To Hollywood, Men Are the Bigscreen Heroes

Women in Film and TV
Jasper Rietman

Given the chance, women prove they're just as capable on all movies, no matter the budget

The theme for this year’s Oscars was “Heroes in Hollywood.” Although the show referenced the subject with clips of predominantly male heroes, best actress winner Cate Blanchett pointedly noted in her acceptance speech that audiences also want to see women-centered stories, remarking, “The world is round, people.”

It seems that everyone but those at the top of the Hollywood hierarchy has gotten the memo that the big-budget film world remains desperately behind the curve on gender diversity. In 2013, female characters comprised only 15% of all protagonists and just 30% of all speaking characters in the top-grossing 100 films, according to a study released last week by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film (see for more on the study). Women of color were even less visible.

Behind the scenes, women accounted for 6% of directors and 10% of writers working on the top-grossing 250 films in 2013. These percentages are actually lower than those recorded in 1998. For all of the talk about gender diversity on various blogs and industry panels, little has changed in more than a decade. How can this be?

The fact is, there has been a profound lack of leadership and action on the issue by film studio heads and union executives. Typically, when journalists question studio execs about the dearth of women directors, they politely sidestep the question, listing the four or five such women they have ever worked with as proof that no such underemployment problem exists. So when Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal commented in a Forbes magazine article last year that “the whole system is geared for (women) to fail,” it seemed like the acknowledgement that many who had cited gender inequality — from both within and outside the industry — had been waiting for. By making that statement, Pascal publicly recognized the systemic failure of the studios and unions to institute practices that would enable women directors, writers and those in other behind-the-scenes roles to work more.

The community’s reluctance to right the skewed gender imbalance is curious given the fact that movies with female leads and women working behind the scenes are a win-win for all involved. As Blanchett pointed out, women are not a niche audience. They purchase 50% of all movie tickets and comprise 52% of moviegoers, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America. Films featuring females in leading roles interest boys and girls, men and women. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” had the biggest November debut of all time, and grossed $864 million worldwide. To date, Disney’s animated feature “Frozen,” headlined by a female protagonist and co-directed by a woman (Jennifer Lee) has seen its box office fortunes surpass $1 billion. “Gravity,” starring Sandra Bullock, has earned $703.3 million globally. We need leaders working at the major studios and unions who are willing to establish clear guidelines and practices that will result in greater numbers of women working behind the scenes and on screen.

Every indicator suggests there are plenty of talented, well-trained and ambitious women ready to work. When one considers film genres and venues that are more welcoming of women, gender balance — and the talent of women — becomes clearer: Women account for 39% of directors working on documentaries screening at high-profile film festivals around the country, according to the Center’s latest Independent Women study. Compare that with the aforementioned 6% directing top-grossing films produced and marketed primarily by the larger studios.

The lack of women on screen and behind the scenes is a big problem requiring big leadership and big solutions. We need some heroes.

Martha M. Lauzen is executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State U. Jennifer Siebel Newsom is the CEO and founder of the Representation Project, director of the documentary film “Miss Representation” and is married to California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

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  1. Rick Cimbalo says:

    Women are not believable kick-butt action heroes. Please Hollywood, stop pushing this. It’s really dumb and pushes suspension of disbelief way too far. In addition to being dumb and insulting to men and women alike, it robs young men of strong role models they need while possibly giving girls the silly idea that they can physically match a man twice their size and three times their strength, speed and endurance. Use examples like Ripley from Aliens or Sarah Connor from Terminator as strong female roles. Again, please stop with the female Rambo character,

  2. Laura says:

    great article x

  3. sdfghj says:

    shit, if m. night shyamalan can keep getting funded, surely some of those investors wouldn’t mind taking a chance on an unknown woman writer/director.

  4. jedi77 says:

    Im sorry, but the question answers itself:

    “In 2013, female characters comprised only 15% of all protagonists and just 30% of all speaking characters in the top-grossing 100 films”

    Right. So, what’s the problem? The cinemagoing public have spoken, and they predominantly want male leads. How can you blame top execs in Hollywood for the shortcommings of the public?

    Now if you had a statistic showing the samme gender differential ind the top 100 most expensive movies made, or the top 100 most advertised movies, then you could blame Hollywood, but as it is, the movies that make the big bucks are the ones the public wanted to see. The fault is in our own stars, not the filmmakers.

  5. Martin says:

    IN the natural order of things, men are better at making movies than women.

  6. bsbarnes says:

    How did Hollywood get to be this way? When did the Thin Man leave Nora Charles for a Pretty Woman in Chinatown? When did floozies replace flappers and flip the switch on common sense? United Artists was co-founded by Mary Pickford, for goodness’ sake! Did the Hayes Code put the kibosh on women getting their propers in Tinseltown? Barbara Stanwyck was the richest woman in America when she retired, am I the only one who remembers this? Jennifer Yuh Nelson directed Angelina Jolie, Dustin Hoffman and Jean Claude Van Damm in KUNG FU PANDA 2, and nobody complained when it made over 600 million dollars worldwide. If Los Angeles wants to keep film production local, it should offer tax incentives for films directed by women, how about that? Put your money where your diversity is, L.A.: show some leadership where the sun don’t shine, why don’cha? Because if you don’t think that Sandra Bullock was essentially directing HERSELF in zero GRAVITY, then you’ve had the Blanchett pulled over your eyes. Let’s show some love to the ladies, Hollywoodland, because the flood is coming and the door to the Ark is closing. It’s not too late! Heroes can wear high heels, dance backwards and look fierce doing it! Amen and pass the popcorn!

  7. Julienne says:

    You want a women’s-woman’s film? How about 200 women’s roles and one male character…with an all Female Crew. Female Director, female DP, 1st AC, female Keys in every department. That’s 500 females on the set of 1 film.

    Jim Fitzpatrick’s “THE LAST GUY ON EARTH.” I work for him. :)

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