The Number Of Women In Top-Grossing Movies Hits Five-Year Low. What Are Women For In Hollywood?

The Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism’s annual survey of how women are represented in the 100 top-grossing movies from the previous year is out, and much has been made of the study’s finding that the percentage of female characters has declined to a five-year low, from 29.9 percent in 2007 to 28.4 percent in 2012. But it’s not just notable that the number of female characters with speaking parts has fallen to a low—after all, there were better years in between 2007 and 2012. The survey says a lot about what kinds of women successful movies include, and what those movies think women are for. My colleague Adam Peck put together a graphic representation of some of the most revealing statistics in the study:

Women are eye-candy, particularly if they’re young. 31.6 percent of the 4,475 characters with speaking parts who appeared in the 100 highest-grossing movies in 2012 who appeared in “sexualized attire.” 56.6 percent of characters aged 13-20 appeared on-screen in such clothing, as did 39.9 percent of characters aged 21 to 39, and that number fell to 16.4 percent for characters aged 40-64. It’s no surprise that Hollywood has a particularly distasteful attitude towards middle-aged women—as Vulture revealed in a startling analysis, leading men tend to get older, but their female love interests stay in a similar age range, shutting middle-aged actresses out of a huge range of parts where they’d be paired against men their own ages. But it is actually remarkable that teenaged characters are actually portrayed more sexually than characters aged 21-39, who might be expected to have more sex and sexual autonomy.

Women are also much less likely to define the fictional world of the movies they’re in via narration. Of films that have narrators, just 27.5 percent of them were women. Those numbers have been higher: 51.5 percent of narrators were female in 2010, and 41.7 percent of them were female in 2009. But they were at a low of 18.5 percent in 2007, and 2010 is the only year in Annenberg’s analysis that women have ever been more than half of narratives. This might seem like a small element to notice, but narration is important: the narrator is generally considered authoritative even when characters themselves are unreliable. Narrators set the tone for the films they’re in, and frame the events they’re describing, and if men dominate those roles, their voices get to be more authoritative more often than those of women.

And women aren’t for interacting with men, either. Hollywood operates in a weirdly sex-segregated world, where in 2012, just 6 percent of the 100 top-grossing movies had casts where between 45 percent and 54.9 percent of speaking characters were female. It’s true that many of us spend some time in sex-segregated settings, having drinks with the girls or playing hoops with the guys. But in the world of Hollywood, it seems like all the women at brunch and all the men are off somewhere else punching each other. A blockbuster like the Fast and Furious franchise, which recognizes that men and women sometimes work together, and have each other as friends as well as enemies, is a relative rarity.

None of this is to suggest that there aren’t filmmakers doing fascinating work down the budget and gross scale. And given the fluctuations in many of the numbers that the Annenberg School is reporting, maybe 2012 was an anomaly—though the better years were obviously anomalies, too, rather than signs of more durable progress for women. But if Shane Black can make a big-budget superhero action movie like Iron Man 3 pass the Bechdel test, it would be nice if more writers and directors in Hollywood viewed their industry’s confusion about how to get women speaking parts in movies and what to do with them once they’re there as a creative challenge, rather than an entirely comfortable state of affairs.