Gender and age inequality in film…and all that jazz

Posted by on Jun 25, 2010 in Work/occupation | 3 comments

Back in March, 2009, I wrote a post about the lack of roles for middle-aged women in film. Of the many inspirations for the topic, the most important was that a good friend had just had her screenplay (which largely focuses on a middle-aged female cast) rejected by the powers that be in Hollywood.

Hence, I was not surprised to learn that findings from a study released earlier this year by the USC Annenburg School for Communication and Journalism demonstrated that women continue to comprise the minority both on the screen and behind the camera, except when they are driving decisions, e.g., as directors, producers and even as writers. After analyzing the top 100-grossing films of 2007 for prevalence/nature of male and female speaking roles, gender of behind the scenes workers and specific characteristics driving the story, the researchers found that:

  • Less than a third (29.9%) of 4,379 speaking characters/roles were female
  • Less than 20% (n=18) of the films sampled featured a solo female as a main character
  • Only 2.7% (n=3) of the directors, 11.2% (n=35) of the writers and 20.5% (n=174) of the producers were women; in other words, women comprised only 17% of all directors, writers and producers of these films, while men accounted for 83%
  • Films with at least one female director tended to depict a greater percentage of girls and women on screen (44.6% or n=70) although in this analysis, there were only 3 directors. The researchers state they they observed a similar interaction between the sex of the director and number of women on screen when analyzing Academy Award Best Picture nominated films between the years 19777-2006. Conversely, when men were the film directors, the percentage of women onscreen declined by almost 50% (to 29.3% or n= 1,238)
  • To a lesser extent, having female writers or producers tended to feature more women on-screen

More disturbing, women who played on-screen parts tended to function as eye candy, and were thin, physically attractive and wore more revealing clothing. This changed when they were in leading roles and given worthier pursuits, such as fighting societal and personal injustices. Not surprisingly, however, when the leading females were lost, they tended to turn to men or employment to fill their void. Female relationships, when explored, tended to provide conflict within the story and did not necessarily portray the supportive side of these relationships.

One thing I find especially interesting about this research is that it didn’t focus much on age divisions except for with regards to how women are portrayed on screen. In this regard, the researchers noted that the films that portrayed women were more concerrned with their nubile qualities, meaning that they were overwhelmingly young and sexy. When age was taken into account, women between the agers of 40 and 64 only comprised less than a quarter (23.8%) of the characters while women between the ages of 21 and 39 comprised more than half (53.2%). (Note that comparable figures for men were 38.6% and 44.1%, respectively.)

Not only does the gender gap in entertainment continue to exist within many layers of the industry, but it doesn’t appear to have changed much over several decades, despite the inroads made by women in other areas of society.

Clearly,  women need to leverage what little power they have in the industry to change this paradigm. Still, one troubling factor remains – middle age is equivalent to “has been,” even when the director, writer or producer is a woman. Women like Meryl Streep or Helen Mirren are not even a dime a dozen but exceptions to every rule that’s been made, at least when it comes to entertainment. I’ve read numerous articles on women in television news being pushed out their jobs because of their age.

Don’t you think that we we need to step back and ask ourselves how an empowered woman can better empower all of her female peers?


  1. 6-25-2010

    This is a very interesting topic. I appreciate that the statistics are what they are, but I am interested in exploring WHY they are this way.

    I’ve spent more than 20 years in the production industry and it’s all too true that it’s a male-dominated business. At one time, I was one of two female camerapersons in my city. It was always an interesting experience to show up at a press conference or be in the middle of a news scrum and be the only woman. I’ve had more than my share of sexist comments from obnoxious camera jocks. I learned quickly how to put them in their place (do a better job). My thinking on why there aren’t more women in the technical roles is simply because women are not necessarily as inclined to be in these areas. They tend more towards writing, producing, etc. That’s just how it is. My experience in this business, other than a few sexist jerks I’ve encountered, is that women are given as many opportunities as men – whether they want to direct, or be a lighting director. Perhaps the statistics are just showing that the inclination isn’t there.

    As for female roles in film, we have to remember that the feature film industry spends millions test marketing to audiences and in the end, its ALL about money in the bank. If test audiences show that the sexy, nubile woman in a supporting role is going to sell more tickets than a middle aged woman in a leading role, then Hollywood is obviously going to choose the former. It’s that simple. Is it fair? I suppose one could argue it’s not. But giving the audience what they want is going to make the production companies more money and money make the world go round – especially in Hollywood.

    I think the solution, on both counts, is for individuals to make their choices. Want to be a woman in the film and TV industry? I say go for it. Make your own opportunities. Keep submitting your scripts. Show them how good you are. Then it won’t matter if you’re a woman or a man. You’re good, you’ll get the gig. If you feel as if you’re being treated unfairly because of gender, speak up.

    As audiences, we need to choose more carefully the kinds of films we support. Me? I’m big into independent flicks, which tend to have more female writers, producers, directors and leading roles. Hollywood? Not so much.

    Ultimately, as women, it’s our responsibility to ensure fair treatment and opportunities. Be good at what you do. Vote with your feet.

    Thanks for writing on this important topic, Liz. Sorry for the long format comment. 🙂

    • 6-25-2010

      Suze – Thanks for taking the time to comment. You make some really critical points, not only about women taking on the more technical roles but also, about making opportunities. Like any field, it’s critical that women carpe diem if they want it. Nothing is going to change unless we take charge and start making that change. And speaking up? As someone who’s dedicated her life to speaking up to get what she wants, I couldn’t agree more! “Vote with your feet.” THANK YOU!

  2. 6-26-2010

    It’s not surprising that the best looking women get the roles. That’s how this world is. Good looking people have better lives. That’s why you should try your hardest to get in shape and exercise. Your overall life will improve tremendously.


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