Heroines fail to close gender gap

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Katniss Everdeen and Bella Swan have done little to close Hollywood's gender gap.

Just 23 per cent of films distributed globally from 2010 to last year featured female protagonists, according to a report released yesterday by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Only 31 per cent of the speaking characters were women in the 120 films studied and 8 per cent had female directors.

The findings suggest successful films such as The Hunger Games and Twilight series have done little to increase the number of major roles available to women. While those movies and last year's Gravity and Frozen as well as this year's Maleficent feature female leads, research shows hardly a ripple in the numbers since the 1940s.

"So many people assume that we are done. We have to keep reminding ourselves that we are not," Geena Davis said in an interview. "The percentage of female lead characters and speaking characters has yet to improve."

The 58-year-old won an Academy Award for her supporting role in The Accidental Tourist in 1988 and was nominated for Thelma & Louise, the 1991 action film in which she and Susan Sarandon played friends on the run from the law.

The following year, Davis starred in A League Of Their Own, directed by Penny Marshall, about an all-female professional baseball team. The lack of progress for women since then leaves Davis sceptical that the latest crop of films represents the start of a permanent improvement.

"The phenomenon that I've noticed for about 20 years or so now is that when a movie that is about women comes out, there is a big feeling that this changes everything," she said.

Of the 600 top-grossing domestic films from 2007 to last year, the percentage of speaking roles for women ranged from 28 per cent to 33 per cent each year, according to Stacy Smith, a University of Southern California professor who conducted the research for the Geena Davis Institute.

Those figures are consistent with previous research, which showed that from 1946 to 1955, 25 per cent of speaking characters were female, according to Smith, founder and director of Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Her work has also documented an increase in the sexualisation of young women on screen, between 13 and 20 years old. The problem is worldwide, she said in an interview.

"Not one country is anywhere near representing reality," she said. "Patterns of gendered sexualisation and occupational portrayals that we have seen in US films extend to many of the countries."

One measure how women are portrayed in movies is the so-called Bechdel Test, named for the cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who penned a 1985 comic strip in which a female character said she would go to a movie only if it met three requirements: that it had at least two named women, that they talk to each other and they talk about something other than men.

Since the early 1990s, the percentage of films passing the Bechdel Test has plateaued at just over 50 per cent, according to fivethirtyeight.com, the ESPN-hosted data analysis website run by Nate Silver.

Hollywood is not without women in powerful positions. They range from studio executives such as Amy Pascal at Sony Corp, Stacey Snider, who is leaving DreamWorks Studios to join Fox and directors including Kathryn Bigelow and Sofia Coppola.

One of the biggest forces in film production is Megan Ellison's Annapurna Pictures, which backed Oscar contenders including Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty (2012) as well as Her (2013) and American Hustle (2013).

Their presence is important because in movies directed by a woman, almost 7 per cent more females appear on screen, according to the newest study.

The data suggest having more women in leading roles will help, rather than hurt, the industry.

Between 1990 and last year, movies that passed the Bechdel Test garnered higher returns on their investment than ones that did not, according to fivethirtyeight's analysis.

"At some point, the industry is going to realise that all these successful movies starring women are not one-offs, that they really are genuine hits that deserve to be repeated," Davis said.

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