Women Are Still Under-Represented On Screen, But Things Have Improved Over The Past 15 Years, Study Suggests

August 15, 2018


Women and older people are still under-represented in American movies, although things have improved a little over the past fifteen years, according to a new study carried out by researchers from Saint Joseph’s University in the U.S. The study, which analyzed 50 top-grossing American movies of 2016, found that just 32.8 percent of the characters portrayed in these movies were played by women.

Every year, Hollywood produces hundreds of theatrical releases, showing exciting plots, romance, explosions, and impressive graphics on screen. On average, 650 to 750 Hollywood movies are released in the U.S. in one year. More than 725 Hollywood movies were released in the U.S in 2016.

In the new study published in Springer’s journal Sex Roles, Conor Neville and Phyllis Anastasio of Saint Joseph’s University examined how gender and age are portrayed in popular films. They analyzed all speaking roles in 50 of the 56 box-office hits in the U.S. in 2016, and found that women and older people are still under-represented in American movies. In total, 50 movies had 986 speaking characters, of which just 323 (32.8 percent) were played by women. Of the total 484 main characters in these films, 154 (31.8 percent) were played by women.

While women are under-represented on screen, the study found that things have improved somewhat over the past 15 years. In 2005, researchers conducted an analysis of 88 box-office hits of 2002, which revealed that women played just 28 percent for all speaking characters while men made up 72 percent of all characters.

For main characters, women’s share was 27 percent (in 2002 movies). Significant gender inequality in terms of occupational power and leadership was also found as women were rarely portrayed in leadership roles. While men older than 50 appeared regularly in various characters, women aged 40 and above were less visible on screen.



The latest study of 2016 box-office hits found no gender difference in terms of the proportion of main characters portraying leadership roles, displaying social aggression, or trying to achieve their goals. It found that women are now getting roles that present them as a person holding positions of power. Female lead characters are more regularly portrayed as showing physical aggression or outperforming men in terms of goal achievement. This is a major improvement from 2002. Moreover, the overall characterization of older people on screen has improved over the past 15 years, although women older than sixty are still underrepresented in movie characters.

A similar study carried out by USC Annenberg researchers in 2017 analyzed 900 Hollywood films released from 2007 to 2016 and found that women are indeed under-represented in films. The findings suggested that the percentage of women 40 years of age and older had not meaningfully changed from 2007 (22.1%) to 2016 (25.6%).

This particular study also evaluated each character for domestic roles, demographics, and sexualization indicators, and found that movies are dominated by white characters. Twenty-five of the top 100 Hollywood movies of 2016 did not portray any speaking black characters, 44 were without any speaking Asian character, and 54 did not feature any speaking Latino character.

Neville suggests powerful portrayals of women are needed more often to eliminate the gender inequality which shows women as less important than men in films.

“It is our hope that with the momentum from the Harvey Weinstein scandal and subsequent social movements, those in Hollywood will make the necessary changes that will lead not only to a reduction of stereotypes in film, but also to gender equality in all movie casting,” Anastasio added.

The detailed findings of the study are published in Springer’s journal Sex Roles.

Link to published study: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11199-018-0945-1


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