The High Cost of Hollywood’s Gender Bias

February 04, 2016


This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of AAUW Outlook magazine. For more stories like this, subscribe to Outlook today.

While it’s widely known that men dominate board rooms, newsrooms, and political offices, it’s arguably less obvious that they also determine what we see when we’re relaxing in front of the TV or theater screen.

In 2014, a whopping 85 percent of films had no female directors, 80 percent had no female writers, and one-third lacked female producers, according to a San Diego State University study. Women fare no better on the small screen. A Directors Guild of America analysis of 2014–15 television episodes found that a mere 16 percent were directed by women. The situation is so dire that in May the American Civil Liberties Union requested that state and federal agencies launch an investigation into Hollywood’s sexist and discriminatory hiring practices.

Given the adage “write what you know,” it’s not surprising that the male-dominated culture of Hollywood manifests itself in a lack of complex, three-dimensional female characters, when female characters exist at all.

“With the lack of women behind the camera comes a lack of women’s speaking roles and screen presence,” says Montré Missouri, a filmmaker and associate professor at Howard University. Of the 100 top films of 2014, only 21 featured a female lead or co-lead. When female characters are present, sexist stereotypes often convert them into little more than background props — the “damsel in distress” saved by the male hero or the “manic pixie dream girl” whose quirkiness and cheer charm a brooding male protagonist.

“Film is one of the most powerful mediums of contemporary society,” says Missouri. “It shapes who we are and how we identify ourselves and others.” Because Hollywood is so male-dominated, she says, films and television shows often illustrate a limited perspective. Viewers see a male-driven version of the world — one that sends women and girls troubling messages.

You Can’t Be What You Can’t See

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This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of AAUW Outlook magazine.

According to a global film study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, women film characters are at least twice as likely as men to be shown in sexually explicit scenes and are five times more likely to be referenced as attractive. Women characters are also considerably less likely than men to be portrayed in lucrative careers and leadership roles. According to the study — which analyzed 120 films and 5,799 speaking characters — women made up just 13.9 percent of film representations of executive leaders and just 9.5 percent of representations of high-level politicians. An analysis by FiveThirtyEight further found that women in film are significantly overrepresented in roles such as waitresses, teachers, and secretaries and are severely underrepresented in roles such as presidents, doctors, and engineers.

“One of the ways that people learn is through observation,” says Yalda Uhls, a media and child development expert and former AAUW grantee who spent years as a Hollywood executive. According to Uhls’ research, children replicate the stereotypes they consume from narrative media. The lack of empowering film and TV representations of women has a dangerous effect on the aspirations of young women and girls. As Gloria Steinem said, “If we can’t see it, we can’t be it.”

Where Are the Women? Not Welcome

It’s not a lack of qualifications or talent that keeps women screenwriters, directors, and producers locked out of Hollywood. Nor is it that women are disinterested. Research shows that men and women graduate from the top U.S. film schools at nearly equal rates. “There is no lack of female directors,” Oscar-nominated film director Lexi Alexander emphatically stated in a 2014 essay for Indiewire. There’s just a “huge lack of people willing to give female directors opportunities.”

Hollywood does still seem to operate as an old boys’ club. According to a 2015 study by the University of California, Los Angeles, the top executives at major Hollywood film studios are 94 percent white and 100 percent male. LA Weekly reports that six out of seven top executives at Sony Pictures are men. At Paramount Pictures, it’s four out of five, and at Walt Disney Studios, it’s nine out of 11.

Women filmmakers struggle to break into and succeed in an industry run by studio heads who make hires over casual lunches and networking calls to friends. According to Darnell Hunt, the author of the UCLA study, implicit gender bias is largely to blame. Male Hollywood executives “want to keep their jobs,” Hunt told NPR. “They want to succeed. And they feel that their best chance for success is by surrounding themselves with other white males, basically.”
director chair

Stereotyped and Pigeonholed

Women filmmakers who do manage to gain access to the industry combat pervasive gender stereotypes, including notions that women are too soft, gentle, and emotionally fragile to handle the stress and demands of directing or producing. Women screenwriters face similar bias and are often perceived as not tough enough to write gritty dramas or action films or to work with male leads. “Beyond the world of ‘chick flicks,’ the industry remains slow to accept women filmmakers in producing various genres,” says Howard University’s Missouri.

This misogynistic thinking prevails despite major successes by women filmmakers across a wide range of genres — including films featuring male leads and primarily male casts. Jessica Elbaum produced Anchorman 2, the bawdy film that raked in $173.6 million at the box office. In 2010, Kathryn Bigelow won an Academy Award for best director — the first woman to do so — for the war movie The Hurt Locker. This past year, director Ava DuVernay received widespread acclaim for her Martin Luther King Jr. biopic, Selma.

A Burgeoning Movement

Over the past year alone, gender bias in Hollywood has been front-page news, and calls for change have rapidly gained momentum. Twentieth Century Fox recently launched a fellowship program to promote and empower women directors. Meryl Streep, Amy Poehler, Lena Dunham, Will Ferrell, and Reese Witherspoon are just a few stars who launched projects and production companies to showcase women filmmakers.

Grassroots efforts also abound. Independent filmmaker Destri Martino created an online database of women directors called The Director List to help connect women filmmakers with work. The popular Tumblr account Shit People Say to Women Directors has brought viral visibility to the issue. Missouri is part of a group, Parallel Film Collective, that promotes new images of race and gender through films by hosting screenings and networking events.

And then there’s the ACLU-inspired investigation. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began interviewing female directors this fall. If evidence of discrimination emerges, the industry could face a class-action lawsuit.

A Lose-Lose Situation

Research shows that women’s consumer power is a force to be reckoned with. Women made up 52 percent of moviegoers in 2014. Though rare, films starring female protagonists earned an average of $116 million at the box office, compared with an average of $97 million earned by films starring men.

But the costs of Hollywood’s gender bias aren’t just financial. “Without more women writers, producers, directors, and cinematographers, not even half of the stories of our cultures and societies are now being told,” says Missouri. The industry’s lack of diversity severely limits the public’s access to unique, nuanced narratives. Missouri points to Selma as an example. While many Americans are familiar with the civil rights movement, Missouri says DuVernay “included the often overlooked stories of the women who were instrumental during that era,” something a male director would likely have failed to take into account.

As things stand, film and television largely depict the world of men. And when the credits roll and the theater lights turn back on, women and girls are still left in the dark.


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By:   |   February 04, 2016