Why Are Women Still Struggling in Hollywood?

“Meryl Streep was so brilliant in ‘August: Osage County,’ proving that there are still great parts in Hollywood for Meryl Streeps over 60.”

– Tina Fey (hosting the 2014 Golden Globes)

Are you sipping a soda at Schwab’s Pharmacy as you dream of lighting up the screen as the next Lana Turner?

Dream on.

Being a female actor in Hollywood is not glitz and glamour. It is excrutiatingly hard work — and getting harder all the time, according to a new report just released from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

You might suspect as much from the study’s title: “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World: On-Screen Representations of Female Characters in the Top 100 Films of 2013.”

For anyone tempted to feel encouraged by the advances of feminism in films in recent years, the numbers in the report come like James Cagney hitting you in the face with a grapefruit.

“Female characters remained dramatically under-represented as protagonists, major characters and speaking (major and minor) characters in the top grossing films of 2013,” the report reads.

“Females accounted for 15 percent of protagonists, 29 percent of major characters and 30 percent of all speaking characters,” it continues. “Female characters were younger than their male counterparts and were more likely than males to have an identifiable marital status. Further, female characters were less likely than males to have clearly identifiable goals or be portrayed as leaders of any kind.”


Filmmaker Tim Hines sees red. “Those numbers are appalling,” he tells 2Blue Media.

Hines is directing “10 Days in a Madhouse,” an independent movie about 19th-century journalist Nellie Bly going undercover in an insane asylum in 1887.

With 80 percent of the cast being women, his film easily passes the Bechdel Test. That’s a formula for judging the feminist quality of a movie. To pass the test, a movie must include at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.

“It’s a story about changes, changes brought about almost exclusively by women,” Hines says of his movie.

Hines has worked in the film industry for more than 30 years and says the San Diego State study illustrates a truly sexist attitude in Hollywood.

“A lot of Hollywood still feels women belong on the arms of the male leads,” he says.

Hines adds that explains why women in movies are usually only young and skinny with what filmmakers consider sexy features.

“In terms of Hollywood, it’s stranded in 1955,” he says. “I think that era needs to end. Women are beautiful in all shapes and sizes, and cinema needs to reflect that.”


Author and screenwriter Jenna Mattison has also seen Hollywood sexism from the inside. She wrote, produced and starred in the movies “Fish Without a Bicycle” and “The Third Wish.” She also wrote and produced the movie “For the Love of Money.”

She tells 2Blue she’s particularly disturbed by such shows as HBO’s “True Detective” and the accolades it receives.

“It’s just a big sausage fest,” Mattison says. “And by that, I don’t mean that the story isn’t intriguing or the dialogue clever. It means that the women are portrayed in archaic male fantasy stereotypes. The whore. The (slightly updated) Stepford Wife. And the lady who serves the detectives coffee. As a strong and accomplished woman. I find it laughable and obnoxious.”

According to the study, only 13 percent of the top 100 films had equal numbers of major female and male characters or more major female than male characters.

The numbers get worse for female actors who don’t happen to be white. According to the report, 73 percent of all female characters were white — followed by African Americans at 14 percent, Hispanics at 5 percent, Asians at 3 percent and miscellaneous ethnicities at 2 percent.

The study found that the percentage of Asian women decreased 2 percentage points — from
5 percent in 2011 to 3 percent in 2013. (Asian women also accounted for 3 percent of all females
in 2002.)


Men in movies also tend to have jobs.

According to the study, 78 percent of the male characters in last year’s movies had identifiable jobs. That could only be said of 60 percent of the female characters.

Of the female characters who had jobs, 37 percent had blue-collar jobs, 19 percent were students and 28 percent were white-collar jobs. Only 9 percent were professional positions.

“I choose to write women in all the roles you find them in,” Mattison tells 2Blue. “That doesn’t mean they are always ass-kicking CEOs but it also doesn’t mean they are Stepford wives or barefoot and pregnant either.

“I’m writing real women with dimension and accomplishments,” she adds. “Some whore and some serve coffee, but there are many others that don’t do either. Some are big and bold and strong. That’s what I like to see when I watch women portrayed. So I guess I’m doing my part and still managing to write good roles for men too. Go figure.”

Dr. Martha Lauzen, the executive director of the center, tells the Independent in London that little is changing in cinema.

“Overall, we have seen little movement in the numbers of female protagonists and females as speaking characters over the last decade,” she says.


OK, so the roles aren’t great. At least the money is good, right?


Another study, this one published in the Journal of Management Inquiry, concludes that sexism in Hollywood finds its way to the payroll office — where it puts its feet on the desk while it smokes a big fat cigar.

“Research on the gender-wage gap shows equivocal evidence regarding its magnitude, which likely stems from the different wage-related variables researchers include in their calculations” the study says.

Translation: Don’t get old, ladies.

According to the study, earnings for female actors increase until they hit the age of 34. After that, they fall like Thelma and Louise off a cliff.

However, earnings for male actors go up and up until they reach 51. Then … guess what. They just remain steady. They don’t keep going up, but they don’t fall over that cliff — the one reserved for women only.

It’s only when they are considered young and (by society’s standards) desirable in their 20s that female actors can expect to make more than their male counterparts.

“Men’s well-worn faces are thought to convey maturity, character and experience.” the study concludes. “A woman’s face, on the other hand, is valued for appearing young.”

Hines says women fall prey to another injustice when it comes to career success.

“Hollywood will support male actors even if they have failures.” he says. “A female actor has a string of successful movies and then just one failure, they say, ‘See? We can’t put women in film.’”


Researchers reached their conclusions after comparing how much 256 male and female film actors made in movies from 1968 to 2009.

“This is a microcosm of what happens in society,” Timothy Judge, a management professor at the University of Notre Dame and one of the lead researchers, told USA Today. “We are such an appearance-based society.”

Hines says he wants to do what he can as a filmmaker to change that. The women in his movie appear mostly in Victorian clothes and very unflattering hospital gowns. They show some skin in a brutal scene where they are stripped naked to be doused with cold water, but even then, Hines says the nudity is more suggested than shown.

The actors were not allowed to show anything that would would embarrass them or the audience.

Given things like these recent studies, Hines says it’s not only important to have good roles for women in cinema, but to tells the stories about women who defy sexism.

“Young women need to realize the rights they have today didn’t just fall out of the sky,” he says. “They are the result of the courageous women who came before them, women like Nellie Bly.”

By Tom Henderson