Women in Hollywood Just Hit a New Record – But It's Not All Good News
From fighting the Empire to building rocket ships, 2016 was a good year for the leading ladies.
After “Jaws” was released in 1975, there was a spike in shark hunting that decimated the population of great whites. After “The Day After Tomorrow” was released in 2004, news coverage of the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report received 10 times the news coverage than it had before.
Suffice it to say, mainstream media has the power to shape public opinion. For those fighting for gender equality in media, there could soon be a cause and effect worth cheering.
Women made up 29% of movie protagonists in 2016, an increase of seven percentage points from 2015, and an all-time high, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.
“Rogue One,” starring Felicity Jones, was the highest-grossing film of 2016, followed by “Finding Dory,” starring Ellen DeGeneres. “Zootopia” ranked seventh with Ginnifer Goodwin first billed, meanwhile Viola Davis and Margot Robbie joined an ensemble cast in “Suicide Squad” (ninth at the box office) and Gal Gadot gained notoriety as Wonder Woman in “Batman v Superman” (eighth at the box office). She’s set to reprise that role in her own movie this summer.
The financial success (and critical success for most of them) of these films indicate that the public will see more movies featuring women in leading roles – and that’s without casting Meryl Streep.
Unfortunately, it’s not all good news. The percentage of female characters with speaking roles dropped to 32%, down a percentage point from 2015. Thus, audiences were more likely to see female characters but less likely to hear them.
It gets worse when factoring in the Bechdel Test (which asks three questions: Is there more than one female character? Do they speak to each other? Do they speak to each other about something other than a man?). Of the top 20 highest grossing films from 2016, only 11 pass the test.
Furthermore, the increase in representation can be described as “window dressing,” as women are still underrepresented in positions of creative control. A separate report concluded that among the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2016, women comprised 17% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers.
When considering intersectionality in terms of race, the report states that Asian females made up 6% of characters (twice what is was in 2015) and black females made up 14% (up a percentage point from 2015). Latinas declined a percentage point in representation, down to just 3% of all characters (and even those roles were likely to be maids or oversexualized characters, e.g. Jennifer Lopez, Sofia Vergara, Penelope Cruz).
The tremendous backlash against the all-female “Ghostbusters” reboot also demonstrates how many men feel threatened by giving women more roles in big-budget films.
But there is hope. It’s worth noting that “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” released at the end of 2015, is the highest-grossing film of all time, with Daisy Ridley in the lead role.
If one movie has the power to make a species of fish almost go extinct, the slew of female-driven stories could do wonders for gender equality. Who knows what “Hidden Figures” will do for women (especially women of color) in STEM jobs?
There’s still a way to go in achieving full gender equality in mainstream media (and countless other industries) but progress is being made.