It’s Money (Not Sexism) Keeping Women Down in Hollywood

cmh sexism

The Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism released a study recently on the representation of women in film, both onscreen and behind the camera over the course of five years, and many of the conclusions paint a fairly distressing picture. But contrary to what several editorial responses would have us believe, these results are far from surprising in a post-Bridesmaids world. Hell, they’re not even all that sexist.

Instead, it’s almost all about the money. Almost.

Does sexism occur on a daily basis in Hollywood? Has Hollywood been one big boys’ club since the very beginning? Are there still too few women making big (and small) movies? Yes, yes and yes. Is sexism the singular reason? Not even close. Profit is and always will be the main deciding factor with talent disinterest, industry laziness and the slow nature of societal change following up well behind.

Producing a film is betting on its success, and it makes sense that a business would try to ensure the best results by attaching known quantities to their biggest projects. Second, the lack of female directors in the big leagues can be attributed to several factors, but it seems unreasonable to exclude the possibility that a lower percentage of women are even interested in making movies featuring giant robots urinating on award-winning actors. Third, when studio decisions are working, as they did in 2012 to the tune of the highest domestic box-office tally in history, the industry is given no convincing reason to change their ways. And lastly, even if efforts are made, no change this big and this valuable is going to come overnight just because people loved seeing Maya Rudolph crap herself in a wedding dress.


The study, “Gender Equality in 500 Popular Films,” looked at the top 100 grossing films from 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012. It’s unclear why 2011 was skipped, but two things here are immediately worth noting. First, the top 15 films of 2011 include such female-friendly films as Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows 2, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn 1, Kung Fu Panda 2, The Help and, wait for it, Bridesmaids. Seems like an odd year to leave out of this particular study.

Also, and perhaps more relevant, 2011 saw 35 feature films from female directors which averages out to 5.8% of the year’s 601 films. That’s still a far cry from half, but it’s slightly higher than the study’s conclusion that only 4.2% of the films covered were directed by women. The study’s focus solely on the top grossers seems intended to raise a question about a presumed glass ceiling separating blockbusters from the much smaller films that open in second-run theaters. From Jason Bailey’s post at Flavorwire:

“The past decade has seen only 41 women make films that landed in the year-end top 100 lists. Put simply: the male-to-female ratio among studio filmmakers is 15.24:1. The stats are about as bleak for female screenwriters, so there’s your first problem — there aren’t enough women given opportunities to create complex roles for women, and most male screenwriters and directors are either afraid to write good roles for women or bad at it.”

While the study does show an increased percentage of female characters in female-directed films, the idea of what qualifies as “complex” or “good” is purely subjective. Lest we forget, women wrote and directed Twilight, and I’d argue that far too many blockbusters feature zero complex characters of either sex. But it’s the argument that too few women are “given” the opportunity to write or direct ostensibly big movies that raises the bushiest eyebrow.

Per the studios’ profit agenda very few big budget films are handed to inexperienced directors as they instead choose names with a proven track record or at least a temporarily high profile (i.e. Tron Legacy director Joseph Kosinski being noticed after a series of eye-catching, scifi-themed commercials). Only ten (non-animated features) of 2012’s top 100 films were helmed by first-time feature directors, but in each case the decision seems fairly earned.

Films like Ted, John Carter, Chronicle and Cabin In the Woods went to the talent responsible for shepherding the project along from creation to execution. Others like The Vow, Pitch Perfect, Red Tails, Red Dawn and Trouble With the Curve went to directors with long histories in TV and film. And Project X… well, was there even a woman interested in touching that one?

I used the word “earned” above for a reason as that’s ultimately why these people were given these jobs. No one is simply going to be handed a $100m movie; hard work and relevant experience are required. You build up to directing a big action film, and just as important and necessary as experience is an interest and aptitude in the film’s more blockbustery elements. Big movies usually include action and/or CGI meaning a resume with similarly-themed accomplishments is a clear bonus. No study exists to back this up, but it’s not hard to imagine that a higher percentage of males show enthusiasm towards making movies loaded with cartoon violence and lackluster scripts.


Another recent study, this time commissioned by Sundance institute, found a much higher percentage of female filmmakers (29.8%) working in independent cinema. The presumed conclusion is that women make smaller films because they can’t get the jobs in big Hollywood, but could it also be that many women are simply drawn to the more personal, intimate and smarter stories best served by smaller films? It’s a generalization to be sure but one based on common sense and an even casual awareness of the sexes. Obviously there are plenty of women whose eyes go wide at the thought of monsters, mayhem and “manly” stuff. Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone, Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body, and Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact are just a few examples with the poster child (and unavoidable name drop in articles like this) being Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow.

She’s also a case study for what I mentioned above in regard to earning a spot at the table. She started early on making traditionally “male” movies like Near Dark, the female-led Blue Steel, and Strange Days and is now at a point where she could probably get attached to any tentpole pic she wanted. The point being you don’t go from zero to Zero Dark Thirty. Bigelow actively pursued the opportunities and earned them (and then chose to stay indie).

“If there’s specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can’t change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies. It’s irrelevant who or what directed a movie, the important thing is that you either respond to it or you don’t. There should be more women directing; I think there’s just not the awareness that it’s really possible. It is.” excerpted from The Tech

Her concern that many female filmmakers simply don’t think they can be a movie director is legitimate, but how much of their ignorance is based on a fear of big, sexist Hollywood and how much is due simply to lack of self conviction or personal interest? I don’t know the answer to that because it’s near impossible to measure peoples’ hopes, dreams and self worth, but odds are both play a role. The point is that if a woman has conviction and talent, no amount of sexist pricks is going to be able to stop her. The same goes for another common scapegoat, pregnancy, which sees some women drop out of the business to raise their family (an entirely unrelated form of sexism). But even that doesn’t always need to be the case as evidenced by writer/director Beth Schacter’s (Virgin Mary) comments on a recent Broken Projector. She gave birth to her first child, and three weeks later went back to the set. “I made it work,” she said “because I want both things.”

This raises a question about the study’s singular focus on the higher-grossing films. Surely it was done in part for the sake of simplicity, but it remains misleading to chart solely on the bigger moneymakers. Women are under-represented across the board, but excluding so much of the indie film world gives somewhat of a false conclusion overall. As this Sundance study shows, women are increasing their contributions to cinema by way of lower budgeted films, and by ignoring that, the Annenberg School’s study is essentially mimicking Hollywood’s own focus on profit above all else.


It’s difficult to engender change of any kind when the status quo is so damned profitable. Domestic box office take for 2012 was a record-breaking $10.8b, and this was the year that saw the “lowest percentage of onscreen females” across the five year study. There were fewer speaking roles for women in 2012, and Hollywood made more money than ever. Accusations that it’s mostly men making the big decisions and that they’re continuously targeting the young male demographic have a substantial truth to them, but the results speak for themselves.

What’s a studio chief supposed to do with that? Man or woman, they’re not going to rush to change a single thing in the way they’re managing the company. Data from the MPAA even makes it abundantly clear that contrary to their coveted target demo, the majority (52%) of moviegoers are female. The ticket-buying public, over half of them women, votes at the box office with its dollars, and according to those votes we don’t seem to mind an onscreen male to female ratio of 2.51 to 1, or the fact that only a quarter of all narrators are women, or that females are four times as likely to be shown onscreen in sexy or revealing attire.

If audiences viewed any of that as a problem they’d vote with their dollars. (Theoretically.) We’d stop turning big, dumb movies that objectify women into box office hits. We’d go out of our way to find and support films that not only understand the Bechdel Test but pass it, too. We’d seek out new filmmakers, including women, to support new talent.

Barring moviegoers making their collective voices heard, the change will need to come voluntarily from within. A quota system is out of the question so spontaneous effort is required from people in positions of power currently reaping the benefits and bonuses from unprecedented box office success. Good luck with that.


Even if the three other spokes of this male-dominated wheel were to be acknowledged and accounted for, it’s still society as a whole that needs to change, and as history has made abundantly clear, that’s rarely a fast process. Under-represented groups, women included, have been making slow inroads for years, decades, nearly a century across all facets of life, and most of it has moved at a crawl.

Bridesmaids‘ immense success triggered a media frenzy with many seeing it as a floodgate opening to splash feminine goodness across future silver screens, but now the study has squashed those expectations and asked the question: “Why is Hollywood continuing to fail at representing women, despite recent high-profile examples that female-driven movies can be blockbusters?” The answer given is a straightforward “sexism,” but that kind of thinking is far too reductive and simple.

But for the sake of argument let’s say big, bad sexism is wholly to blame. Is it reasonable to expect that a Paul Feig comedy should have been enough to turn it all around? Sure, Melissa McCarthy’s far better off now, but should anyone have expected Hollywood studios to immediately throw dozens of high profile, female-heavy films into production? Let’s not forget that Bachelorette came out a year later and nobody cared. As with any other segment of society these things take time. It’s a game of dominoes or connect the dots where one success leads to the next and to the next, and in this case a line can be drawn from Bridesmaids to the monster hit Identity Thief to, possibly, Feig’s own The Heat hitting theaters this summer. Seriously, McCarthy is doing really well.


So what’s the point of this? I set out to argue that the success of Bridesmaids should never have been viewed as a dramatic turning point in cinema history for female filmmakers and ended up haphazardly highlighting four big obstacles to actually achieving gender equality in movies. One high-grossing, female-led ensemble comedy was never going to be a silver bullet for an issue that remains so well entrenched throughout society, and while a perfect world would see everyone who wants to direct, write or star in a movie accomplishing their goal. that will never be a reality.

Men and women who want success in movies have to work for it, and if they’re talented and persistent, no sexist, racist, ageist, etc-ist interactions should be able to stop them. Is it tougher for women? It sure seems to be, but I’m not entirely convinced what some people are labeling as closed doors aren’t actually just doors in need of a collective nudge. Or a firm kick.

My ramblings only scratched the surface of the study‘s finding, and I’d recommend the read for anyone interested in its (questionably) complete picture. Regardless of my opinions above, the fact remains that more women behind the camera can only be a good thing. Storytelling, in movies both big and small, benefits from a variety of voices, and we in the audience benefit from them all.

Author’s Note: As a quick postscript, and the reason why I decided to jump into a weeks-old conversation well beyond the time-frame that anyone is even going to give a damn, yet another study has added something new to the topic. San Diego State released a study highlighting the gender divide in film criticism with findings showing an 82/18 split between male and female critics. This particular study is loaded with troubling details, and the conclusion that movie websites are apparently sexist is the least of them.

From its choice of source data (Rotten Tomatoes’ Top Critics) to its small sampling (two months earlier this year) to its empty comparison of these findings against newspaper critics in 2007, there’s not actually a lot being said here of value. The web levels the playing field in every possible way meaning anyone, literally anyone with internet access, can be a critic.

And some days it feels like everyone is.

Rob is the Chief Film Critic of Film School Rejects. He doesn't eat cheese on weekdays.

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