Hollywood's depressing gender problem: New study shows it's barely improving

According to one report, only 15 percent of the year's 100 top-grossing films featured women in leading roles

Published March 11, 2014 8:34PM (EDT)

A new study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University has confirmed what so many critics have long-observed about diversity in Hollywood: even in 2014, it is virtually nonexistent.

According to the report, only 15 percent of the year's 100 top-grossing films featured women in leading roles, a rate that has barely changed from 2002, when the Center's executive director Martha M. Lauzen first began to study the numbers. Beyond lead roles, only 30 percent of speaking roles belong to women, which has risen by only a few percentage points in about 80 years. Lauzen explained the findings to the New York Times:

“We think of Hollywood as a very progressive place and a bastion of liberal thought,” she said. “But when you look at the numbers and the representation of women onscreen, that’s absolutely not the case. The film industry does not like change.”

Ms. Lauzen also found consistencies over the last decade in the number of roles given to African-American, Latina and Asian actresses: last year they accounted for, respectively, 14 percent, 5 percent and 2 percent of all female characters. Those figures also have barely wavered from 2002.

Ms. Lauzen attributed the lack of growth in the number of leading female characters to the relative paucity of women in key roles behind the scenes: since 1998, she has found that women have consistently accounted for roughly 17 percent of writers, directors and producers.

Lauzen's findings highlight why it's so important to have diversity not just on screen, but within the staff of a project. This is not just a problem in film, however; it is a problem that encompasses the entire entertainment industry: Offering a comprehensive look at the dismal record of diversity among leading television programmer HBO, the Huffington Post's Maureen Ryan wrote last week, "If one focuses only on the last dozen years at AMC, FX, Showtime, Netflix and HBO, around 12 percent of the creators and narrative architects in the dramatic realm were women."

And because Hollywood is so resistant to change, there remain barriers for the relatively few women who do break through. Lena Dunham, creator of HBO's thirty-minute hit series "Girls," offered her thoughts about women in entertainment during her keynote lecture at SXSW on Monday. Dunham noted that there's been a huge gap between opportunities available for Adam Driver, a male co-star on the show, and their three female co-stars, who are often typecast.

"Our male lead, Adam Driver, has had a bang-up year in movies which could not be more deserved because he's a ferocious genius with an incredible work ethic, and I've learned so much from him. But the girls are still waiting patiently for parts that are going to honor their intelligence and their ability," she said.

Adding that "the world is ready to see Adam as a million different men," Dunham observed that no one is interested in seeing the range of actresses Allison Williams, Zosia Mamet and Jemima Kirke. "Allison is relegated to all-American sweetheart. Zosia is asked to play more flighty nudnicks," Dunham said.

"This is not a knock on Adam's talent," the writer and actress explained, "which is utterly boundless and he's exactly the actor who should be doing all this. It's a knock on a world where women are typecast and men can play villains, Lotharios and nerds in one calendar year and something has to change and I'm trying."

By Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at pgupta@salon.com.

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Diversity Film Hbo Hollywood Lena Dunham Television Women