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The gender divide on the silver screen

Men, women and films

How pronounced is the gender divide on the silver screen?

How pronounced is the gender divide on the silver screen?

October/November 2017

It was the “little lesbian joke” with legs. The “Bechdel test”, proposed in the comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” in 1985, offered a simple statistical check for an acceptably feminist film: does the movie in question have two women who talk to each other about something other than men? Failing films include classics both old (“Citizen Kane”) and newer (the entire “Lord of the Rings” trilogy), but the trend is at least looking up (see chart, “Share of films …”).

Statistical examinations of film in the service of social commentary, usually requiring mounds of manual entry and popcorn, have become ever more popular. It is now known, for instance, that the average Quentin Tarantino film contains 243 swear words and 27 deaths. But a team of researchers at the University of Southern California, in search of more nuanced information on trends in gender bias, has used computer programs to analyse speech patterns and map character networks in 1,000 recent film scripts. Unsurprisingly, they found that the majority (71%) of roles in Hollywood movies went to men, and that bigger parts for women tended to go to younger actors. Things tended to be less lopsided if there were female writers on the team (see chart, “Number of characters …”).

The researchers also computed various measures of character “centrality” – roughly, the impact on a film if a role were entirely excised. The highest score in the data set, for example, went to the character of Aron Ralston in “127 Hours”, a film about a climber forced to amputate his own arm; the highest female score went to Coraline in “Coraline”. Elizabeth is oddly marginal to “The Queen”. Out of ten movie genres, women are more prominent in horror and fantasy. Male actors get their most central roles when they are, on average, 40; women when they are 32. There are noticeably fewer substantial roles for women over 50.

But whatever statistics researchers compile, the question of what constitutes a properly feminist film will always be up for debate. Look no further than the recent spat over “Wonder Woman”, a box-office smash that James Cameron, a big-shot director, sniffed at as a “step backward”. Patty Jenkins, the film’s director, retorted that  “though he is a great film-maker, he is not a woman” – an accusation which he could not easily refute. ~ Idrees Kahloon

Sources: Anil Ramakrishna, Victor Martínez, Nikolaos Malandrakis, Karan Singla and Shrikanth Narayanan, University of Southern California; bechdeltest.com

 

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