clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Hollywood's devastating gender divide, explained

Actress Jennifer Lawrence reacts after winning the Best Actress award for 'Silver Linings Playbook' during the Oscars held at the Dolby Theatre on February 24, 2013
Actress Jennifer Lawrence reacts after winning the Best Actress award for 'Silver Linings Playbook' during the Oscars held at the Dolby Theatre on February 24, 2013
Kevin Winter/Getty

When we think of Hollywood, we think of women in large meticulously designed dresses on red carpets giving anecdotes about their upcoming movie or who made their jewelry. We think of love stories and galas and Marilyn Monroe in that white dress, and Audrey Hepburn in her pearls. But women aren't really the heart of Hollywood; they aren't even half. On the red carpet, women are the stars of America's film industry, but on the screen they only star in 15 percent of films. And that percentage hasn't gotten any better since the 1930s.

Hollywood has a gender problem.

The movies it produces vastly underrepresent women, and portray them in ways that place them as inferior to their male costars. This goes back to the earliest years of film, when a misguided notion that viewers prefer male leads and a now-obscure set of internal censorship rules institutionalized gender problems the industry has yet to address, problems that have implications well beyond movie theaters.

We all know movie stars. They play iconic roles that engrain them in the public imagination. Their words are listened to. Their actions are watched carefully. Whether we like it or not, movie stars define our cultural references for generations. And that's why it's so important that those cultural touchstones be inclusive instead of exclusive.

In a perfect Hollywood, discussions of "representation" — a better balance of diversity in movies and on TV — wouldn't be necessary. In that perfect Hollywood, the protagonists of movies and TV shows would be as diverse in terms of race, economics, sexuality, and gender as the world is. So would the people behind the scenes.

But the real Hollywood is still an old boys club. White men are by far the most visible and iconic members of the film and TV industry. Gender representation is dismal: just 10.7 percent of movies produced between 2007 and 2012 featured casts that had equal men and women.

Here's everything you need to know about Hollywood's massive gender divide:

Julianne Moore in Still Alice

Women still only make up 15 percent of Hollywood's leading roles

In some regards, 2013 was a banner year for women in film. The year brought us The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Frozen, and Gravity: all female-led films that landed in the top five grossing movies of the year. Gravity won seven Oscars and its star, Sandra Bullock, was nominated. It was, by all evidence, a landmark year for women in film. Jennifer Lawrence was the hottest new star in ages.

Despite all this success, though, women still only accounted for 15 percent of leading roles in 2013 . On top of that, only 30 percent of speaking roles in movies went to women. And those characters too often are placed in positions of inferiority or submission. They don't make their own decisions or control their own destinies.

Women are also paid less. The top 10 highest-paid actors from 2013 made a collective $465 million dollars. The top 10 highest-paid actresses made $181 million. The highest-paid actress, Angelina Jolie with $33 million, made the same amount of money as the ninth and 10th highest-paid men, Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington.

They may be front and center on the red carpet and in media coverage, but women are a huge minority within the industry. Leading roles are only the tip of the iceberg. Women are underrepresented behind the scenes as well.

Grace Kelly

Grace Kelly at the 1955 Oscars (Michael Ochs Archives/Getty)

What is gender representation, exactly?

When we talk about "gender representation" in Hollywood, we're talking about two things:

  1. The percentage of people on the screen and producing what's on the screen who are are women.
  2. The ways in which those women are represented.

Hollywood fails on both. And to discuss that, it's time to look at the Bechdel Test.

Bridesmaids

Bridesmaids passes the Bechdel Test

What is the Bechdel Test?

It's easy to figure out the raw percentage of women onscreen and behind the scenes. It's the question of how those women appear onscreen that's trickier to quantify.

The Bechdel Test is a litmus test used mostly to determine whether women are present in a movie as fully human characters, or only as plot devices for the male characters to comment upon. The term originated in 1985 in Alison Bechdel's comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. Bechdel herself says the idea for the test came from a roommate.

To pass the test, all a film has to do is answer yes to three questions:

  1. Are there more than two named female characters?
  2. Do the two female characters have a conversation at any point?
  3. Is that conversation about anything other than a male character?

That's it.

While this seems like it should a shockingly simple test to pass, very few films manage to do so. In a study of 1,794 movies from 1970 to 2013, Walter Hickey of FiveThirtyEight found that almost half failed it.

538 Gender chart

A chart of Bechdel Test passing movies over time (538)

Of course, in real life, women have conversations about work, life, and a myriad of other topics that have nothing whatsoever to do with men. But in movies, those conversations aren't as common.

Think about last year's American Hustle, an Academy Award nominated film about con artists. Despite featuring two female characters — played by big stars Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams, no less — with full personalities and major roles in the plot, American Hustle barely passes the Bechdel Test, as Hickey points out, because of one short scene, in which Lawrence's character talks to a politician's wife about nail polish. Many other movies don't even have that.

Were women always underrepresented in film?

In short, no. Women actually dominated Hollywood from 1917 to 1923. One of the very first narrative films, La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy),was shot by a woman named Alice Guy-Blaché in 1896. She started her own studio and helmed more than 1,000 films over the course of her career. One of her films was even linked with audio decades before the first "talkie."

She has largely been written out of history in favor of contemporaneous male directors like the Lumiére Brothers and Edwin S. Porter, and she isn't alone. Lois Weber and Dorothy Arzner were famous female directors in the early 1900s. One of the most successful screenwriters in American film history is Frances Marion, who was the highest paid screenwriter in the 1920s and 1930s. Yet, their names aren't in the history books.

For seven years of American history (1917 — 1923), women dominated the film industry. During that period, as Jane Gaines wrote in her graduate film-history study at Harvard, women were more powerful in cinema than in just about any other American business. After 1927, though, women disappeared from behind-the-scenes work, and began appearing much more frequently as love-interests on the screen.

"The commercial conditions which gave rise to the production of these fictions by women turn out to be the same conditions that produced their disappearance later on," Gaines said in a presentation of her research.

There was no set hierarchy in the film industry in those days. For a woman to move from secretary to producer was a lateral move. Once the industry was unionized and specifications were set for which roles were more important in a production, women were rapidly excluded.

Jean Harlow

Portrait of Jean Harlow, a famous Hollywood actress, in 1937 (Keystone-France Gamma-Keystone/Getty)

How did the 1934 Hays Code subjugate women in film?

Before the Hays Code was passed in 1934, actresses used their fame to take roles that challenged gender norms and didn't conform to feminine expectations. There were even silent Suffragette films. However, after the Hays Code, which determined moral guidelines for the industry, passed, roles with agency for women became few and far between.

In 1922, after a couple of risqué films, such as The Queen of Sheba, the Motion Picture Association appointed Presbyterian elder Will H. Hays to fix-up Hollywood's sinful image. Hays, who had previously run Warren G. Harding's campaign for president, left his job as the postmaster general to renovate the image of the industry.

As president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (later the MPAA), Hays passed the "Motion Picture Production Code." It set ground rules for what was and wasn't appropriate on the screen and what producers were to "be careful" of including on screen.

After the Hays Code passed, roles for women onscreen and behind the scenes dropped dramatically. It inserted heavy regulations about women onscreen that included standards of "morality."

Here are a few of the don'ts that particularly affected women:

  • Any licentious or suggestive nudity — in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
  • Scenes of actual childbirth — in fact or in silhouette;
  • Sex hygiene.

This is especially obvious in the section of the code that warns producers to "be careful" about including things like "the deliberate seduction of girls," "first-night scenes," "rape or attempted rape," and "excessive or lustful kissing." By the mid-30's the code became a way to censor movies with women's bodies or women in roles outside of marital bliss.

In 1934, nude scenes were edited out of Tarzan and his Mate. The 1943 western The Outlaws was kept from theaters for years because the advertisements focused too much on Jane Russell's bust. The effects of the ban went well beyond censoring women's bodies and instead limited how they were portrayed across the board.

How does the Legacy of the Hays Code still shape Hollywood today?

"Characterizations of women in post-code films were indeed less brazen, less sexual, and far less powerful," Andi Zeiser writes in her book Feminism and Pop Culture: Seal Studies. "The new female figure in film was one who was somehow imperiled — by love, by sickness or by circumstance — and it was around this figure that a new genre of film called 'the woman's picture' revolved."

Such films were popular in the '40s, '50s, and '60s. Unsurprisingly, they most often fail the Bechdel Test. They fail because "women's films" generally focused on love, marriage, and family, leaving women with very little to talk about on screen that wasn't men. And the code did not allow for conversations about love, marriage, and family to veer from the standard depictions of marital bliss.

Martha M. Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, told the New York Times that the percentage of female speaking roles in Hollywood has remained virtually the same since the 1940s. At that time, the percentage of women actors with speaking roles on the silver screen hovered around 25 to 28 percent. In 2013, 30 percent of speaking roles in film went to women.

The Hays Code was revoked in 1968 in favor of the movie ratings system, but many of the standards it set for how women are portrayed in movies have carried past it's revocation. Since the Hays Code's initial inception, the representation of women in film has barely improved.

MJ

Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games franchise

Why is this important?

Representation onscreen is so important because Hollywood films reach people all over the globe, and they significantly impact the way that we see women in the world. What we see on the silver screen, ultimately, tells us what to believe about ourselves, and the world around us.

"The fact is — women are seriously under-represented across nearly all sectors of society around the globe, not just on-screen, but for the most part we're simply not aware of the extent. And media images exert a powerful influence in creating and perpetuating our unconscious biases," said Geena Davis, Founder & Chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media in a press release.

Because female characters are more likely to be sexualized in movies, that suggests to young women viewing them that women are valued for their appearance at a different level than men are. Because male characters are more likely to have high-powered, important jobs, it reinforces the idea that women can't have those jobs. Pop culture often suggests how we should see ourselves, and film too often suggests women should see themselves as supporting characters.

"Such films bear a profound role in our lives and help shape our ideas about social, cultural, political and economic issues," Reema Dutt wrote in her study "Behind the Curtain: Women's Representations in Contemporary Hollywood." "Films are peppered with messages that reach audiences far and wide. These messages contribute to our perceptions of the world, and in relation to this study, our perception about women."

In a USC Annenberg study of the Top 500 films from 2007 to 2012, researchers found that men were shown in sexy attire on screen 7 percent of the time. Women, however, were shown as such 31.6 percent of the time. In addition, 9.4 percent of men on screen were shown naked or partially naked, compared to 31 percent of women.

Dutt uses the character of Hermione (played by Emma Watson) from the Harry Potter series as an example of how women often end up being forced into an idea of femininity that is driven more by men's needs than by what a woman might actually do. "Hermione’s character began as an empowered 21st century woman," Dutt says, "who eventually fulfills what is considered to be a woman’s traditional gender role."

All of this says nothing about the onscreen problems of sexual and racial diversity in roles played by women. Over the last decade, the number of roles given to African-American, Latina, and Asian actresses has barely changed at all. In 2013, they accounted for, respectively, 14 percent, 5 percent, and 2 percent of all female characters. Those figures are almost the same as they were in 2002.

racial background women in film

Why do these ideas persist in Hollywood?

In her speech accepting the best actress award at the 2014 Academy Awards for her work in Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett ridiculed those in Hollywood "who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences."

This conventional wisdom pops up all the time in Hollywood. Viewers, its proponents say, don't want to watch women. Or they might use its youth-oriented flip side: girls will watch movies about boys, but boys won't watch movies about girls.

When presented with a female-led film that fails, producers in Hollywood (usually men) don't blame the film or its creators; they blame the fact that the lead role was played by a woman. "Once again," a Hollywood expert told Huffington Post in reference to 2011's Sucker Punch, "this proves that audiences won't go to an action movie that stars women."

Linda Holmes wrote for NPR about her frustrations with the movie industry and the continued belief that a successful female driven movie is a surprise:

They put up Bridesmaids, we went. They put up Pitch Perfect, we went. They put up The Devil Wears Prada, which was in two-thousand-meryl-streeping-oh-six, and we went (and by "we," I do not just mean women; I mean we, the humans), and all of it has led right here, right to this place. Right to the land of zippedy-doo-dah. You can apparently make an endless collection of high-priced action flops and everybody says "win some, lose some" and nobody decides that They Are Poison, but it feels like every "surprise success" about women is an anomaly and every failure is an abject lesson about how we really ought to just leave it all to The Rock.

Holmes's frustration is echoed by female writers, producers, and actresses in Hollywood. For example: Jennifer Lawrence, Jill Soloway, Nicole Kidman, Emma Watson, Jennifer Garner, Mila Kunis, and Tina Fey have all said similar things.

Unsurprisingly, women, who make up approximately half of the population in the United States, purchase approximately half of all movie tickets. Also unsurprisingly, women are willing to pay to see other women on the screen.

The money is there:

female heros chart

Movies that pass the Bechdel Test, Hickey at FiveThirtyEight found, actually have a higher return on investment than movies that don't, regardless of their box office performance.

A great example of this disparity is Angelina Jolie's 2014 summer blockbuster Maleficent, which performed very well at the box office despite getting little of the recognition more male-oriented blockbusters received.

"Maleficent was marketed and aimed squarely at a female audience," Anne Thompson, a movie critic for Indiewire, told Vox in August. "There is an argument to be made that maybe Hollywood is coming around to the idea that they should include 50 percent of the population in their decisions."

bigelow

Katheryn Bigelow won the Oscar for Best Director for her movie The Hurt Locker (Kevin Winter/Getty)

How are things behind the scenes?

In the history of the Academy Awards, just four women have been nominated for the Best Director award: Lina Wertmüller in 1976, Jane Campion in 1994, Sofia Coppola in 2004, and Kathryn Bigelow in 2010. Bigelow won, for her war drama The Hurt Locker. In 85 years, just seven female producers have won the Best Picture award, and all of them co-produced with men. In 73 years, just eight women have won for Best Original Screenplay.

All of this makes sense once you remember that 77 percent of Oscar voters are male.

"If there's gender inertia behind the scenes, you will find gender inertia onscreen," Martha M. Lauzen  told the New York Times.

In 2000, the gender breakdown for behind-the-scenes employment in the top 250 films was 83 percent men and 17 percent women. Today, women make up 16 percent of producers, directors, and writers in Hollywood. That statistic has remained the same since 1998. That means that for every woman behind the camera, there are roughly five men.

A recently released study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University of women's roles within the industry in 2014 paints a bleak picture for women behind the scenes. They make up:

  • 13 percent of directors
  • 25 percent of writers
  • 23 percent of executive producers
  • 43 percent of producers
  • 17 percent of editors

Women behind the camera, according to a USC Annenberg study, are more likely to include a woman in their movie.

annenberg chart

Graph courtesy of the USC Annenberg 2012 study. Data includes the Top 500 films made between 2007 and 2012

The Annenberg study concluded that because having a woman behind the scenes increased the likelihood that women would be included in the movie and portrayed in a realistic way, "advocates for women in Hollywood may want to focus on increasing the number of females onscreen as well as those behind the camera."

tina and amy

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler are writers, producers, directors, and actresses (

Is any of this getting any better?

Of the 132 movies released in the summer of 2014, one was co-directed by a woman.

"It's really a writing and imagination question," Indiewire's Anne Thompson told Vox in August. "Men are really uncomfortable with it [writing female characters]. So we really need more women who can think and direct and write about women in a complex way."

Hollywood may trot out a star like Jennifer Lawrence consistently enough for the viewing population to forget or never even realize that her parts are almost always written, designed, and directed by a man, or that all of her co-workers are men.

Those demanding changes in gender representation take that as their starting position. Fifteen percent of leading roles, they say, is not enough. Thirty percent of speaking parts is not enough. And 16 percent of behind-the-scenes creators is not enough.

But perhaps these proponents' most potent argument is this: women make up 50 percent of the population. So why don't they make up 50 percent of Hollywood as well?

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.