Atomika vs. The Hollywood Gender Paradigm

In All, Movies by Atomika

In 1964, Bob Dylan released ,“The Times They Are A Changin’”; if one were to apply that assertion to the growth in female representation in mainstream Hollywood films since then, one might say that hippie nerdnik didn’t know what the hell he was mumbling about into his harmonica, because the film industry hasn’t really done jack in terms of providing more opportunity for women. Stunningly, by some metrics it’s even worse now than back then.

Pictured: the most recognizable performance by an actress in 1964

Since at least the 1930s, proportional representation in mainstream cinema has been dismal, with women typically pulling in a paltry 15% of all lead roles; according to one recent study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, last year that value dropped to just 12%. The rest of the study’s results weren’t too appealing, either, as women were found to only have 29% of all major roles and 30% of all speaking roles. What’s really unsettling is the age disparity for leading parts, as the percentage of lead roles for women in their 20s and 30s was the same as for men over 40 (53%), meaning the majority of female roles go to younger women while older men still get most of the male roles. If you really want something to grimace at, take a look at these charts detailing the age gap between some of today’s most popular leading men and their love interests (for the reverse, go here to see today’s top actresses paired against their leading men); the gaps average around 20 years between stars, with the trends widening as time goes on — i.e., the actors get older, but their love interests do not.

She’s young and hip; his hips are young

So while it’s fairly apparent that Hollywood has a gender equality problem, I think it’s really more accurate to say that Hollywood has a dirty old man problem. The recent hacking scandal of Sony Pictures Entertainment shed a harsh light on something that had previously only been widely assumed: the film and television development executives of major studios are almost entirely run by men, some with the chief management an average of 60 years old or older.

  • Sony – 94% male
  • Universal – 68% male
  • Disney – 82% male
  • Warners – 81% male

Consider this: in an industry where fear of failure and conservative risk-taking is increasingly the norm, what incentive would a contingent of older men have to explore potential income streams from areas outside their comfort zone? These are guys brought up on examples of manhood from the 1950s and 60s; can we really expect progressive hiring practices and gender-balanced ideology to come from a group of people who were sold on James Bond and Clint Eastwood as masculine ideals? Sean Connery was a graying 52-year old geezer in a bad toupee when he was wooing a 29-year old Kim Basinger in his last 007 outing, and Roger Moore could have been Carole Bouquet’s father in their pairing thanks to their thirty year age gap; Clint Eastwood’s frequent film and real-life romantic interest, Sandra Locke, was 14 years his junior (and if you want to think far less of this American icon, read up on his treatment of her when they were common-law married). So when you hear Maggie Gyllenhaal bemoan the fact that studio heads considered her “too old” to play the romantic lead against a man 18 years her senior, maybe we can begin to understand the mindset that creates these kinds of disparities.

Looking at stats from Pew Research, men may simply prefer larger age gaps in their female partners as they age. Only 1 in 20 men marry significantly younger women in their first marriage (defined by an age gap of 10+ years), while for relationships after their first marriage that stat explodes to 1 in 5. If the advice for authors is, “write what you know,” wouldn’t the analogue for studio execs be, “sell what you would want?” Or is the casting age gap simply an unfortunate byproduct of tried-and-true Hollywood templates that say it’s cheaper and easier to pay for one male star and then cast an unproven, inexpensive (but easy on the eyes) young girl against him? Perhaps it’s simply ingrained genetic codification, and the traits that carry cultural currency for male actors have longer shelf lives, while youthful feminine beauty expires much faster. While any one of those reasons may be offered as an explanation, it’s not nearly enough justification for continuing this stale and restrictive boys-only treehouse, and here’s the MPAA with why:

Amy post bar graph

The TL;DR version of all that goes like this: the average moviegoer is more likely to be female than male and substantially more likely to be under 40 than over. To me, this suggests the constitution of the establishment plainly is not at all representative of their consumer base, though in fairness I feel that this may be less conspiracy than meets the eye; Hanlon urged to never ascribe to malice what may be explained by stupidity, and I doubt the male domination of the world of film production is due to anything more concerted than quotidian patriarchal privilege, accumulated and reinforced by years of entrenchment. Which, I mean, yeah, that sucks, but that kind of gatekeeping is the same shit that non-male, non-white, non-Christian, non-heterosexual people are dealing with everywhere in the US from corporate America on down to the Boy Scouts, and the only real difference here is that Hollywood is a grimy combination of ostentatious affluence and unchecked avarice that naturally results in the balance of power being horribly broken in favor of any jerk with a funded project and, as I’ve shown above, that’s probably going to be a bunch of old dudes.

Thankfully, market research shows that audiences simply aren’t beholden to these rigid gender archetypes and dynamics any more than they are any other motivator. A study by Dr. Martha Lauzen of San Diego State University made a major finding in the top 100 grossing films of the year prior to publishing:

“When the size of the budget is held constant, films with female protagonists or prominent females in an ensemble cast earn similar box office grosses (domestic, international, opening weekend) and DVD sales as films with male protagonists. Because films featuring male protagonists have larger budgets, they earn larger box office grosses. However, the differences in box office grosses are not caused by the sex of the protagonist but by the size of the budget. Films with larger budgets generate larger grosses, regardless of the sex of the protagonist.”

In short, the old logic that says male leads draw bigger crowds is found to be wrong when the size of the production is accounted for; the argument can be flattened to, “major releases starring male leads perform like major releases.” Well, as it turns out, so do major releases starring women.

Female-driven tentpole releases, such as The Hunger Games series, the Divergent series, and Frozen, have been incredibly popular as well as incredibly profitable, often more so than their traditionally-coded competition. Bridesmaids made 900% of its production budget back, easily becoming one of the most profitable movies of all time, and along with The Help (another female-driven film) was one of the only two films in the Top 20 grosses that year that wasn’t a summer or holiday tentpole. That same year saw the release of Green Lantern, the Conan the Barbarian remake, and Cowboys & Aliens — all very traditional male-centric programming, and all hugely underperforming. See, Hollywood? Boys can lose money, too. And do. Often.

Yes, you should feel sad.  For so many reasons.

Audiences like to see women on the screen just as much as they like seeing men, and they’re more than happy to see diverse portrayals of women. Young women, older women, women of all shapes and sizes and walks of life, and films succeeding with this model are often crafting portrayals of women far removed from the patriarchal ideal; the box office has yielded positive results with such diverse female leads as in Spy (a middle-aged overweight woman), Mad Max: Fury Road (a physically handicapped woman), and Gravity (a depressed scientist), strengthening the notion that a film starring a woman in the lead simply isn’t a liability. They’re certainly no less likely to be a success than any male-driven, male-marketed film. People just seem to like good, entertaining, thoughtful movies, regardless of the gender of the headlining talent.

Now for some good news: either this chauvinist executive culture will change, or it will become a hindrance upon any company that refuses to join the rest of us in the 21st century. As of this article publishing, of the top 20 grossing films this year, 9 of them feature female characters in lead roles. There are more and more well-written, mature, diverse roles for women opening up, and people are showing up to see them. Just this summer, Pixar made box-office history for the biggest weekend ever for an original film with Inside Out, an animated story about a young girl struggling with emotional maturity. It’s probably not coincidental that Disney and Pixar felt confident in such a high-concept and potentially risky project after the recent successes of Frozen and Brave, two other animated films completely unafraid to tell stories where a young girl’s internal struggles with her own self are key components in the narrative. This pattern of successful female-led movies leading to more of the same is going to spell doom for any studio unwilling or unable to follow suit.

But the problem of studios perpetuating a culture of misogyny won’t end overnight. What can we do as engaged, intellectual, progressive cinephiles to help rectify this disparity? Female-driven films are profitable for the studios but the Hollywood machine still treats women like they don’t know what to do with us. It’s extremely frustrating, too, because we’re telling them exactly what to do with us, and we’re doing it the only way they understand: money and shiny gold statues with ambiguous genitalia. We’re handing these fearful old men the blueprint for the future, but some of them can’t (or won’t) let go of the empty promises of the past. Is there a solution? I think there is, but it’s a lot of hard work, and there’s no magic bullet. The momentum of change is thankfully already rolling forward, people like you and I just need to keep pushing it along. Women in Hollywood are more and more finding their voice to express intolerance of the unfair and exploitative double-standards they suffer through in the industry, and some veteran actresses with the clout to weather controversy are inviting it. Hopefully by having the creative community take strong positions and speak truth to power, this feeling of enfranchisement catches and spreads. These things always take time, unfortunately, and we’ll only know how much we’ve succeeded when we look back at where we were now.

For the rest of us not being escorted down the red carpet, there are things we can do, too. Keep supporting projects that portray fair representations of women, of course, but let’s step your game up.  Don’t just watch movies, engage with them. Read into the coded subtexts and unconscious biases; all works of art are an argument, so try to parse out what the one you’re watching is trying to say. Is it, like this summer’s Jurassic World, full of completely regressive stereotypes and insidious condemnations of women with agency? Does it reinforce harmful tropes regarding sexuality, heteronormativity, and gender roles? Ask these questions of what you’re watching, think about how these things impact the message of the film and informs the audience, and think how the film could improve on those problems. Perhaps most importantly, don’t let anyone tell you, “hey, it’s just a movie,” because that is wrong, that is anti-intellectual, and those are the little seeds of thought that let these chauvinist jerks off the hook. However trifling, art is stating a viewpoint and nothing that does that has immunity from critical inquiry, because someone somewhere is hearing that argument and nodding along and forming their worldview. The studio executive of the future is the audience member of today, and right now that person is just a wide-eyed movie-lover like you and me. The more they see movies like Fury Road and Inside Out, where well-crafted female roles are front and center, the more they’ll expect this, and the more outmoded the rigid gender codes from our past will seem. We should foster the change we want to see.

The tide is turning. Slowly, maybe, but this is one of the key movements of our generation, so let’s embrace it. Go see pro-women movies. Confront harmful stereotypes when you hear or see them. Don’t give anything a pass on propagating ideologies that hurt maligned populations. Embrace change. Start dialogues. Be part of the solution.

And if you have questions, please, ask me.

– Atomika

Amy Davidson is a graduate of the New York Film Academy and has been writing about film for over a decade.  She currently lives in Texas with her wife and son, and once ate seven burritos on a dare.  It was not pleasant. You can reach her on Twitter @_Atomika_.