Katniss Everdeen and Bella Swan have done little to close Hollywood’s gender gap.
Just 23 percent of films distributed globally from 2010 to 2013 featured female protagonists, according to a report released Monday by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Just 31 percent of the speaking characters were women in the 120 films studied, and 8 percent had female directors.
The findings suggest successful films such as “The Hunger Games” and “Twilight” series have done little to increase the number of major roles available to women. While those movies and the recent “Gravity,” “Frozen” and “Maleficent” feature female leads, research shows hardly a ripple in the numbers since the 1940s.
“So many people assume that we are done. We have to keep reminding ourselves that we are not,” Davis said in an interview. “The percentage of female lead characters and speaking characters have yet to improve.”
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Davis, 58, won an Academy Award for her supporting role in “The Accidental Tourist” in 1988 and was nominated for “Thelma & Louise,” the 1991 action film in which she and Susan Sarandon played friends on the run from the law.
The following year, Davis starred in “A League of Their Own,” directed by Penny Marshall, about an all-female professional baseball team. The lack of progress for women since then leaves Davis skeptical that the latest crop of films represent the start of a permanent improvement.
“The phenomenon that I’ve noticed for about 20 years or so now is that when a movie comes out that is about women there is a big feeling that this changes everything,” Davis said.
While women make up half of the population, they’ve been a chronic minority onscreen. Of the 600 top-grossing domestic films from 2007 to 2013, the percentage of speaking roles for women ranged from 28 percent to 33 percent each year, according to Stacy Smith, a University of Southern California professor who conducted the research for the Geena Davis Institute.
Those figures are consistent with previous research, which showed that from 1946 to 1955, 25 percent of speaking characters were female, according to Smith, founder and director of Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Smith’s work has also documented an increase in the sexualization of young women onscreen, between 13 and 20 years old. The problem is worldwide, Smith said in an interview.
“Not one country is anywhere near representing reality,” Smith said. “Patterns of gendered sexualization and occupational portrayals that we have seen in U.S. films extend to many of the countries.”
One measure how women are portrayed in movies is the so-called Bechdel Test, named for the cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who penned a 1985 comic strip in which a female character said she’d only go to a movie if it met three requirements: that it had at least two named women, that they talk to each other, and they talk about something other than men.
Since the early 1990s, the percentage of films passing the Bechdel Test has plateaued at just over 50 percent, according to fivethirtyeight.com, the ESPN-hosted data analysis website run by Nate Silver.
Hollywood isn’t without women in powerful positions. They range from studio executives like Amy Pascal at Sony, Stacey Snider, who is leaving DreamWorks Studios to join Fox, and directors including Kathryn Bigelow and Sofia Coppola.
One of the biggest forces in film production is Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, which backed Oscar contenders including Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” as well as “Her” and “American Hustle.”
Their presence is important because in movies directed by a woman, almost 7 percent more females appear onscreen, according to the newest study.
The Swedish Film Institute is trying to effect change by spreading funding equally between male and female filmmakers.
Among films that premiered last year and were funded by the institute, the ratio with a female director increased to 35 percent, from 26 percent in the 2006-2012 period and 19 percent from 2000 to 2005. Of films not funded by the institute, the proportion of female directors was 18 percent.
Anna Serner, who was appointed chief executive of the Swedish institute in 2011, changed the way the government funded filmmakers, interpreting a mandate that the institute award funding equally as meaning split evenly between the sexes.
“It was the first time that I really had power, as we actually give money away,” Serner said. “The attention and will is directed towards where the money goes, and the money we are responsible for is now awarded to twice as many female directors than when we’re not.”
The decision to award funds equally between the sexes was “extremely scary for the industry,” Serner said. The institute typically provides 40 percent of the budget for films by women, compared with 30 percent to 33 percent for men, she said, because women usually find it more difficult to secure financial support.
“The problem is not that there isn’t any competence, it’s that there is no will to let women through,” Serner said.
Cathy Schulman, president of Mandalay Pictures and Women in Film Los Angeles, said rules like those in Sweden could help here, especially since women have a tougher time getting money.
“It was so clearly the obstacle that shone above other problems,” said Schulman, who produced the 2006 best-picture Oscar winner for “Crash.”
The data suggest having more women in leading roles will help, rather than hurt the industry. Between 1990 and 2013, movies that passed the Bechdel Test garnered higher returns on their investment than ones that didn’t, according to fivethirtyeight’s analysis.
“At some point the industry is going to realize that all these successful movies starring women are not one-offs, that they really are genuine hits that deserve to be repeated,” Davis said.