Will Hollywood’s depressing treatment of women ever change?

This film image released by Lionsgate shows Jennifer Lawrence in a scene from
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in a scene from “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” (AP Photo/Lionsgate, Murray Close)

It’s the time of year when a host of organizations release their findings about how the movie industry treats women both behind the camera and in front of it, and as usual, the results are depressing.

Martha Lauzen, the executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, published the latest of her “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World” studies today, and the results are typically dismal. Of the 100 top-grossing movies of 2013, women made up just 15 percent of main characters. 73 percent of all female characters are white–as Lauzen wrote in the report, “Moviegoers were as likely to see an other-worldly female as they were to see an Asian female character.” Female characters are younger than their male counterparts, too. 54 percent of female characters are under 40, while 58 percent of male characters were in their thirties and forties. And on screen, women work less than men. 78 percent of male characters have jobs, while just 60 percent of female characters do.

It’s easy to despair at an industry that treats women like we’re invisible, and is willing to tell some of our stories only when we’re young, hot, white, and underemployed. But rather than being stunned into submission year after year by these figures, I asked Lauzen and Stacy Smith, the director of the Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism where these figures come from — and whether there’s any prospect of changing them.

Lauzen and Smith agreed that one of the culprits driving down the number of female characters is simple, supposedly benign advice given to creative writers of all kinds: Write what you know. That’s meant to be an injunction that guides writers towards authentic insights drawn from life and research, and away from stiff, mawkish attempts to conjure up worlds and characters without having thought carefully about them first. But this maxim, while wise in its particulars, can end up discouraging writers from reaching beyond their experiences.

“Having lived their lives as males, men tend to create male characters,” Lauzen says. “Having lived their lives as females, women tend to create female characters. Of course, there are exceptions.” As a result, Smith explains, the dominance of male writers — they write about 85 percent of movies, according to her research — produces a predictable result.  “It should not be any surprise that they are telling dynamic, engaging stories about men,” Smith says.

Certain trends in the treatment of female characters also tend to reinforce each other in negative ways. Lauzen found that there’s an age gap in movies: Female characters are predominantly in their twenties or thirties, while male characters are frequently in their thirties or forties.

“Favoring female characters in their twenties and thirties has some interesting consequences for the amount of personal and professional power a character is likely to wield,” she explains. “When writers and filmmakers keep female characters young, they also limit the amount of (believable) power that character is likely to possess. I think we have to recognize that our culture is currently grappling with how to react to powerful females, in real life and in film.”

Similarly, Smith notes that the occupations of characters who appear on screen may drive down gender diversity.

“Many of those,” particularly among supporting or background characters, Smith explains, “are defined by a particular occupation—like law enforcement, military, or politics.  Occupational stereotypes that fall along gendered lines may be informing whether these characters are written as males or females.” In other words, if you have a cop make a fleeting appearance, or have your characters walk through a military base, it may not occur to writers and directors to think about the gender mix. Instead, they’ll simply default to putting men in those roles.

There are some promising signs, however. When Smith and her colleagues studied the box office results for movies released in 2007, they found a small, but not statistically significant negative relationship between whether a movie had a female lead and its American box office. But overseas, a female lead could drive box office in a positive direction.

Smith is cautious about her conclusions, noting that they’d need more years of data to say for sure that female leads are a consistent draw overseas. And she told me “It should be noted that gender of the lead character was less important than other factors such as production budgets, distribution density and story strength.”

But this seems like a promising line of inquiry. Disney’s animated fairy tale “Frozen” became the first movie directed by a woman to bring more than $1 billion, in part because of strong international ticket sales. The audience for “The Hunger Games” franchise, about a young woman fighting against a dictatorial government in a post-apocalyptic America, rose internationally from the first movie to the second, even as the domestic box office stayed relatively consistent. “The Hunger Games” sold $276.5 million worth of tickets internationally: the sequel, “Catching Fire” raked in $433 million. Similarly, over the course of the “Twilight” franchise’s run, the international box office for those films rose from $397.9 million for the first installment to $832.6 million for the last.

Smith and her colleagues have another study on the performance of female characters coming out this fall. If their initial findings, that female characters can produce better financial results for a movie abroad, are born out in this new set of data, that would be a radical challenge to Hollywood’s assumptions what works and what doesn’t.

And that challenge would come at a time when the international markets are critically important to what gets greenlit and what doesn’t. As the producer Lynda Obst wrote in her recent book Sleepless In Hollywood, “International has come to be 70 percent of our total revenues in the New Abnormal. When I began in the Old Abnormal it was 20 percent.” The initial rush to satisfy that audience has meant an uptick of superhero movies and projects like Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim” (an homage to Japanese kaiju, or “strange creature” movies). But if it turns out international audiences crave female leads, the repercussions could be enormous.

Some studios have started focusing more on female leads of their own initiative. Lionsgate, where Nina Jacobson produces “The Hunger Games” franchise, has been a first mover. Smith’s analysis of the top 100-grossing movies in 2012 found that the speaking characters in Lionsgate movies were 42.8 percent female. Lionsgate had hits across multiple genres — in addition to “The Hunger Games” and the final “Twilight” film, the studio scored hits with Tyler Perry’s “Madea’s Witness Protection,” Joss Whedon’s horror riff “The Cabin In The Woods,” and ensemble romcom “What To Expect When You’re Expecting.” The studio’s performance is a sharp contrast to Lauzen’s figures from the top-grossing movies of 2013, where overall, just 30 percent of characters who speak on screen were female.

The success of one studio may not turn around the entire industry. And Lionsgate’s dedication to female characters may have a time limit.

“When you’re talking about thousands and thousands of characters, small trends are not likely to move the numbers significantly in one direction or another,” Lauzen warns. “Overall, the film industry is experiencing gender inertia both on screen and behind the scenes.”

But Smith hopes that the industry will someday see the light generated by flashing dollar signs. “If females represent 50 percent of the population and buy 50 percent of the tickets, it is just good business to include them on screen,” she says. The next several years could show us just how big those dollar signs have to be, and how brightly they have to shine, for Hollywood to change.

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.
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Alyssa Rosenberg | March 11