The latest Annenberg study of women’s representation behind and in front of the camera in the movies in 2009 is out, and the results remain depressing: women have just 32.8 percent of speaking roles in the movies the study examined (the same percentage as in 2008 and up from 29.9 in 2007), and just 21.6 percent of producers (up from 19.1 percent in 2008 and 20.5 percent in 2007), 13.5 percent of movie writers (down from 13.6 in 2008 but up from 11.2 in 2007), and 3.6 percent of directors are women (down from 8 percent in 2009 and up from 2.7 in 2007). If women are involved as writers on a movie, the percentage of female characters in that film jumps from 29.8 percent of characters to 40 percent of characters, and if women are directing, the percentage of female characters rises from 32.2 percent of the speaking cast to 47.7 percent of the characters. Putting women in a position to tell stories changes the kinds of stories that get told, and our failure at the former guarantees our failure at the latter. The gains we’re making are small, and they don’t appear to be particularly durable from year to year.
A couple of data points, or the absence thereof, stood out at me. I’d actually be interested to see an analysis of non-speaking roles as well as speaking ones. If women had a majority of non-speaking roles, it might reinforce the idea that women in the movies are passive or merely eye-candy. Are there are a lot of women in the background of scenes where men are speaking, whether they’re presented as sexually available or part of the landscape? Do movies with female stars put women in the frame in passive roles instead of putting men there? If the percentages of speaking and non-speaking roles for women are roughly equal, it might just be that Hollywood is more comfortable telling stories about men or in male settings. Those problems are interrelated, but they aren’t precisely identical.
Second, one statistic that’s gone down is the percentage of female characters who are described as attractive within the movie, from 18.5 percent in 2007, to 15.1 percent in 2008, to 10.9 in 2009. During this same time, the percentage of female characters who are depicted partially unclothed has ticked up 1.8 percent, and the number of women portrayed in relationships has gone up 6.9 percent, which may mean that audiences don’t need to be told that yes, in fact, yet another pneumatic starlet is a good-lookin’ woman. But interestingly in 2009, the attractiveness of just 2.5 percent of male characters was remarked on during the course of a movie. Could it be? Could attractiveness be a more important indicator for women than it is for men? Could it be that we just sort of take for granted that a broad range of men are considered attractive, whereas it’s a requirement that the sexiness of women, particularly those who don’t fall in a narrow mold, be constantly reaffirmed?
And finally, it’s fascinating and deeply weird to me that just 16.83 percent of movies have casts that are balanced between men and women, up from 15.1 percent in 2008 and 11.88 in 2007. I get that some subjects, like war movies, are likely to be weighted toward heavily male casts. But for movies set in the civilian world, it’s not like the majority of women work at ladymags, or all-female PR firms, and it’s not like the majority of men work in all-male investment banking or management consulting shops. Even if they do, men and women tend to have friends, neighbors, and relatives of the opposite sex. We don’t divide our cities and towns into cloisters, and that’s the source of so many of our joys and torments, our consolations and stumbles towards the light. It’s odd that our movies try to separate us from each other, except in pursuit of sex and love.