How the film industry has let women down

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The film industry remains undoubtedly male-dominated. It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World, a study conducted by the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego University, found that in 2023 the percentage of female protagonists was an alarmingly low 28%. And that’s just in front of the camera. In 2022, women only made up 24% of directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 grossing films of that year, according to The Celluloid Ceiling report. It’s clear that women are drastically under-represented in both film production and performance.

The recent success of female-led films with female protagonists, such as Wonder Woman (2017) or Barbie (2023), have given the impression that women are represented equally in films. However, Dr Martha Lauzen, author of It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World and The Celluloid Ceiling, has suggested that “there is a growing disconnect … between what we might perceive as being the current status of women in film and their actual status.” Between 2022 and 2023, the percentage of films with female protagonists declined from 33% to 28%, whereas films featuring male protagonists rose from 52% to 62%. The female voice is also silenced on-screen; women only made up 35% of all speaking characters in 2023, a decline of 2% from 2022. A handful of high-profile female leads have led to a distorted belief that gender parity exists in Hollywood, further perpetuating the ‘celluloid ceiling’ – a play on the metaphor ‘glass ceiling’. In a male-dominated industry, the ground-breaking successes achieved by women are, of course, worthy of immense praise. But they only tell one side of the story. Despite two women being nominated for best director for the first time at the 2021 Academy Awards, only three female directors have ever taken home the award. And let’s not forget about Barbie, whose director, Greta Gerwig, and female protagonist, Margot Robbie, were overlooked for best director and best actress in the 2024 nominations. This snub is disappointing, considering Barbie received fantastic reviews from critics and is the only billion-dollar movie solely directed by a woman.

Women often receive secondary and stereotypical representation tied to traditional roles of wives, lovers and mothers

The on-screen under-representation of women is coupled with their misrepresentation. Rather than depicting the multifacetedness of real-life women, cinema tends to perpetuate negative gender stereotypes, which are reflected in the roles women play in films. Women often receive secondary and stereotypical representation tied to traditional roles of wives, lovers and mothers. Female characters are portrayed as overly emotional or dramatic, playing into the ‘hysterical woman’ trope. The fairy-tale ‘damsel in distress’ stereotype continues to subtly plague contemporary rom-coms, such as Pretty Woman (1990) where Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts), a prostitute, is literally saved by the wealthy businessman Edward Lewis (Richard Gere). Despite record high female employment rates, women are rarely identified solely by work-related roles in cinema. In 2023, 76% of male characters in speaking roles had an identifiable occupation, compared to 60% of female characters. Women are largely confined to domestic roles or employed in low-status jobs, whereas men are portrayed as ambitious, enterprising and pursuing high-status careers.

Female characters tend to be objectified by the male-dominated film industry, which represents women through the sexual desires of a heterosexual male audience. In her 1975 essay, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Laura Mulvey argues that women are depicted “as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium.” One example of an overly-sexualised female character is Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie) in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), the wife of rich stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). Close-up shots of her scantily clad body and sexist conversations about her appearance from male characters make her a one-dimensional character with no goals or desires of her own.

With female filmmakers at the helm, the stereotypical portrayal of women in cinema will become a thing of the past

Behind the camera, women made up 18% of all directors working on the top 250 films of 2022, according to The Celluloid Ceiling report. On films with at least one female director, women compromised 53% of writers, 39% of editors and 19% of cinematographers. However, on films with male directors, women only made up 12% of writers, 19% of editors and 4% of cinematographers. Nothing will change if the film industry is organised by a patriarchal structure that inferiorises the talent that women bring to cinema. Dr Martha Lauzen has suggested the creation of “an independent organisation charged with overseeing issues of diversity”, which would “augment and/or replace the current fragmented approach to providing opportunities for underemployed and underrepresented groups.” It’s vital that effective and immediate action is taken to dismantle a male-dominated industry, which shows no sign of progressing on its own. With female filmmakers at the helm, the stereotypical portrayal of women in cinema will become a thing of the past.   

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