Seen But Not Heard: A Decrease in Speaking Roles For Women

The Latest Results from SDSU’s Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film

By Bee Garner

2019 saw many films dominating the Box Office, which just so happened to have a female lead whether it was Marvel’s “Captain Marvel” or Greta Gerwig‘s adaptation of “Little Women”. It seemed to be a landmark year for female characters in film and with 2020 promising to deliver many more female led films, it looks like we’re beginning to see equality at the Box Office. Earlier this month it was announced that 2019 saw a record number of feature films with a female lead. The latest study out of San Diego State University found that the number of films with a female lead(s) has reached a historic high of 40%—a 9% increase from last year.

And, while women are being seen in more films, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re being heard. Only 34% of all speaking roles went to women, a decrease of 1% from 2018.

The study was conducted by Martha Lauzen (the executive director of SDSU’s Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film) as part of the annual “The Celluloid Ceiling”. This is the longest-running study on female employment in the industry and hastracked women’s employment on top grossing films for the last 22 years. Lauzen examined more than 2,300 characters from the top 100 grossing films of 2019.

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And, while women are being seen in more films, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re being heard. Only 34% of all speaking roles went to women, a decrease of 1% from 2018. And, male characters tend to be the ones driving the film’s narrative forward, with female characters being given a secondary role. In fact, in films directed and written by men, female characters are less likely to be given major roles within the story and even speaking parts!

It’s not all doom and gloom, as the percentage of women working behind-the-scenes women on the top 100 and 250 (domestic) grossing films has increased, reaching recent historic highs. In previous years, the study has found that female leads are more prominent in independent films. However, 2019 has seen an increase of female protagonists appearing in studio films, with 45% of female protagonists showing up in studio films and 55% making their appearances in indie films.

Only 34% of all speaking roles went to women, a decrease of 1% from 2018. And, male characters tend to be the ones driving the film’s narrative forward, with female characters being given a secondary role.

Behind the camera, Women were comprising 13% of all directors working on the top 250 films of 2019. This is an increase of 5 percentage points from 8% in 2018, and an increase of 2 percentage points from the previous high of 11% in 2017. Despite this historic high, Female Directors such as Gerwig, Lulu Wang, Melina Matsoukas, Lorene Scafaria, and Marielle Heller were not nominated at this year’s Oscars.

capt marvel

It’s not only directing where we’ve seen an increase, as there has been an increase in women writers, with women making up 19% of all writers working on the 250 top films of 2019. This is an increase of 3 percentage points from 16% in 2018. There are also more women producing films with an increase of 1% from 26% in 2018 to 27% of all producers who produced the 250 top films. The study also found that there was a small increase in the number of female cinematographers, as Women accounted for 5% of all cinematographers working on the top 250 films of 2019, an increase of 1% from 2018.

little-women-greta-gerwig-bts

The report also found that films with female directors are far more likely to employ women in key roles compared to films which are directed exclusively by men. Of the 500 top grossing films last year, 59% of those which were directed by women employed female writers. On films with at least one female director, women comprised 43% of editors. And, on films with at least one female director, women accounted for 21% of cinematographers. However, the numbers of female editors, writers and cinematographers decrease in films directed by men.

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Still, we have a long way to go for equality. 85% of the top 250 films had a male director, 73% had no women writers, 44% had no women executive producers, 31% had no women producers, 72% had no women editors, and 95% had no women cinematographer. Certain genres are still dominated by male directors, with only 17% of the top horror films and 14% of action films of 2019 being directed by a female filmmaker.

Slowly, but surely we are making progress. However, we need to keep working together in order to shatter that celluloid ceiling.

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