Women still account for less than a third of speaking roles in top US films

Article by Patrick Wood /
ABC News /
August 09, 2017 /
Click here to view original /

Female representation in the film industry has been high on the agenda lately, but the newest data out of the US and Australia shows progress is moving slowly, if at all.

Less than a third of speaking characters in the top 100 US films last year were women.

Of those top films, only a third depicted a female lead or co-lead.

In Australia, only a third of producers working on feature films in the past two years were women, and the numbers are lower for directors and writers.

So what’s going on that, despite the ongoing discussion, the gender gap in film can still be so large?

First, the facts

Each year, a team at the University of Southern California examines every speaking or named character in the top 100 US films of the past 12 months as determined by box office revenue.

It has just released its results for 2016 and found of the 4,583 speaking characters, 31.4 per cent were female.

It’s a trend that has stayed roughly the same for the past decade.

The survey also found in 2016 there were 34 films in which a female character was the lead or even co-lead.

The survey then broke those speaking roles down into some genres of film to reveal the situation was more dire in action flicks, but that women fared better in comedies.

“The prevalence of female speaking characters has not changed meaningfully across the nine years evaluation,” the report found.

“The difference between 2007 and 2016 is only 1.5 per cent.”

What about Australia?

Unfortunately for those working behind the scenes in Australia the story isn’t much better.

Screen Australia has just released its latest round of data on representation across the industry, and while it doesn’t include the same figures on speaking roles as the US survey data, it does tell us that in the feature film business over the past five financial years women made up:

  • 34 per cent of producers
  • 15 per cent of directors
  • 22 per cent of writers

The figures are slightly higher in the TV sector, but Screen Australia says the issue remains industry-wide.

“This data stands as a reminder that just because gender equality in the screen industry has been a point of discussion, it doesn’t mean that it’s translating into action industry-wide,” Screen Australia chief operating officer Fiona Cameron said.

What explains this gender gap?

For Ms Cameron, it’s not a problem with training or enthusiasm.

“50 per cent of students graduating from film schools [are female] and then it drops off and only 15-16 per cent of women on feature films are directors,” she said.

“So it drops off for a variety of reasons, but predominantly, men are in senior roles employing men and until women are in senior roles employing women things won’t change.”

Lauren Rosewarne is a senior lecturer at Melbourne University’s School of Social and Political Sciences and says when it comes to landing big acting roles — particularly in the US — the rules have been different for men and women.

“If you look at the landscape of famous women — women who have “made it” in Hollywood — generally they are exceptionally stereotypically attractive, white, thin and often, although not always, young,” she said.

“While there are exceptions, of course, generally for women to be seen as both entertaining and, more importantly, bankable they are expected to be both likeable and sexually attractive to secure both male and female audiences.

“The same burden isn’t on men.”

Is it all doom and gloom? And what’s being done?

Despite the stark statistics, Screen Australia — the federal government agency charged with supporting the local industry — has made headway on gender parity in the past couple of years.

In 2015, it launched the $5 million Gender Matters initiative and aimed to have half of all production funding going to projects with creative teams that are at least 50 per cent female.

This week, Ms Cameron announced a milestone: across the past two financial years 47 per cent of Screen Australia funding had gone to projects with female-led creative teams (which includes directors, writers and producers).

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“Whilst we are getting close to gender parity across our production funding, the results are uneven, with the television and online sectors continuing to do the heavy lifting,” she said.

“However, successful applications for female-led feature films have jumped considerably to 39 per cent in 2016/17, from a low bar of 22 per cent in 2015/16.”

Screen Australia has now just announced a 17-person Gender Matters Taskforce to help guide this process, drawn from leaders across the screen industry, including ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie and Seven Network’s head of drama Julie McGauran.

‘It’s not about male-bashing’

Ms Cameron said the goal of the Screen Australia target was to address unconscious bias rather than explicit sexism.

“It is about who you work with, it is about who is in positions of power. And they are predominantly men,” she said.

“We’re not male-bashing here. We want collaboration. We want more men to work with talented women.”

Ms Rosewarne said when it came to casting actors or deciding which films should be made, audiences needed to be given some credit.

“Often films aren’t produced based on the mere assumption that people won’t buy tickets, and that is routinely proven incorrect,” she said.

“The two biggest successes of 2017 — Wonder Woman and Beauty and the Beast — prove that women can headline blockbusters.

“Audiences need to be given a chance to embrace or reject a film, as opposed to producers making assumptions.”