In 2018, why are women still underrepresented on screen?

Frances McDormand’s powerful Oscar acceptance speech earlier this year, highlighted the disconnect between Hollywood’s purported commitment to diversity and the reality of women being underrepresented on screen. Her request that all of the female creatives in the room stand up and her suggestion that “we all have stories to tell and projects we need financing…invite us into your office and we’ll tell you all about them”, reflected a growing demand for the traditionally white, male-dominated studios to cede power to new creative voices.

A recent study has highlighted that there is still considerable work to be done. The research, which examined over 48,000 characters from the 1,100 top performing films from 2007 to 2017, found that female speaking characters on screen filled just 30.6% of all roles across the 11-year time frame. When looking at 2017, a year in which conversations around diversity seemed to come to the fore, things are not much better, with just 33 of 2017’s 100 top films having a female in a leading or co-leading role.

Moreover, many movies are still failing the Bechdel test, which requires at least two female characters to talk to each other about something other than a man.

A step in the right direction

Despite these depressing statistics, there is evidence that change is coming, albeit slowly. The #MeToo and ‘Time’s Up’ movements are making it impossible to ignore the discrepancies in on-screen representation. They are also forcing discussions around ‘inclusions riders’ (a provision added to the contract of an actor to ensure that casting and production staff meet a certain level of diversity). With films like Wonder Woman occupying the top spot as the highest-grossing superhero origin film, female-centred titles clearly have no adverse effect on box office revenues.

TV shows and movies are also beginning to address the kind of toxic masculinity that has suppressed female voices. One of the most honest examples has been the Australian comedian, Hannah Gadsby, whose scathing comedy set excoriates a patriarchal and violent system. In the context of the growing conservatism of the current US administration, dystopian dramas such as The Handmaid’s Tale have also become a vehicle for exploring the realities of a violent brand of masculinity.

Women taking creative control

There is some evidence that women are beginning to take creative control. Actresses like Reese Witherspoon and Greta Gerwig are promoting women on screen and behind the camera, resulting in authentic and nuanced renderings of female characters. Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine, which solely focuses on creating female-led content, is a prime example of an enterprise seeking to redress the gender imbalance in media. Her projects, which include Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and Little Fires Everywhere, demonstrate a clear commitment to surfacing complex and compelling narratives about women.

Authentic female stories versus gender swap re-makes

The spate of ‘gender swap re-makes’ such as Ocean’s 8 looks on the surface like a positive development. Films with female leads are proving successful at the box office, with female ticket buyers in particular (70% of the paying audience for Ocean’s 8 was female). Hollywood being Hollywood, this trend is set to continue, with more female-led re-boots of existing films in the pipeline. However, others see this as a negative development, relying as it does on movies originally established by male creative talent, rather than stories created specifically by or for women. This was reflected also in the lukewarm critical reception for Ocean’s 8, for example. Even though female-led films are finding big audiences, we are still some way, it seems, from women in Hollywood being able to tell their own authentic stories on their own terms.


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About Matthew Macaulay

Matthew Macaulay is an Associate Director at MTM who specialises in youth research, with a particular interest in Generation Z and kids’ media consumption. He spends a good deal of his time talking to 4-11s about their ever-growing love of YouTubers and attempting to understand why ‘unboxing’ ever caught on as a craze.