdom that “movies have to be geared towards men” is a canard. More women go to movies than men — men (fanboys, particularly) are just louder about what they want to see. And that’s what has to change. Hollywood is constantly worrying about falling ticket revenues, but the fact of the matter is, they’re failing to serve what is plainly, clearly the statistical majority of their audience. Fifty-two percent of the people in the audience are women, but only 28% of the people on screen are, and that’s not a problem that can be solved by a half-dozen catch-all “women’s pictures” per year. If Hollywood is serious about monetizing their audience, they might want to consider putting characters into their product that the majority of that audience can engage with.