ByEleanor Tremeer, writer at
MP staff. I talk about Star Wars a lot. Sometimes I'm paid for it. Twitter: @ExtraTremeerial | Email: [email protected]
Eleanor Tremeer

Gender inequality in Hollywood is a subject that's been talked about a lot in recent years, as films continue to be made with a predominantly male (white) cast. But as many articles as we can write, as many rants as we can reblog on Tumblr, it's ultimately just that — talk, and no data. Well, now we have data to back up the assumptions we've all made about how unequal the silver screen is.... and it turns out things are a lot worse than we realized.

Earlier this year, the folks over at Polygraph conducted a massive data-collection study, examining the scripts of two thousand movies to discover who had the most dialogue: Men or women. Unsurprisingly, men gabbed their way to win the day — and they won by a terrifying landslide.

See how far along that 50/50 split is? The average amount of dialogue awarded to male characters in movies is in fact 80% of all lines spoken. Yikes.

'The Revenant' had no female dialogue at all — and neither did 57 other movies. [Fox]
'The Revenant' had no female dialogue at all — and neither did 57 other movies. [Fox]

Here are some more fast facts from the study, all of which are very depressing.

  • There are two movies with no male dialogue at all, compared to a shocking 57 films with no female dialogue. (The two movies with no male dialogue aren't high profile — Now & Then and The Descent — while many of the 57 movies bereft of a woman's voice are classics and blockbusters, like The Revenant and The Shawshank Redemption.)
  • Many films thought of as female dominated actually have 50/50 dialogue, eg: Frozen, Kill Bill, You've Got Mail.
  • 22 of 30 Disney films surveyed had (much) more male than female dialogue — even when the protagonist was female, like Mulan.
  • 78% of films had a male lead character.

So what do we do with all this data? Now's the time to start drawing conclusions, and ask why and how Hollywood got so incredibly institutionally sexist.

You Only Get One Badass Woman Per Movie

Part of the problem is that we don't realize we still have a problem. After all, every time a movie like Pacific Rim comes out, reviews gush about how feminist it is, how fantastic it is to see a women of color in an action role. While this is true, Pacific Rim is low on the Polygraph scale, with a 73% male to 27% female dialogue split — and the excellent Mako Mori speaks little over 30 lines, many of which are very short (as opposed to Raleigh and Stacker's multiple monologues).

Mako Mori was awesome, but still marginalized. [Warner Bros.]
Mako Mori was awesome, but still marginalized. [Warner Bros.]

Contrast this to Charlie's Angels, made thirteen years earlier, which has a 34:66 dialogue split, thanks to the fact that the Asian-American female action star (Lucy Liu) was accompanied by two other women. Clearly, Pacific Rim didn't actually make that much progress at all (though it's worth noting that there are depressingly few examples of female Asian-American action stars in Hollywood).

The problem is that certain genres are dominated by certain genders. But while many of the rom coms in this study have a high male dialogue count (eg: Sleepless In Seattle has 48% male dialogue, 10 Things I Hate About You has 54% male dialogue), the action films are mostly to be found left of the 80/20 average point.

Basically, you can have badass women in action, scifi, and superhero films — but there's usually only allowed to be one of them, thus reducing the amount of female dialogue in the film. Think Black Widow, Sarah Connor, and Princess Leia, and you're starting to get the picture. Then consider how many lines these characters got compared to the male characters, and a pattern emerges. Think Leia talks a lot? Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope has only 6% female dialogue, with the following two films at 7% and 11%.

Of course, we still all want to be Leia. [Lucasfilm]
Of course, we still all want to be Leia. [Lucasfilm]

Then there's the matter of time. Contrary to popular belief, it seems as though this problem has been getting worse as the decades go by. Take the Star Trek franchise: The women in these movies have been talking less and less as time wears on. And in which film do women speak least? JJ Abrams' Star Trek, released in 2009, has a shocking 9% of female dialogue. In contrast, The Voyage Home, released in 1986 with the same characters, has 21%. So why does this keep getting worse?

Men Are The Only Demographic Worth Chasing

Essentially, this is what it comes down to — male viewers are the most valued. They are the ones that (supposedly) make movies the most money, and they only care about seeing other men onscreen. While there are many movies that cater only to women, these films are usually shoved into the rom com genre — and the fact that they're derogatorily referred to as "chick flicks" is just another part of the problem.

But the serious movies, the action movies, the scifi and fantasy movies, all of these are targeted mainly at, and feature mostly men. Why? Because women will go to see movies that focus on men, while men refuse to identify with female characters.

Spot the token female character. [Marvel Studios]
Spot the token female character. [Marvel Studios]

I'm not just making unfounded statements based on assumptions. There have been plenty of pieces written on the bias of filmmakers towards men and against women. Crucially, this isn't just spoken about by executive producers sharing a bottle of whiskey behind closed doors. No, this is taught to aspiring filmmakers, curing them of any notions of gender equality on their scripts.

Here's what Jennifer Kesler was told, while studying screenwriting at UCLA, after she turned in too many scripts with an equal gender cast.

I had to understand that the audience only wanted white, straight, male leads. I was assured that as long as I made the white, straight men in my scripts prominent, I could still offer groundbreaking characters of other descriptions (fascinating, significant women, men of color, etc.) — as long as they didn’t distract the audience from the white men they really paid their money to see.

The thing is, this isn't even necessarily true. In recent years, plenty of female-lead movies have broken box office records: Gravity ($723 million), Maleficent ($758m) and The Hunger Games ($694m) to name a few. Then there are the comedies, movies like Pitch Perfect ($115m) and Bridesmaids ($288m) that overcame the prejudice against women in comedy. Even though yes, misogyny is still rampant, one way to fix this isn't to marginalize women in movies, but to showcase them — and audiences may surprise you.

Sandra Bullock in 'Gravity' [Warner Bros.]
Sandra Bullock in 'Gravity' [Warner Bros.]

Of course, there's a reason that execs still believe women doom movies, and again the reason is sexism, as The Guardian found in a recent report.

Figures seen by the Guardian have revealed that gender disparity is entrenched in the film industry, where more than three-quarters of the crew involved in making 2,000 of the biggest grossing films over the past 20 years have been men, while only 22% were women.

And there you have it. The answer to the question of why women don't speak in movies is simple: Because those movies are made by men, with entrenched opinions on what makes a movie successful, and no desire to support social growth when it comes with a risk of losing money in the box office.

Tell me again how Hollywood is getting more feminist.


Were you surprised by these findings?

[Source: Polygraph, The Hathor Legacy, The Guardian]


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