LOS ANGELES — New data out this week from the Center for Women in Television and Film reports that in 2016, women accounted for just 29 percent of all protagonists in the year’s 100 top domestic grossing films.
Furthermore, females accounted for just 37 percent of all major characters and comprised just 32 percent of all feature characters in this year’s biggest box office earners.
Disheartened? Don’t be. Because experts are sure things are, in fact, getting better. Even more surprising is that when all is said and done, we might just have Donald Trump and Star Wars to thank for making the world wake up to gender equality in film.
“That 29 percent figure is a historical high!” says Debra Zimmerman, executive director of Women Make Movies, an arts organization founded in 1972 to facilitate the production, promotion, distribution, and exhibition of independent films and videotapes by and about women. “I was pleasantly surprised when I heard the number this year — isn’t that ridiculous?”
Zimmerman notes that just two years ago, women represented 12 percent of protagonists in the top grossing films of the year.
“Not that I’m saying that it’s as good as it should be — because it’s not nearly as good as it should be — but it’s important to acknowledge that shift,” Zimmerman adds.
Perhaps not coincidentally, 2014 was also the year that The Representation Project, a group that works within the film industry to challenge stereotypes that persist throughout the industry, launched #AskHerMore, to encourage entertainment journalists to ask the female performers walking down the red carpet at awards shows, like this Sunday’s Academy Awards, about the characters they play, their process in their work, the stories that speak to them — and not simply to talk about what they’re wearing.
The data from the Center for Women in Television and Film, which is based at San Diego State University, also showed that female characters were less likely than males to be seen working and were less likely to be portrayed as leaders. Only 45 percent of female characters were seen in their work setting, compared with 61 percent of all male characters, while only 54 percent of female characters were given storylines related to work-related goals, compared with 75 percent of male characters. And while men are allowed to age on screen —31 percent of male characters are in their 30’s, and 30 percent are in their 40’s (that is to say, barely a change) — the number of female actors drops from 32 percent in their 30’s to 20 percent in their 40s.
Further reinforcing the systemic problems when it comes to representation in film is recent polling by the non-partisan research firm PerryUndem, which found that while 47 percent of men and women combined think that men hold more positions of power in Hollywood, 51 percent of women alone say the same while only 43 percent of men do.
Three Films Make Big Strides
Zimmerman credits the attention seized by 2015’s call-out of #OscarsSoWhite, aimed at the lack of African-American nominees for major acting awards, as essential in helping shine a light on the lack of representation and diversity in Hollywood in every form.
“Take the box office success of Hidden Figures,” Zimmerman says. “This is indicative of the fact that more and more people are being conscious of this terrible lack of diversity and representation in film. There are more and more women in the industry and it is having an impact. I’m also extremely sensitive — I’ve seen so many ‘Year of the Woman’ declarations in Hollywood since I’ve been at Women Make Movies starting in 1983, but this year has been the first time I’m actually seeing some real responsiveness in terms of activity. I’m optimistic.”
Witness the success of three of this year’s Oscar-nominated films: Hidden Figures, Arrival, and Elle. All feature women in starring roles telling stories about the marginalization routinely experienced by women.
Hidden Figures is the real-life story of the black, female mathematicians at racially segregated NASA in the 1960s and their role in the U.S. space race. It has been both a box office success and is nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress (Octavia Spencer). Arrival, a box office smash nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, is a meditation on motherhood, femininity, and language, and the power of both in the face of threats of war and violence masquerading as an action-packed sci-fi blockbuster. And Elle — which has earned French actress Isabelle Huppert her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress after receiving decades’ worth of accolades from foreign film societies and critics — is a psychological thriller about rape, power and revenge from a woman, and victim’s, point of view.
While all three offer wildly different plots and narrative structures, they are resoundingly alike in the way in which they elevate female points of view and voices. They make the perspective of female characters not just a part of the story, but the story itself, with their insistence on being heard the central conflict. They offer stories of what it means when women create a narrative resolution that tears down the systems — and men — who have kept them muffled and sidelined.
If these three films were the whole story, it’s been a very good year for women in film. “Then again, next year the numbers could really go down again,” Zimmerman reflects.
After all, one area where the numbers have hardly budged is in the Academy’s nominating of women for Best Director honors — a feat that has only happened four times in the Oscars’ 90-year history and the award itself has only been given to a woman once, to Kathryn Bigelow, for her 2010 film The Hurt Locker, which focused on men’s experiences with war.
And Zimmerman says that this situation is perfectly emblematic of the kind of sexism that continues to constrain Hollywood. After all, the only woman character featured in any meaningful way in the film if that of the protagonist’s ex-wife, with whom he lives after returning from a tour in Iraq. Her presence largely serves as one that reflects back the impact that active duty has had on her former spouse.
“I think of that film as a sexist film and one of the worst examples of a film made by a woman,” Zimmerman says of The Hurt Locker. “So it’s not surprising to me that it’s the kind of film by a woman that Hollywood tried to honor. It fits the mold of the kind of films Hollywood likes to make about men and war and battlefields. It shows no understanding of the fact that nowadays, many ‘wars’ are actually fought in people’s own homes.”
“We all like to see ourselves on screen and that’s why I think that filmmaking and Hollywood are one of the last bastions of male chauvinism,” she adds. “Film is our dreams, on screen. Our literal projections of ourselves. And everyone wants to see themselves on screen. I get it — men want to keep it as a boys’ club, with naked women on screen with no names, in love with men in their 50s and 60s. Men are holding tightly onto the reigns.”
So what is it going to take to change the ratio, and undo the long upheld stereotypes that have kept women nameless and silent, both in life and on screen?
Michele Schreiber, an associate professor of film and media studies at Emory University, says that the greatest hope might just lie in Star Wars.
“We can safely consider Star Wars and the sci-fi genre male-oriented — so to have a female protagonist, as we did in the top box office film of this year, Rogue One, is great. And it’s in films like that where you can see change happen,” Schreiber says. “J.J. Abrams casting a young woman as the protagonist in the new Star Wars film is choosing to make a woman the lead in a genre film that tends to attract a predominantly male audience and proves that, though maybe only in certain genres or certain types of film, boys and men will go see a film even if it has a female protagonist.” And this, in effect, is the critical first step to dismantling the long-held belief by Hollywood studios that films ought to be made and marketed to 18- to 34-year-old males — and that women will simply tag along to whatever male viewers want to see.
Schreiber adds that perhaps the election of Donald Trump to the presidency will only further spur a culture change when it comes to women and representation in film.
“Some positive side to Trump’s presidency and the whole last presidential election is seeing a real, renewed political commitment on the part of a huge portion of the female population who are very frustrated and fed up with the narrow gender stereotypes being put forward by this administration and that were put forward in this election. I think as a result, we’re going to start seeing some subtle shifts” — and not just in politics, but in the stories Hollywood chooses to tell that reflect the lives of the American electorate.
“Real change has to be in the infrastructure of Hollywood and the perception that only young boys go and pay to see movies,” adds Schreiber. “This has proven to be false, as seen in films like Bad Moms and the Sex and the City movies, where Hollywood found itself aghast that large groups of women would pay multiple times to see a movie,” Schreiber notes.
And Hollywood is having to re-learn that women don’t just like to see one iteration of women’s stories. Schreiber points to the decline of the romantic-comedy “chick flick” over the past 15 years as a case in point.
The chick flick as we know it, says Schreiber, is best summarized as a narrative about “this conference that women have between their impulses to pursue this retrograde happily ever after — this idea that we just need a man and a heterosexual romance and all our problems will be resolved — with this simultaneous cultural recognition that this conceit is full of falsehoods and does not contain all the answers. With the rise of more feminist political commentary, we’re starting to see a shift towards political feminism and I think the recent examples of ‘chick flicks’ made and released have failed because in this context, that kind of ideas just doesn’t work.”
As Schreiber notes, it’s hard to be invested in the attacks on Planned Parenthood and the movement for black lives while also being invested in a narrative that promises perfectly neat, succinct resolutions and the answers to all of life’s problems in an opulent on-screen white wedding.
Which is why Zimmerman says that in her ideal world, the way in which women are portrayed — and given the opportunity to be portrayed — on screen will not be simply positive, but complex, and thus most truly reflective of women’s actual lives:
“I love seeing films about bad mothers, for example, because from a feminist perspective, when you make a film about a woman who is seen by the world as a bad mother or worries about being a bad mother, that means there’s complexity — and there is complexity in our world. I don’t want to just see films about young women, but women in their 60s and 70s who are not tucked away into whatever corner of the universe men want to put them in. I don’t want to see film just about women with perfect bodies, but women with a body like mine. I want to see women making choices in their lives. I want to see reality honestly. I would love to see women in films who are shown as having jobs, who have exciting jobs, who aren’t bitches and are successful and have good marriages. All these things are really subverted in terms of women’s lives and we just don’t see reality on screen. I’d like to see reality, not super reality or aspirational reality, but just reality.”
Jen Gerson Uffalussy is a contributing writer to Tribune. She also writes for Yahoo, Teen Vogue, and a variety of other publications.