Last year, the second instalment in the Hunger Games franchise, Catching Fire, became the first film with a female lead to top the annual box office in 40 years. Its predecessor was, laughably, the Exorcist, whose narrative centres on a female child who has been possessed by the decidedly gendered demon we know as Satan.
While Kathryn Bigelow’s triumph at the Academy Awards in 2010 may have seemed a turning point for women in the film industry, she remains the only woman to have ever won the Oscar for Best Director, and still one of only four women ever nominated in the category.
The reality is that women were featured in directorial roles in only 4.4% of the 100 highest earning films of the decade between 2002 and 2012. The math is simple and stunning. It makes four, by Hollywood standards, truly successful female directors over ten years.
Despite Katniss Everdeen’s conquest at the box office, 2013 was a decidedly mediocre year for women in Hollywood. Of the 250 biggest movies of the year, women made up only 16% of the studio employees involved in overall production.
This number marks a 2% drop from 2012, and perhaps more shockingly, means women are 1% less involved in the industry than they were 16 years ago in 1998. The recession hasn’t helped matters, with studios reluctant to take risks on both original movies and directors who haven’t proven themselves through massive box office returns.
The revenue provided by the VHS, and later the DVD, markets allowed production companies, for a time, a level of freedom to take risks and cater to the groups they perceived as being minority.
However, Hollywood now is manufacturing a significantly lower number of films and thanks to piracy, profiting less from the home movie market. Studios are sticking to tried and tested tent pole movies; that is, films that already have an established fan base and mythology, and which will draw audiences to theatres by virtue of their existence.
The reboot of the Spiderman franchise with Andrew Garfield, less than ten years after the conclusion of the Tobey Maguire trilogy is an excellent example of this way of thinking at play in the real world.
In addition, international audiences now provide roughly 80% of the returns studios see on their blockbusters, and big budget, testosterone-driven action flicks with little dialogue are what sells in the non-English speaking world. Cultural nuances and character development require too much context and exposition to be fiscally worthwhile.
Recent research has also shown that within the context of these typically male-driven films, even their depiction of the real world outside of the plot is biased. The typical crowd scene is only 17% female; but more alarming is that studies show the average male, shown such images, regards the ratio of women to men present as equal.
That is to say, the ratio of 17% women to 83% men is perceived as being 50/50. As actress and activist Geena Davis asserts, “Maybe directors think women don’t gather, I don’t know.”
Extending ever further into the realm of the incomprehensible, when shown a crowd that is comprised of 33% women, men perceive that there are more women in the room than men. This is not a commentary on men in themselves, but on the social conditioning that shrinks the feminine, amplifies the masculine, and ultimately normalises the subjugation of all but the white heterosexual male.
Indeed, a FEM study reports that “television exposure was positively correlated with self-esteem for young white boys, but negatively correlated for self-esteem for young girls and African-American children.”
Ironically enough, Terry Press, co-President of CBS Films, points out that “men don’t go to the movies as much [as women]. Younger males are now the least reliable to turn out. Women go to the movies. When there’s something women want to see, they turn out, both younger and older.”
Despite this, the statistics suggest that if we add female characters to films continuing on the trajectory we have been on for the past two decades, we may not achieve parity for 700 years. All of this inequality seems, at its most basic level, to rely on the notion that women will go to see movies about men, but men won’t go to see movies about women.
In the last couple of years, directors like Paul Feig have brought us female-centric movies that men have loved, such as 2011’s Bridesmaids; entirely disproving, on all levels, that male viewers as a whole are inherently sexist.
Lynda Obst, who worked as a producer on both Sleepless in Seattle and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days has discussed this erroneous notion at length saying, “I was told recently, when you market a movie, listen to this, it’s kind of amazing, do not risk losing a single male viewer by catering to women in your advertising and marketing because women will go anyway.”
It’s difficult to know where to start when attempting to redress the gender balance in Hollywood. Do we begin with the so-called ‘celluloid ceiling’ that keeps women out of production, or allow established male directors like Feig prove to audiences that men can take an interest in stories about women?
The culture of objectification and sexualisation that pervades the media’s notion of the feminine ultimately ends up complicating this issue further, as the lack of respect for female substance acts cyclically through who produces, what is depicted, and how audiences react. There is still hope, however.
As Davis asserts, “In all the sectors of society that still have a huge gender disparity, how long will it take to correct that? You can’t snap your fingers and suddenly half of congress is women. But there’s one category where the underrepresentation of women can be fixed tomorrow: onscreen.”