Between the massive celebrity nude photo hack earlier this month and the threats against Emma Watson following her U.N. speech, high-profile sexism against actresses is, unfortunately, having a moment (even if Watson’s threats turn out to be a hoax). Yet, the reality is that sexism in the film industry is more the rule than the exception—even if it doesn’t always make for such sensational headline fodder. And new research out of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism further reveals the discrimination against women in film.
The study—commissioned by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and funded in part by the United Nations—examined films for their number of female characters, the roles these women played, how they were sexualized, and the gender of the filmmakers. Eleven countries were selected, based on their status as profitable industry leaders: Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Ten popular films, released between 2010 and 2013, were evaluated from each country, as well as ten hybrid U.K./U.S. films.
Stacy Smith, the study’s lead researcher, is an associate professor at USC Annenberg and the director of the school’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative, and she has ample experience conducting studies similar to this one. “We monitor the one hundred top-grossing [U.S.] films each year, so this was a chance to examine what popular films look like in other territories,” Smith wrote in an e-mail. “I wanted to be ahead of what was happening in the industry, to better equip activists and advocates who can ... effect change."
In the global analysis of these 120 films and their 5,800 speaking or named characters, researchers found that women were grossly underrepresented in terms of sheer numbers, and that the female characters that do exist are often portrayed in lower level jobs, with overwhelming attention paid to their physical appearance. According to the study, these numbers are even worse than everyday realities.
While females represent half of the world’s population, only a third of the characters from the movies were women. The researchers also narrowed in on films by genre: Action/adventure movies are typically among the highest-grossing—and rarely include many female roles—resulting in few women making meaningful appearances in the most popular movies. Overall, some countries performed more poorly than others: Among the 526 characters from the French films, there were zero female leads or co-leads.
Smith, though, is careful to emphasize that not all female speaking roles are created equal, and more doesn’t always mean better. She mentioned a trend toward aggressive, violent female characters, like Katniss of “The Hunger Games” and Tris from “Divergent.” “While putting a female lead in a movie is important, it can come at a cost,” she explained. “We know that exposure to media violence can increase the risk of aggression or desensitization. We should not confuse significance with sexualization or sensationalized violence."
Working female characters were also hard to come by. Less than a fourth of all characters with jobs were female, while in reality women represent 40 percent of the global workforce. Beyond that, very few female characters held powerful roles in any field; leadership and “prestigious” positions, like judges, doctors, executives, and professors, skewed overwhelmingly male. Only 10 percent of workers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields were women, as compared to about 25% in actuality.
More than just discrimination in their employment, female characters were constantly fielding comments about their appearance. Remarks and reactions—“verbal/nonverbal utterances”—to looks or desirability were, globally, five times as likely to be targeted toward female characters than their male counterparts; as the researchers wrote, “No matter the territory, female characters cannot escape an emphasis on appearance.”
The team further surveyed the levels of revealing clothing, nudity, thinness, and implications of attractiveness for female characters across age groups. For example, in the German films, 40 percent of all female characters wore revealing clothing (defined as “tight and alluring”). In American films, for comparison, 29 percent of the female characters were scantily clad. And in perhaps the most disturbing finding, teenage girls as young as 13 were as likely to be sexualized as women in their thirties.
Smith, though, didn’t find this all too surprising. “These are entrenched trends that we see very consistently from year to year in U.S. films,” she said. Only when characters passed the 40-year-old benchmark were they less likely to be sexualized.
In addition to fictional lives on-screen, Smith and her team took a particular interest in how a filmmaker’s gender influences gender representation. In this sample, 79 percent of directors, writers, and producers were male. But, the study notes, with a female filmmaker, the number of female characters jumps by 6.8 percent.
For her part, Smith believes there’s a clear solution to increasing the number of female filmmakers: “The industry could adopt a modified Rooney Rule for hiring decisions to allow more women to be considered for open directing jobs,” she said. “This rule will only work in a broader ecosystem of diversity.”
Solving this gender imbalance in film shouldn’t be impossible, since, as the researchers wrote in their paper, “Adding girls and women to stories means conceptualizing a fictional world that looks startlingly like the one we already inhabit.”