Attempts to point out the gender imbalance in the movie industry often meet with allegations of anecdotal evidence; pointing out that a film doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test is likely to be greeted with one of three responses: Either that it’s only one film and not representative, or that this particular film had a good reason not to pass and ought to be the exception, or that the Bechdel Test is arbitrary and meaningless. Thus, I’m here presenting a quantitative study of the relative number of film roles for men and women.
Since men and women each comprise about half the population, you’d expect each to have an approximately equal number of roles in movies* (unless you think that women’s lives are inherently less important or interesting, in which case you may feel free to smack yourself). This doesn’t mean, as is often assumed, that each individual movie should have a cast that’s half male and half female. Rather, it means that films should fall into a rough bell curve; 50 randomly-selected films might look like this:
The majority have roughly equal numbers of men and women, some have more men, some have more women, and a small minority are all or almost all male or female. If you prefer, the curve could be flatter, with more films at the ends and relatively fewer in the middle, but either way the overall male/female ratio should be about even.
I looked at Wikipedia’s 50 highest-grossing films of the 2000s, using IMDB cast lists to count the male and female characters. When the cast was listed in order of importance, I used only the first billed cast members; when listed alphabetically (The Lord of the Rings) or in order of appearance (Harry Potter) I used the entire cast. In either case, I usually skipped unnamed characters and characters without IMDB character pages, a strong indicator that it’s a tiny bit part, but exceptions had to be made on a film-by-film basis because neither naming nor IMDB pages are necessarily consistent (for instance, I wouldn’t want to omit Tigress from Kung Fu Panda for not having a real name). Characters without gender were usually counted as the gender of the actor or actress, because there is significance to the sorting hat from Harry Potter and the computer from WALL-E being voiced by male actors. The results are below.
Drastically different. It’s closer to an S-curve than a bell curve: Until you pass the 90% male mark, each bracket contains more films than the one below it. Thus, not only is a film extremely likely to have more men than women, but it’s more likely to be two-thirds male than half male, more likely to be three-quarters male than two-thirds male, and more likely to be four-fifths male than three-quarters. Only Mamma Mia! prevents all 50 films from containing more men than women.
The obvious objection is that high-grossing movies are usually summer action films and children’s movies, which are not representative of movies in general–aside from Mamma Mia!, chick flicks are absent, for instance. The 2000s might also be non-representative because they’re skewed by franchises like The Lord of the Rings and Transformers. The first objection raises the question why action movies and children’s films are not expected to have a strong representation of female characters, and the second is effectively canceled out by the more gender-equitable Harry Potter films, but fair enough. Let’s have a look at the 20 most-acclaimed films of the decade, as analyzed by Metacritic.
Better; the 90%-100% male category is now empty, and, even though there are fewer total films, the 40%-50% category contains multiple films. If you take out the three Lord of the Rings films, only one remains in the 80%-90% category (The Dark Knight). On the other hand, the foreign films (Amelie, 4 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days) fall towards the lower end of the graph, so maybe it’s just American cinema that’s the problem here.
But the graph is still centered at 60%-70%. That is, the average acclaimed film has twice as many men as women, or to put the same thing another way, men’s voices are considered twice as important to express in film. And there still isn’t a single film with more than 60% women: Everything is either mostly men or about even. Women’s stories, with a large majority of women in the cast, are simply not present.
And now for the second round of objections. Yes, there are many films that are neither popular nor critically acclaimed, but at that point you’re grouping movies starring women with Gigli. I don’t have time to get into the thorny mess of rebuttals–nobody wants to see movies about women; all movies about women are bad–except to say that a few really good female-dominated films could start changing that landscape.
Men are not twice as important as women. We can do better.
You can find my original data here (.xls).
*People who don’t identify as either male or female are, of course, egregiously underrepresented in film as well, but that’s a much more complex issue to address. As far as I know, none of the films studied included human characters who identified as neither male nor female.