ByJack Mitchell, writer at
I'm a student at the University of Sussex, studying Drama and Film. I'm a huge cinephile, watching and discussing a wide variety of cinema
Jack Mitchell

It's no secret that females have been criminally underrepresented throughout Hollywood's history, and fortunately there seems to be a growing effort to fight this injustice. In an effort to further address this issue, Elizabeth Banks recently called out legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg over his lack of female leads across his filmography. Banks stated that,

"I went to 'Indiana Jones' and 'Jaws' and every movie Steven Spielberg ever made, and by the way, he's never made a movie with a female lead"

Although Banks is clearly fighting for a worthy cause, she later withdrew her comments after it was pointed out that Spielberg made The Color Purple, a powerful film depicting the struggles of a courageous African American female as she battles discrimination.

Banks rightfully apologized for the error, but that doesn't mean there isn't a widespread issue. In fact, her comments raise an interesting question in terms of how many strong female leads feature in movies directed by prolific male directors. So, let's compare Spielberg's record to other popular directors to establish that this isn't an issue with individual filmmakers, but the industry as a whole.

Christopher Nolan

Ellen Page in Inception [Credit: Warner Bros.]
Ellen Page in Inception [Credit: Warner Bros.]

Feature films: 11

Feature films with a female lead: 0 (0%)

Nolan has never released a feature film with a female lead, but that doesn't quite give the full picture. The director doesn't have a reputation for a lack of female representation, as his movies still feature strong female characters.

Ellen Page in Inception was essentially the dream architect. She played a pivotal role, and was a key part of the ensemble. In The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan introduced Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway), a badass who stands up for herself on every occasion.

So, although he is yet to feature a female lead in one of his movies, Nolan definitely features strong female characters, and hopefully it's only a matter of time.

James Cameron

Kate Winslet in Titanic [Credit: 20th Century Fox]
Kate Winslet in Titanic [Credit: 20th Century Fox]

Feature films: 8

Feature films with a female lead: 3 (38%)

  • Sigourney Weaver in Aliens (1986)
  • Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in The Abyss (1989)
  • Kate Winslet in Titanic (1997)

Almost half of Cameron's films have a female lead, which is a promising figure from one of Hollywood's most successful directors of all time.

Across his career, Cameron has created some incredibly courageous female characters, and has also been celebrated for doing so. Among his most memorable female characters are Rose from Titanic, a woman forced into marriage who ultimately takes her fate into her own hands, defying her families expectations. He also worked with Ripley in Aliens, a feminist icon who fought the most efficient killer in the universe and won.

Perhaps Cameron's most famous female leading character is Sarah Connor, who ferociously took on the Terminator. Needless to say, Cameron's female characters are inspiring and bold, and with any luck we'll be seeing more characters like this in his upcoming Avatar installments.

Martin Scorsese

Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street [Credit: Paramount Pictures]
Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street [Credit: Paramount Pictures]

Feature films: 25

Feature films with a female lead: 3 (12%)

  • Zina Bethune in Who's That Knocking at My Door (1967)
  • Barbara Hershey in Boxcar Bertha (1972)
  • Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)

Unlike Cameron, Scorsese isn't known for his female leads and is often criticized for his portrayal of female characters. They are often seen as submissive to a dominant male who seemingly controls proceedings, and his films usually focus on toxic masculinity and crime.

Throughout his career, Scorsese's male leads have been hugely flawed, usually incapable of dominating the women they crave power over. Scorsese's cameo in Taxi Driver is testament to this. Sitting in the back of Travis' cab, he explains that he'll murder his cheating partner, showing his complete lack of control and the horrendous manner in which he will try to reclaim it.

In Shutter Island, DiCaprio's Teddy is driven to insanity and led astray by the woman he loved. Whichever way you look at it, females in Scorsese's cinema often have their own agency. However, you could argue that they are simply presented as a nuisance to male characters.

Quentin Tarantino

Uma Thurman in Kill Bill: Volume 1 [Credit: Miramax]
Uma Thurman in Kill Bill: Volume 1 [Credit: Miramax]

Feature films: 10

Feature films with a female lead: 3 (30%)

  • Pam Grier in Jackie Brown (1997)
  • Uma Thurman in Kill Bill: Volume 1 & 2 (2003 & 2004)

Tarantino has a respectable record of female representation, writing his female characters with care. In fact, it would be challenging to criticize the director of the Kill Bill movies in this instance. He has crafted one of the most kick-ass female heroes, who even went head-to-head against some terrifyingly powerful female villains.

Uma Thurman's Beatrix Kiddo is often referred to as The Bride, making the point that this individual defies all expectations. As a bride, she is placed into a strict feminine role, but she instead subverts societal expectations by showing her strength and individuality.

In Inglorious Basterds, Mélanie Laurent's Shosanna is also an incredibly strong individual. This young Jewish woman escapes the clutches of Hans Landa, builds her own cinema, shuns the advances of an infatuated Nazi 'hero' and manages to murder the entire Nazi leadership. How could a female possibly be more empowered than that?

Ridley Scott

Feature films: 24

Feature films with a female lead: 4 (17%)

  • Sigourney Weaver in Alien (1979)
  • Mimi Rogers in Someone to Watch Over Me (1987)
  • Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon in Thelma and Louise (1991)
  • Anne Bancroft in G.I. Jane (1997)

Whilst his average could definitely be higher, Ridley Scott has done wonders for female representation on the big screen, crafting awesome feminist icons and one of cinema's greatest heroines - Ellen Ripley.

Scott famously crafted the iconic female action hero, Ripley, in Alien. This strong and independent female with bags of attitude is an inspiration, who managed to defeat the most unstoppable and gruesome creature in the universe. As if that wasn't enough, Scott directed Thelma and Louise, the ultimate feminist film in which a pair of women fight back against their oppressors in extreme fashion.

Although he only has four female-led features, their cultural impact means that nobody can deny Scott's positive representation of women.

Steven Spielberg

Ruby Barnhill in The BFG [Credit: Walt Disney Pictures]
Ruby Barnhill in The BFG [Credit: Walt Disney Pictures]

Feature films: 30

Feature films with a female lead: 5 (17%)

  • Nancy Spielberg in Firelight (1964)
  • Sandy Dennis in Something Evil (1972)
  • Goldie Hawn in The Sugarland Express (1974)
  • Whoopi Goldberg in The Color Purple (1985)
  • Ruby Barnhill in The BFG (2016)

Compared to other prominent filmmakers, Spielberg comes out above average in terms of female representation. At just 17%, that isn't a complimentary statistic for the industry. However, it'd be wrong to accuse Spielberg of poorly representing females, especially with The Color Purple in his filmography.

Firelight was made in 1964, and The BFG was made in 2016. Whilst these are films made on entirely different production scales and made for different audiences, they indicate that Spielberg has represented females in his cinema for over 50 years.

What Do These Results Say About The Film Industry?

In total, just 16% of these films had a female lead. However, these directors, generally speaking, don't represent females in an unfair manner. However, as filmmakers that many creative minds look up to, perhaps prolific directors such as the legendary directors above could take it upon themselves to change the Hollywood tide. As trendsetters in the film industry, they have the power to push that 16% figure in the right direction.

However, the issue doesn't just lie in how many females are in a lead role. The gender pay gap is another significant issue that needs to be addressed. Females film stars are, for some reason, paid less than men. In fact, it was recently revealed that Gal Gadot was paid $300,000 for playing the lead role in Wonder Woman. This is a drastically different figure to Henry Cavill's $14 million for Man of Steel.

We've recently seen Wonder Woman excel at the Box Office, and Sofia Coppola become the second female Best Director winner at Cannes for The Beguiled, so there are a number of success stories that are taking the film industry in the right direction, but the statistics above prove that there's still an issue that needs addressing.

Do you think Hollywood has an issue with female representation? Let us know in the comments.


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