You know what’s so great about going to the movies? You can be transported. A movie lifts you out of your life and takes you to some distant, fantastical place.
For instance, if you attended a movie in 2014, you may have looked at the screen and found yourself in an alternate reality. A mystical place where people of color rarely exist and almost never talk, where every woman under the age of 39 — including girls as young as 13 — is mostly silent but always sexualized, where there are virtually zero gay people and zero trans people. Such are the joys of cinema.
USC Annenberg’s annual study of the top 100 grossing films of 2014 came out Wednesday, with a twist: The latest edition didn’t just look at this year’s stats, but also combined them with the research from all the previous studies, going back to 2007 (excluding 2011). The result is a comprehensive, in-depth analysis of inequality in 700 popular films.
The numbers are, to say the least, damning. A few highlights (lowlights?) from the study:
• In the top 100 films of 2014, female teenagers — 13-to-20-year-olds — were equally as likely to be shown in “sexy attire,” as in, with exposed skin, and were equally as likely to be referenced as attractive by another character in the movie, as women aged 21-to-39.
• Of the 30,835 speaking characters evaluated in all 700 films, only 30 percent were female.
• In 2014, zero female actors over 45 performed a lead or co-lead role. Only three of the female actors in lead or co-lead roles weren’t white. None was lesbian or bisexual.
• Some more zeros for you: Of the top 100 films of 2014, 17 had no black speaking characters. More than 40 had no Asian speaking characters.
• In 2014, out of 4,610 speaking characters, only ten were gay. And out of that year’s top 100 films, 86 had no LGBT characters at all.
• Off-screen is not much better: Out of the 779 directors responsible for the 700 top grossing films in the study, 28 were women, 45 were black, and 19 were Asian. Women of color fared the worst, with three black female directors and a single female Asian director since 2007. The numbers for writer and producers follow similar patterns.
This would be enough to discourage even the most determined researcher, would it not?
“I’ve been getting that question about being discouraged quite a bit,” said Dr. Stacy L. Smith, an author of the study, when we spoke by phone along with another co-author, Dr. Katherine Pieper. “When I was analyzing the data, the conclusion I came to was: We really have an epidemic of invisibility going on. It’s not just with females or people of color. It’s also with the LGBT community on-screen.”
She rattled off a few of the more stunning stats, including those listed above. “Any way you slice the data,” she said, “a picture of inequality and invisibility emerges.”
Any way you slice the data, a picture of inequality and invisibility emerges.
Annenberg investigates the top 100 films every year, and the reports are typically published separately: One for gender, one for race. But “what we’ve been hearing from activists and folks in the entertainment industry is a push towards intersectionality, a look at how these variables relate to one another.” Last fall, a student asked Smith why the study didn’t measure LGBT representation — a critique Smith had heard in her classes before — so that variable was added to the survey, too. Next year, the study will expand to include people with disabilities.
“Every person deserves the opportunity to be seen and heard and have their story told,” said Pieper. Whether or not you, personally, ever attend a movie again in your life, “there still needs to be a place for people who look like the population of the United States on screen. That means women, that means people of color, that means the LGBT community. They’re incredibly marginalized in the stories that are created, that are based, really, on imagination. By leaving them out of these stories, they’re not in our imagination, which is a problem.”
Smith and her colleagues don’t look at scripts at all; measurements are based entirely by what is shown on-screen. The process is extraordinarily time-intensive. Each film is evaluated, independently, by three research assistants. Then they compute reliability per film — how consistent the research assistants are in their evaluations — and Marc Choueiti, a co-author of the study, adjudicates any disagreements. For this study, LGBT data was measured in a second pass, so the 100 films from 2014 have been watched five times apiece.
By compiling all this data in one place, Smith said, “we’re hoping people will come together, because the many are greater than the few. We’re trying to map out the different groups that are begin marginalized, and we’re hoping these groups come together and ask for more. Because they deserve more.”
Vital to appreciating the report is seeing that many of these data points are replicated year after year. Take the sickening note that girls between the ages of 13 and 20 are just as likely to be sexualized — that includes nudity; 33.6 percent of girls in that age range were depicted “with some nudity” in the top 100 films of 2014 — as women aged 21-to-39. “It’s still the status quo,” said Smith. “There’s an approach to sexualizing women on screen that comes at a very young age for females that we don’t see with males in a similar way.”
It’s bad news for women on both ends of the spectrum. Girls who have barely gotten their braces off are objectified, but women who are actual adults just… vanish.
We’re trying to map out the different groups that are begin marginalized, and we’re hoping these groups come together and ask for more. Because they deserve more.
“One finding that is really, I think, symptomatic of what we see in these films is that, in 2014, there were 21 films that featured a female lead or co-lead. None of those featured a female actor 45 years of age or older. But there were 30 films that featured a male lead or co-lead 45 years or older. So I think, 30 to none, we’re seeing a pattern of invisibility across demographic groups that does not represent the way in which we see people in the United States population.”
And if women over the age of 39 are completely absent from the movies, “younger viewers are not seeing women in power. They’re not seeing women like Sheryl Sandberg. Where is the example of Condoleezza Rice? Where is Barbara Boxer? They simply don’t exist,” said Smith. “And if kids aren’t given the opportunity to see a full range of leaders working in a series of different, powerful occupations, that’s a problem. Because we’re privileging the white male perspective and encouraging only a fraction of the population about what’s possible. The only thing that’s limited here is the imagination of the creative community.”
It might seem like people are already well aware of the issue. In May, the American Civil Liberties Union officially requested that state and federal agencies launch an investigation into sexist hiring practices in Hollywood, claiming the “systemic failure” to hire women was atrocious enough to qualify as a civil rights violation. Studies and news reports on inequality in movies abound, documenting the casting of white actors in movies that are based on real, non-white people, the caricatures Native American actors are made to play if they want to be cast in movies at all, the regular snubbing of black directors and actors at awards shows, the dismissing of actresses in their thirties as “too old” to be the love interests of much older men, the leaked emails revealing how male executives don’t think women can helm comic book franchises.
“People talk a lot about the problem,” Pieper said. “But what drives decision making is marketplace ideology that’s very exclusive. It very much leans toward the idea that what makes money are white males, on camera or behind the camera. And one of the driving forces for change will be the economic reality. We’ve seen some very successful properties driven by women, both in front of and behind the camera this year, which is encouraging and will hopefully create a newer reality.”
Findings from multiple investigations demonstrate that things improve for women on-screen when women are working behind the scenes, but that could mean women are only being given writing or directing assignments when the stories they’re telling as coded as “female.”That corresponds to what Smith and her colleagues in the Sundance Institute Research released in April. “And that’s a problem, because that means the people who are doing the hiring think about attaching female writers and directors in a gendered way.”
The shiny success stories — the blockbuster Hunger Games franchise, 50 Shades of Grey, Pitch Perfect and its sequel — are cause for celebration, but they can also be a bit of a distraction. They’re outliers. Citing them creates the illusion of a trend in a positive direction. It would be easy to list a handful of movies from the past year that were commercial hits, critical darlings, or both, that feature women and people of color. But one Selma, the occasional Trainwreck, exciting though that may be, have not singlehandedly meant statistically significant progress for underrepresented populations on screen.
“I think that’s why the research is so important, because oftentimes we can be distracted by these high profile moments, like Kathryn Bigelow winning the Academy Award [for The Hurt Locker, in 2010] when in reality, out of 107 directors in 2014, only two were women,” said Smith. “So to move beyond being distracted by these anomalies, this is the type of work that keeps our focus on these overall trends.”
The researchers have already begun evaluating the films of 2015, and there are already five female directors they know will be in the top 100 for the year. But even if there are four more between now and the end of the year, that will bring us to a grand total of nine: No different from what we saw in 2008.
“We might see more female leads, and we might see more female directors,” said Smith. “The big challenge, though, will be to ask: Does the greater landscape of characters stay the same or change? Because a lot of times people aren’t thinking about every speaking character in film. Our data shows that is one of the major places where people aren’t thinking: That all the characters that they write in scripts, everyone who even says one word, they don’t represent the world in which we live.”
Smith described a blog post she wrote last year about an astonishingly simple way to fix gender inequality in films: “If you were to add five female characters to the top 100 grossing films of the year, and you did that for four years, we would be at parity. It’s that simple to correct the problem we see on screen. That is simple, actionable, and data-driven.”
We’re privileging the white male perspective and encouraging only a fraction of the population about what’s possible. The only thing that’s limited here is the imagination of the creative community.
So Smith spends a lot of time trying to get people “inside the industry” to “counter their own implicit biases. If people are writing what they know, and the vast majority of these writers are male, if they can be reminded of the inequality that we’ve seen and the numbers and to think more inclusively about tertiary characters, that’s one way to address parity in the entire ecosystem.”
Smith has also written about implementing a Rooney Rule-style policy in Hollywood for directors, requiring at least one woman and candidate of color be considered for every position. “That’s another specific, concrete, actionable item,” she said, which is crucial. “Simply rolling out a report and hoping for change, that’s a naive approach.”
I asked if Smith and Pieper thought the problem really was solely a combination of obliviousness and laziness: Was it possible that the people who keep films so exclusive do so not because they just aren’t thinking about it, but because they are thinking about it, and they are very, very happy with a cinematic landscape where most 15-year-old girls are naked and most women over 45 literally do not exist, where people of color are hardly seen and never heard?
“I don’t think that’s the impression we get from decision makers in particular,” said Pieper. “That’s not what we’ve heard. I think people are very open to changing.” What people need, she said, is to know “specifically what to do to change and what steps to take” and to move “away from that ingrained marketplace ideology.”
Smith agreed. “I think they’re shocked about the demography findings, and it’s all been a sense of: Wow, I had no idea.” And with leading roles, “that’s a much more contested category of who can make money overseas and rise to the top of the box office. Those are more political decisions, and people are nervous when it’s not a white male.”
Because Hollywood is so “risk-averse,” Smith said, “It’s only been within the last five-to-seven years that people haven’t held onto the myth that girls will watch stories about boys but boys won’t about girls. I think Nina Jacobson shattered that myth with The Hunger Games. Then came Divergent and a whole series of properties featuring female protagonists that have really called into question this business-as-usual approach as to who gets to drive the action in film.”
“That’s why it’s important to continue monitoring,” Smith went on. “Because 2015 is the first time we’ve seen so many female-driven stories come to the fore and drive box office, but that’s because we’ve seen Lucy work and Pitch Perfect worked. There are whole series riding on the shoulders of these earlier films. The question is, how sustained will it be?”