The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Not even a third of speaking roles in popular movies go to women

Where are all the ladies? (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

The woman on America’s silver screen is young. She is white. She is straight. And she is vastly outnumbered by men.

From 2007 to 2014, women played a mere 30.2 percent of all speaking or named characters in the 700 biggest box office hits, according to a new report from the University of Southern California’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative.

That would be one leading lady for every 2.2 leading men.

“It sends a message about who’s valued and who’s not," said Stacy Smith, who co-authored the study. "It doesn’t reflect the demography of our population. And it’s leaving money on the table economically, given that women are half the people who buy movie tickets.”

The gender ratio doesn’t appear to be improving, either. Last year, 21 of the 100 top-grossing fiction films featured a female protagonist or co-protagonist, a seven-percent drop from 2013. The plots of the most recent Oscar nominees for Best Picture, meanwhile, all centered on guys. (For example: “Boyhood,” “Birdman.”)

“Clearly, the norm in Hollywood is to exclude girls and women from the screen,” the authors wrote. “It is also to misrepresent them.”

The analysis of 30,835 characters reveals an "epidemic of invisibility," Smith said. All but three in last year’s marquee roles were white. None older than 45 held a lead part. No lesbian, bisexual or transgender figures were prominently featured.

Most female characters showed up in domestic roles, the type society labels traditionally feminine. Nearly a third wore “sexy attire,” compared to 8 percent of men. Twenty-six percent flashed skin, while nine percent of men did the same.

Not to say there’s anything wrong with being a stay-at-home mom or a teacher or a nurse or someone who likes to show off their body, Smith said. But she said it’s important to convey to the little girls watching that women, of all ages, do far more.

These trends persist because Hollywood executives think attracting a male audience will bring box office success, researchers said. Hollywood executives, as well as the creative types behind the movies, they note, are mostly white men.

In 2014, men occupied most jobs behind the cameras, according to the report. Only two women directed across the top 100 films. They made up 11.2 percent of writers and 18.9 percent of producers. The representation shrinks drastically for women of color. Since 2007, only three black women directed across the top 700 films.

The films that did employ female writers featured more women of all ages in the cast, playing more prominent roles, the USC authors noted. And previous research shows movies with more women, developed beyond one-dimensional caricatures, are generally popular among viewers.

A recent FiveThirtyEight analysis of 1,615 films found those that pass the Bechdel Test (films with at least two named women who talk to each other about something other than men) tend to have lower budgets but hold their own at the box office. “Despite a commonly held belief among producers,” wrote data journalist Walt Hickey, who led the project, “there is little statistical evidence to support the idea that movies featuring women do worse than films that don’t.”

These movies also receive more positive reviews, an average of 1.8 more Metacritic points by professional reviewers and 0.12 fewer stars by IMDb reviewers, according to Brian Keegan, a research fellow in computational social science at Northeastern University.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, which grossed more than $500 million worldwide in its first two weeks, is further evidence. "That should shatter the assumption that girls will watch stories about boys," Smith said, "but boys won't watch stories about girls."