Not only was there no progress in the number of female leads in top films last year, the numbers are actually more dire than they were in 2002.
So says the latest study by San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. According to the center, only 12 percent of protagonists in the top 100 highest-grossing domestic films of 2014 were female. In 2002, it was 16 percent.
For a brief moment, things looked so hopeful, didn’t they? In hindsight, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s acceptance speech from this year’s Golden Globes ceremony sounds almost naïve.
“I’ve noticed a lot of people talking about the wealth of roles for powerful women in television lately, and when I look around the room at the women who are in here, I think about what I’ve watched this year, what I see actually are women who are sometimes powerful and sometimes not, sometimes sexy, sometimes not, sometimes honorable, sometimes not,” Gyllenhaal said after accepting the prize for best actress in a mini-series or TV movie for “The Honourable Woman.” “And what I think is new is the wealth of roles for actual women in television and in film. That’s what I think is revolutionary and evolutionary, and it’s what’s turning me on.”
It’s not impossible for both of these circumstances to be true, though it suggests the roles to which Gyllenhaal is referring are more easily found in smaller films and independent projects, while bigger tentpole films are still reinforcing stereotypical gender roles and reducing women to supporting characters.
The center also found, in assessing 2,300 characters in 100 films, that women were more often cast in supportive roles where they helped others, while men were more likely to get into fights.
“The chronic under-representation of girls and women reveals a kind of arrested development in the mainstream film industry,” Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at SDSU, said in a statement. “Women are not a niche audience and they are no more ‘risky’ as filmmakers than men. It is unfortunate that these beliefs continue to limit the industry’s relevance in today’s marketplace.”
At this point, it’s become clear that this is a problem practically baked into Hollywood’s identity. But what’s less clear is how to fix it.
When it comes to integrating women and minorities into projects, a two-pronged approach to diversity has emerged. One way: Tell and green-light more stories that center on people currently marginalized in film. That means using work in which roles are specifically written for members of those groups, like say, “Dope,” the new comedy from director Rick Famuyiwa that was one of the favorites at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. “Dope” is scheduled to hit theaters in June.
The other approach is to simply include these people in roles that aren’t necessarily gender or race specific but, by default, generally tend to be written or cast as white and/or male. This is basically what Louis C.K. did when he cast Susan Kelechi Watson, who is black, to play his ex-wife and the mother of his obviously white daughters on “Louie.”
Take for example, the characters of the two pilots in “Non-Stop,” the 2014 thriller starring Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore. The pilots’ characters were so broadly generalized that they could have been played by anyone with the proper acting chops. In the movie, both pilots are white men. Is this a factor in why just 30 percent of all speaking roles in films were held by women last year? Well, it’s probably one. The study also found that when women are involved as writers or directors, 39 percent of protagonists were female. That number dropped to just 4 percent when the writing and directing teams were all-male.
Angelina Jolie is the rare actress who overcomes such roadblocks as a bona fide action star reliably cast in lead roles. The lead character in “Salt” was famously written as male, but was changed to accommodate Jolie at the urging of then-Sony studio head Amy Pascal. Even with Jolie’s star power, that wasn’t a change that came about easily. And the reason it happened at all? Because Tom Cruise wasn’t available.
This study examined age and racial diversity, too, and found that while male characters in their 30s and 40s were equally represented at rates of roughly 27 percent, there was a significant drop-off for female characters in their 40s. Female characters in their 30s made up 30 percent of roles, while representation of female characters in their 40s hit 17 percent. Looks like Russell Crowe was wrong, after all.
As usual, it seems there’s more to be optimistic about on the indie circuit, and even that comes with its caveats.
“This is a tough business for brown girls,” Zoe Kravitz said after a screening of “Dope” at Sundance.
Still, “People, Places Things,” a charming romantic comedy from director James C. Strouse starring Jemaine Clement, Regina Hall, Jessica Williams and Stephanie Allynne, does what films seldom do: cast a black woman as the love interest of a white man in a story that has nothing to do with race or struggles surrounding interracial dating. Hall plays a professor of early American literature at Columbia University.
“I just wanted good actors,” Strouse said. “I love Regina.”
In fact, if Clement’s character makes a big deal about anything, it’s that Hall’s character, Diane, is 45 years old. It’s similar to the way “Grey’s Anatomy” creator Shonda Rhimes approaches diverse characters. Also worth noting, given the numbers we just ticked off: Hall, who turns 45 this year, is playing a rare female character in her 40s. It’s like “People, Places, Things” quietly hit the diversity jackpot and did it in a way that wasn’t overt, or preachy, or insisting upon itself. It just did it.
“It was really nice to do an independent that’s well-written,” Hall, who plays Clement’s love interest in “People, Places, Things,” told The Washington Post. “It wasn’t necessarily written for a black woman, but they just were open in the thought process and they just went with who worked. It was never mentioned in the movie and it didn’t need it. I liked that she’s a woman, you know? She’s a mother. A single mother — but not a downtrodden single mother. She’s intelligent, not overly emotionalized, still sexual. All the facets that we as black women are.”
Williams, who is in the early days of her career, seems to be making deliberate choices to pursue those sorts of roles. She not only did “People, Places, Things” but recently completed a short film, “Tap Shoes and Violins,” in which her chief characteristic was that she was quirky and different.
“I love everything Jessica is representing,” “Tap Shoes” screenwriter Aireka Muse told The Washington Post. “She makes being intelligent, strong, and quirky an option. She gives us another version to look at. She’s an extension of what Issa Rae gave us with ‘Awkward Black Girl.’ She’s our version of Jess from the ‘New Girl.’ She’s our version of Liz Lemon. And I believe she’s on the verge of a wonderful career. It’s just the beginning.”
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