Female actors had a big year in Hollywood’s top films in 2015. Daisy Ridley, Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley jumped, tumbled and fired off arrows as main characters in action franchises. In comedy, Amy Schumer, Melissa McCarthy, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Anna Kendrick headlined films.
Yet, overall, men were still seen and heard about twice as much as women in the 200 highest-grossing films of 2015.
The figures come from a new machine-learning technology developed by researchers at Google and the University of Southern California to analyze the role of women in film. The software, created with backing from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and Google’s philanthropic division, is the first to automatically measure how screen and speaking time in film and TV break down by gender. In the past, researchers fulfilled this task with time-intensive, manual hand-coding.
The data shows that, when the film had a male lead, male characters appeared on screen and spoke about three times more often than female characters in 2015.
In films with both male and female co-leads, men still had far more speaking and screen time. And even in films with female leads — about 17 percent of the top-grossing films in 2015 — men had a roughly equal amount of screen and speaking time as women.
That data is shown in the graphs below, in which each of the bars represents one of 2015's top-grossing films. The amount of screen time and speaking time for women is shown on the left and for men on the right. The vertical line shows the average for all films in that year.
Here's how screen time broke down for films with female leads, male leads and male and female co-leads in 2015:
And here's how speaking time differed for those categories:
The researchers also analyze the results by box office revenue. On average, films with female leads took in $89.9 million each at the box office, 15.8 percent more than the average take of films with male leads — a finding that the Geena Davis Institute says debunks “the idea female leads are not bankable.”
Past studies have shown that women are vastly underrepresented in film and that this trend hasn’t changed much over the decades. But just adding more female characters isn’t enough, advocates say — female characters need to be given speaking parts and agency in film, not just appear as decoration.
The Geena Davis Institute argues that film representations matter for what women accomplish in the real world. For example, the group notes that the participation of girls in national archery competitions doubled in 2012. It speculates that this was a direct result of media representations of female archers, including in “The Hunger Games” franchise and Disney’s animated movie “Brave.”
There are more meaningful consequences outside of archery. Women in film and TV are less likely to be shown in certain careers, including as company executives, scientists, politicians or legal and financial professionals — and that lack of role models could affect girls' career choices, the group says.
The tool is likely to be used to look at other areas of unconscious bias and stereotypes in the media. Backers at Google have said they hope to use the new software to look at the diversity of media portrayals of scientists and engineers, with the hope of discovering how that might shape the career aspirations of young viewers.
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