Women in the Media: Hollywood – part one

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Hollywood is the oldest film industry in the world and it’s also the largest when it comes to box office gross and number of screens. It’s a media powerhouse that not only has an annual gross box office of over $10billion, but it has also shaped society in many ways. In the United States, there are more than 40,000 cinema screens, and box office numbers, in the US as well as internationally, show that people are eager to see Hollywood’s latests releases. But, when watching a film, do we stop and think about what we’re watching and realise how it shapes our society? Let’s take a closer look at Hollywood.

Breaking down Hollywood

Take a minute to think about the last Hollywood film you watched. Was the protagonist a man or a woman? It’s most likely that only three out of seven of those of you who read the question will have answered ‘woman’. Why? Because in the top 100 Hollywood films of 2016 only 29% of protagonists were female. And if we go back to 2015 or 2014, the figures are even lower, with only 22% and 12% of all protagonists being female.

Furthermore, it’s not only the absence of female leading roles, but also the way women are represented in films. In 2016’s top 100 films, only 32% of speaking characters were female. This means that women don’t have a voice in one of the most powerful movie industries in the world and are clearly under-represented, as women comprise49.6% of the world’s population and in the US women account for .

The under-representation of women in films is distorting reality, and this constant distortion reinforces the belief that there really are more men than women and that men are the cultural standard. As a result of this lack of female voices in Hollywood films, the message that is being sent out is that men’s voices are stronger and more important, as there are more men than women on screen, and that they are leaders in all sorts of situations, as reflected in films. But under-representation is not the only problem. It’s the way that women are portrayed in films that is reinforcing the idea that women are not equal to men.


'It’s not only the absence of female leading roles, but also the way women are represented in films.'


Work, age and physical appearance

As presented by Wood, there are three main points that are a constant in most Hollywood films when it comes to the portrayal women: work, age and physical appearance.

In last year’s top 100 films, 78% of female characters had an identifiable job or occupation, compared to 86% of male characters, and 45% of female characters were seen in their work setting, actually working, compared to 61% of males. This is proof of how women are usually portrayed as having other primary concerns that are not actually work-related, and when they do, they stop being the “good woman”. In The Devil Wears Prada, we see a clear example of this. Meryl Streep plays Miranda Priestly, a powerful fashion magazine editor who devotes her life to her job. However, she is portrayed as authoritarian, bossy, not caring, and extremely demanding. On the other hand, Anne Hathaway plays Andrea Sachs, a college graduate who lands a job as Priestly’s assistant and is subordinate to Priestly. Again, when she decides to devote her life to her role, her relationship with her boyfriend starts to fall apart as she’s no longer prioritising it.

Another example of this is The Intern, a film in which Anne Hathaway plays the role of Jules, CEO and founder of About The Fit, an e-commerce start-up. Here, Jules not only is under pressure to give up her post of CEO to someone outside of the company as her investors feel that she is unable to cope with the workload, but her husband, who is taking care of their children full-time, ends up having an affair because Jules works too hard. This portrays women as not strong enough to cope with a CEO role in a large company and the message is that they should prioritise their family and relationship or it could all end up falling apart.

When it comes to age, 35 seems to be the limit. A recent report, ‘Linguistic analysis of differences in portrayal of movie characters’, which reviewed about 1000 screenplays, found that female film characters are on average five years younger than male characters. In the top 100 films of 2016 female characters remained younger than their male counterparts. The majority of female characters were in their twenties (23%) and thirties (32%), while the majority of male characters were in their thirties (31%) and forties (30%). What’s more, males aged 40 and over accounted for 52% of all male characters, and females aged 40 and over accounted for just 32% of all female characters. In the past years, there has been an increase in the number of films with female protagonists who were over 35 years old, but the numbers are still low.

Physical appearance is another issue. As Wood reported, ‘In addition to being young, the majority of women are beautiful, very thin and passive’ in Hollywood films. This created a tremendous pressure on society and on young girls who are identifying with their role models and following the cultural standards set by Hollywood films. Producer Ross Putman is using his twitter account (@femscriptintros) to call out female character descriptions in Hollywood scripts (all names have been changed to JANE).

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The majority of female characters are white, slim, beautiful women under 35 years old and they represent only 29% of all leading roles in Hollywood films. This is an under-representation of the US female population, not to say the world population. And as well as being an under-representation, it’s also a misrepresentation that creates a distorted view of who and what women are and do.