• Woke editors

Gender inequality in the film industry

By R. S. Drain


“What’s the trick to writing a great female character? Make her human.”

This quote by Nicole Holofcener, while simple, resonates with the generations of movie audiences who have seen women in film misrepresented for decades and felt ostracized by the very movies meant to include them.


Mary Tyler Moore in the “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (Nov/62) was the first woman to wear pants in a sitcom. Writers had to limit her to "one pants scene per episode" to pacify the advertisers

As the years fall away, and the concentrated efforts of female directors, screenwriters and actors take their turns beating their bloody fists against the glass ceiling; finally the cracks begin to show. After 15 years of making movies, Pixar features their first female lead in the form of Princess Merida. Mary Tyler Moore dares to wear capri pants instead of a dress on the Dick Van Dyke Show. Frances Marion becomes the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Screenplay.



Even so, there still remains a desperate problem with women in Hollywood. Females make up 51% of moviegoers and have control over $20 trillion in spending power internationally. Yet in the top 100 grossing films of 2018, women represented 4% of the directors, 5% of the writers, 3% of the cinematographers, 18% of the producers, 18% of the executive producers, and 14% of the editors With such a dire lack of women working behind the scenes, it’s no surprise that the women on screen continue to remain flat and unrelatable, only furthering the discrimination against women-led films.


Gender inequality in the film industry. Data and infographic by filmonomics @ slated

However, there are some ways to make sure women are better represented on screen.

A character in Dykes to Watch Out For explains the rules that later came to be known as the Bechdel test (1985). By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41021832

The Bechdel test is a simple but efficient analysis about multi-layered and interesting female characters. The test was created by Alison Bechdel — an acclaimed cartoonist who was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2014 and whose memoir was adapted into a Tony Award-winning musical – and has three simple rules: it has to have at least two named women in it, they have to talk to each other, and they have to discuss something besides a man. Of course, this won’t always be an effective measurement, but it’s a good place to start in making sure the characters have developed personalities and motivations.


Contrary to popular belief, passing The Bechdel Test doesn’t have to be forced or disadvantage the movie. In fact, in the past three years, 11 films passed the $1 billion revenue mark—and all 11 of them passed the Bechdel Test. Studies have even found that women-led films on average do better than male-led films.


However, the biggest problem with representation isn’t actually in the main role.The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative took a look at each speaking character in the 100 top-grossing films that were released in 2016 and found that only 31.4% of the 39,788 speaking characters were women.


Think of any recent films you’ve seen. The characters go to see a doctor. Is the doctor a man or a woman? The characters go to a CEO. Is the CEO a man or a woman? Statistics show that approximately 80% of the time, extras with speaking parts go to men. Even then, in the brief examples where the extra is a woman, they are often that way to be gawked at or made fun of, which is another subconscious way of making women feel isolated from the world of film.


This bone-dry representation has gone unchecked for so long that when women do start raising their voices for representation; the predominantly male film crew behind the scenes don’t know how to accurately fulfil this need. They mistake our desire for strong, multi-faceted female characters for ‘perfection’, often resulting in ‘Mary Sues’ without flaws or believable motivations.


Another mistake in portraying realistic female characters is the recurring trope of simultaneous appraisal and belittlement of femininity. Female characters with perfect hair and make-up show an obvious disregard for the actual process of ‘feminine’ practises that must be undertaken to achieve their appearance. They have perfect eyeliner, yet mock women who spend time on makeup. They have perfect hair, yet are never seen grooming it. This creates an artificial paradox that makes these on-screen women more like aliens than real people.


To repeat Nicole Holofcener’s quote: “What’s the trick to writing a great female character? Make her human.” All people want are female characters that reflect reality. Who has flaws, goals, emotions and feels pain. Who speaks and interacts with other characters, and isn’t just seen as ‘eye-candy’ or a joke. Just another human being on the big screen.



*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Woke magazine.

Cover image by Gerd Altmann

Our thanks to:

  • White Facebook Icon
  • White Instagram Icon
  • White Twitter Icon

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Woke acknowledges the Traditional Owners of country throughout Australia and recognise their continuing connection to land, waters and culture.  Woke pays its respect to their Elders past, present and emerging.

© 2020 by Woke