How Hollywood Keeps Out the Stories of Women and Girls

How Hollywood Keeps Out the Stories of Women and Girls
Illustration by Darrick Rainey

When screenwriter Phyllis Nagy first read Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt in 1995, she knew she wanted to tell its story on the big screen. Centered on the romantic relationship between two women in 1950s America, it paints a portrait of star-crossed love focused on female protagonists.

“The three leads in the script are women,” says Nagy of the film now in theaters as Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. For the first 12 or 13 years that she tried to make her movie, Nagy and her producer, also female, consistently ran into roadblocks. Financing would come in, then immediately fall through. Studio executives would never explicitly say why they didn’t want the film, but “there is a language that goes along with tactful rejection,” Nagy says, “which is all about how difficult it is to finance dramas that ‘defy genre.’ ”

In 2011, powerhouse actor Blanchett — whose most recent film, Cinderella, grossed more than $201 million at the box office — came on board in the title role. But it wasn’t until 2013, Nagy says, when director Todd Haynes (I’m Not There, Far From Home) was attached to the project, that Carol gained momentum.

The announcement about Haynes “came at Cannes,” Nagy says, “and then Harvey [Weinstein] bought into the film. Things moved pretty quickly from there.”

Whether that happened because Haynes was the first man officially attached, Nagy can’t say. “Because of what I see going on in other areas, the impulse is to say yes, of course,” she says. “I don’t think it had much to do with lesbian content. ... I don’t think anybody wanted to make a film that was female-driven.”

As L.A. Weekly reported in April, the movie industry has far fewer women in leadership roles than other male-dominated industries as tech, finance and the military. In 2013, 1.9 percent of directors of Hollywood’s 100 top-grossing films were female, according to a study by USC researcher Stacy L. Smith. The U.S. military, by contrast, is made up of 7.1 percent female generals and admirals, and women occupy more than 20 percent of leadership roles at Twitter and Facebook.

The Weekly also unearthed data showing that female filmmakers graduate from the United States’ best film schools in equal numbers to men and win awards at major independent film festivals, such as Sundance, at the same rate as men. But after that, studio executives and high-profile producers who greenlight major Hollywood films at the Big Six studios almost never hire these women to direct.

Now, research confirms that the imbalance goes much deeper. In August, USC's Smith reported that among the 100 top-grossing movies of 2014, 11 percent were written by women, and 19 percent were produced by women.

The result is a dearth of movies about the lives, thoughts and actions of women and girls. From comedies to dramas, major motion pictures by and large tell the stories and actions of men and boys, from a male point of view, with an eye to giving heterosexual male ticket buyers what studio executives think they want. In Hollywood’s 100 top-grossing films of 2014, just 28 percent of all the characters chosen to speak were female. Just 9 percent of those films featured girls or women speaking in numbers equal to the boys or men.

Kyle Chandler and Cate Blanchett star in Carol, written by Phyllis Nagy. Would it have passed the gender hurdle without male director Todd Haynes?
Kyle Chandler and Cate Blanchett star in Carol, written by Phyllis Nagy. Would it have passed the gender hurdle without male director Todd Haynes?
Photo by Wilson Webb

Last year, Smith reports, just 21 percent of Hollywood’s 100 top-grossing films featured a female lead or co-lead. And the trustworthy voices that narrated films were male 79 percent of the time.

Between 2007 and 2014, in 700 films, women were most likely to be cast as someone in a romantic relationship rather than on their own, or as caregivers. They appear on screen nude, or in sexy clothing, more often than men. Girls as young as 13 are sexualized on par with women in their 20s and 30s.

These numbers reflect what can be described as willful ignorance by the Big Six studios — Paramount, Universal, Walt Disney, Sony, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. — whose executive offices are heavily dominated by men. The Producers Guild of America says that, for the past six years, the majority of moviegoers have been women. In 2013, the top-grossing and third-grossing films were The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Frozen. Both starred heroic women.

The question is, what’s going on here? Paul Feig directed Bridesmaids, one of the most iconic films in recent memory told through the eyes of women, and imbued it with the thoughts and actions and lives of women. Feig tells the Weekly that leaders in the film industry have a knee-jerk, negative reaction to female-driven scripts.

After Feig’s TV series Freaks and Geeks ended in 2000, he says, “I’d try to pitch things with female leads ... and almost immediately get shot down. It was like, ‘Audiences won’t show up, guys won’t buy tickets, you can’t sell it, international audiences won’t watch movies with a female lead.’ ”

At first, Feig went with that. But the meetings with studio green-lighters began to rankle. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute,’ ” he says. “’So, we’re just not gonna do anything? Even though women are more than half the population of the world?’ ”

Producer Jessica Elbaum (Step Brothers, Anchorman 2, Sleeping With Other People) says the thinking in Hollywood that results in stonewalling of women's stories comes from "narrow-mindedness and stupidity." 

Elbaum recently launched Gloria Sanchez Productions, an imprint of Will Ferrell’s Gary Sanchez Productions, to focus on female-centric projects. “There is a fear that female filmmakers can only tell female stories,” she says of the values that grip Hollywood — “that women can only talk about their periods and cry.”

Actor Joy Bryant (Good Girls Revolt, Parenthood) openly discusses the hypocrisy of Hollywood executives’ refusal to bring in women — even as many of them persistently tout their progressive, Democratic Party values.

“I love the myth of Hollywood being this liberal place,” Bryant says. “Hollywood is not liberal.”

If the Big Six studios had kept pace with the times, Bryant says, “We would have more women and people of color in positions of power. Everyone is donating to the cause célèbre and the cause du jour, and we need that, but let’s not get it twisted — it’s just as sexist and racist [as anyplace else].”

A few years ago, not many actors would be so outspoken. Now, they’re less guarded.

The industry was once liberal in practice, but that was before its current executives were born. Prior to World War II, Hollywood studio chiefs, producers, screenwriters and directors had a star formula: one man and one woman.

Paul Feig's Bridesmaids, which grossed more than $288 million globally, stands as a rare and iconic modern film told through the eyes of women, about the thoughts, actions and lives of women.
Paul Feig's Bridesmaids, which grossed more than $288 million globally, stands as a rare and iconic modern film told through the eyes of women, about the thoughts, actions and lives of women.

"There was a plethora of female screenwriters,” says Emily Carman, assistant professor of film studies at Chapman University and author of the upcoming Independent Stardom: Freelance Women in the Hollywood Studio System. “The highest-paid people in Hollywood were women — screenwriters, directors and actresses.”

In the late 1950s, after men returned home from the war, they deferred to women to make decisions on the domestic front — like what movie to see. But that male impulse shifted as second-wave feminism took hold.

“There was gender confusion and male resentment,” says Thomas Doherty, professor of American studies at Brandeis University. “In film, women become marginalized, villains.” Hollywood introduced more of “those male buddy films. The big one was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid: The men don’t want to have to cope with women’s domesticity and feelings, so they go off on a road trip.”

In the 1978 Oscar-winning Vietnam War film Coming Home, co-star Jane Fonda, who regularly made the lists of the most influential women in America, acted in a breakout scene as the woman on the receiving end of oral sex — one of the longest, most nuanced depictions of female sexual gratification ever created by Hollywood.

“She was able to use her agency as a star to keep the scene in,” Carman says. “She kept it long and tasteful, and had an experience that is from the female point of view.”

But women’s increasing power in America never translated to more screen time. As Hollywood exported more movies to international markets, executives developed a blueprint for what would sell — and what would sell, they thought, were stories of the lives of men and boys.

“A conglomeration of factors — from a new target audience to the emergence of more male-dominated pictures to stars like John Wayne and Marlon Brando” fed into the shift, Chapman says, “and it really hasn’t changed since then.”

In 2015, mainstream films reflect a world largely devoid of women’s experiences. It takes little more than a glance at movie house lobby posters to see that male-centric films dominate, with women cast as sidekicks, props or prizes.

Many women write, produce or star in films that tell women’s stories, but they are often part of a parallel, less acknowledged system. The International Women’s Film Festival Network lists 68 festivals around the world dedicated to female-centric films or films made by women. As actor Ari Graynor (For a Good Time, Call...) points out, “Stories with male characters aren’t labeled as ‘male content’ — they’re just called ‘movies.’ ”

Female actors rightfully fear for their futures. Joy Bryant remembers her thrill at being photographed for Vanity Fair’s Hollywood Issue alongside Kerry Washington and Zooey Deschanel in 2003. They were dubbed “The Ingenues.” But as Bryant thought about the gender bias among studio executives and screenwriters, she remembers thinking, “ ‘Wow, what happens when the ingenue is no longer new?’ ”

Says Bryant, “I’m 41 years old now. … I am no longer the ingenue. I am no longer that hot piece of ass walking around.”

She knows there’s a Big Six “shelf life” for women: In 2014, not a single film featured a female lead over the age of 45.

In April, Tina Fey, Patricia Arquette and Julia Louis-Dreyfus spoofed the issue. They appeared on Inside Amy Schumer in the skit “Last Fuckable Day.” In it, Arquette muses, “I didn’t get this commercial last week for AARP because the director said I was too old to play Larry King’s wife.” In May, Maggie Gyllenhaal, who turned 38 this week, revealed that she’d been informed she was too old to appear as the romantic partner of a 55-year-old man.

“If you’re a straight white dude, you’re good forever,” Bryant says. “Because that’s what the power structure is.”

Indeed, of the 28 percent of speaking roles granted to women in 2014, most were restricted to a few narrow types. Actress Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development, Nasty Baby, Broad City) has built her career by playing smart, independent women. Yet the 26-year-old says she’s repeatedly sent scripts in which she would play the sexy and unattainable prize or the sassy, less-desirable best friend.

“The girl in scripts is always playing up some version of her sexuality,” Shawkat says. “There always has to be the smart girl who’s like, a cock-block, and the main girl is much more coy and innocent. I can’t connect to this; I can’t say these words without vomiting a little in my mouth.”

Plots for comedies written by smart, progressive men are often just as stacked with bias, Shawkat adds. “I’ve been around a lot of grown male comedians since I was very young,” she explains. “What I find in these stories of these nerdy types is, there is still this idolization of what a woman is. The minute a woman comes into the room, they get all nervous and they’re making jokes toward them.”

Compared to the obvious gender tropes in mainstream blockbusters, she says of the heavily male world of comedy writers, “I don’t think they’re viewing women any differently.”

Peter Glick, a professor of social sciences at Lawrence University and a longtime researcher into gender roles and behavior, says Shawkat is describing an extremely effective way in which men keep women’s stories out of movies, probably without even realizing it.

In society, he says, while men still wield more power, most also are dependent on women they want or love. “How do [men] reconcile these two facts?” Glick asks. Often, he says, “by idealizing women into powerlessness. ... It’s the pedestal. It genuinely feels good but really undermines women in a really insidious and surprisingly effective way.”

Says Glick, “Men don’t want to feel like they are exploitative assholes. … This system really helps obscure that.”

The United Nations has been calling for change in Hollywood’s distorted portrayals of women and girls since 1995, when it released the Beijing Platform for Action, noting that movies affect gender equality across the globe.

“The media creates a worldview that becomes deeply ingrained into people’s perception of the way things are,” says Nanette Braun, chief of communications and advocacy at UN Women. “The way women are depicted perpetuates discriminatory attitudes and sexist behavior” and the notion that girls and women “don’t count.”

Writer-director Jessie Nelson (Love the Coopers) says, “It’s been proven over and over again how well movies can do with women in strong roles.”
Writer-director Jessie Nelson (Love the Coopers) says, “It’s been proven over and over again how well movies can do with women in strong roles.”
Photo by Ted Soqui

But as long as the Big Six and other production companies resist hiring women as writers and producers on par with men, nothing changes, says producer Lydia Dean Pilcher (The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Darjeeling Unlimited). The “people who understand women as complicated characters are women,” Pilcher says. “People who understand the lens of female perspective are women. If you’re not hiring women, then it doesn’t come across on the screen.”

According to the Producers Guild of America data, cutting out female storytellers does not make sense financially. In 2009, 113 million moviegoers were women, and 104 million were men. By 2014, women made up 119 million of moviegoers; men just 110 million.

Films starring female protagonists, although rare, earned $116 million on average. That compares with $97 million, on average, earned by films starring male protagonists, according to the PGA.

It’s not just women buying those tickets: On its opening weekend, the audience for the Hunger Games: Catching Fire was 61 percent female and 39 percent male.

“It’s been proven over and over again how well movies can do with women in strong roles,” says writer-director Jessie Nelson (Love the Coopers, I Am Sam). “It’s always interesting to me that there’s a hurdle. … I’ve never fully understood it.”

But CEOs and other power brokers at Paramount, Universal, Walt Disney, Sony, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. continue to treat female-centric films as a financially dubious subgenre. When Feig, early in his career, pushed for female-driven comedies — tired of movies in which “a bunch of guys were trying to get laid, and one guy’s awkward and his friend’s a pussy hound,” and the women were “just kind of mean and bitchy, the bad girlfriend and the bad wife” — he got swift resistance.

“As a newcomer, you don’t have a ton of confidence,” he recalls. “You’re like, ‘Oh my God, I just pitched something that everybody knows you can’t do.’ ”

Screenwriter Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith (Legally Blonde, 10 Things I Hate About You) and her writing partner, Karen McCullah, experienced the same pushback with their House Bunny.

The pair, along with then–relatively unknown actor Anna Faris, pitched it to about 20 production companies — including one where “a famous male director-producer was totally not listening to us, and just trying to ogle Anna the whole time, and it was kind of creepy,” Smith says.

They finally got a meeting at Adam Sandler’s company, Happy Madison, set up by a female producer. Sandler and Faris knew each other from The Hot Chick (2002), and Sandler sat in. “After the pitch,” Smith says, “he called Paramount,” which had passed on the film twice, “and said, ‘I want to do this, you should buy this for us.’ ”

“Maybe we could have found a powerhouse female producer,” Smith says, “but it did sometimes seem like we needed a powerful man to get a girls’ story told. It took Adam Sandler to make our dreams come true.”

Most people in Hollywood with power to greenlight a film work for, or with, the Big Six. Most are men. At Paramount Pictures, four out of five top executives are men. At Sony Pictures, six out of seven are men. At the Walt Disney Studios, nine out of 11 are men. At NBC Universal, 15 out of 20 are men. At Warner Bros. Entertainment, six out of eight are men, and at 20th Century Fox, eight out of 10 are men.

“If you’re going to get less sexist decisions, that token woman doesn’t really do it,” Glick says. “Those one or two women … probably got to that room by being very strategic, not challenging men in certain ways. They are probably very smart, combining ambition and being likable enough.”

Laurie Rudman, a professor of social psychology at Rutgers University, says that being the token woman in Hollywood feeds a fear of speaking up — a rational reaction. “When women lean in, they get their nuts chopped off,” Rudman says. “A woman is just fine as long as she’s kind of competent enough but not so competent that she’s challenging anything.”

Now even some top names among women have begun to speak out about their experiences of feeling cowed. In a letter published in Lena Dunham’s newsletter, "Lenny," on Oct. 13, superstar Jennifer Lawrence explained why she didn’t renegotiate her salary for American Hustle, for which she was paid far less than her male co-stars, including Jeremy Renner, who had a significantly less important role. “There was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight,” Lawrence wrote. “I didn’t want to seem ‘difficult’ or ‘spoiled.’ ”

Famously, Charlize Theron demanded and reportedly got a massive bump to her pay for The Huntsman after learning how badly Lawrence was underpaid. Then last month, Lawrence further explained at a press conference for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 that her letter “was more about, ‘How did my mentality get in my own way of fighting as hard as the men to get a better deal?’ ” She worried about “how am I going to look, how will people judge me? That got in my way.”

Those feelings don’t merely arise from within. Kiwi Smith, at a recent meeting with a male collaborator, male producer and male creative executive, told the team she no longer felt comfortable with some old dialogue in a script she had penned years earlier.

“I found myself really fighting to say, like, ‘I just don’t want the male character to say this line,’ ” she says. “There was just a lot of eye-rolling, and at one point someone said, ‘Kiwi, you’re being really oversensitive, not all the lines of this script have to reflect your own personal agenda.’

Kirsten "Kiwi" Smith says she owes part of her success to Adam Sandler, who had the power to get House Bunny made.
Kirsten "Kiwi" Smith says she owes part of her success to Adam Sandler, who had the power to get House Bunny made.
Photo by Ted Soqui

“They kept joking about how difficult I was to work with. I started thinking, ‘Am I?’ I felt like it was a way to sort of marginalize what I was saying.”

Such behavior is effective in shutting women out. Elbaum privately debated whether to pitch her idea — the female imprint to Will Ferrell’s Gary Sanchez Productions — for years. “I was taking a look at the landscape of the business and I was like, ‘Clearly this female stuff is working, and people like it,’ ” she says. But she was afraid, “so I just kind of sat on it. Day to day I talked myself in and out of it.”

That attitude trickles down to young female filmmakers before they get near Hollywood. Kira Bursky is 19 and is as decorated a filmmaker as one can be at that age. In 2014, she won for Best Overall Film at the prestigious American High School Film Festival. That same year, she was invited by the White House to screen a film at the first-ever White House Student Film Festival.

Bursky has her own production company, and a website to encourage young filmmakers. “What I have seen,” she says of her peers, “is a lot of confident male filmmakers who feel like they can do whatever. They think they have a story, and they’re gonna do it because they want to. Then female filmmakers struggle with, ‘Am I ready? Is this good enough?’ ”

Female writers, executives, producers and actors who push back “are going to get slammed,” Glick says. “What men have done is monopolize the resources. The idea is, ‘I’ll take care of you, I’ll provide for you,’ but the other end of the deal is that women have to stay in these certain roles and not threaten men’s power.”

Hollywood’s resistance to showing the lives and actions of women and girls is turning into a hot topic, and that may create pressure on the Big Six.

In May, two weeks after publication of the Weekly’s story, “How Hollywood Keeps Out Women,” the American Civil Liberties Union asked federal and state organizations to investigate the near-absence of female film directors, asserting that studios may be violating Title VII. That federal law bars companies from gender discrimination. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has now launched a probe.

On Nov. 3, Vulture published a list of 100 female directors whom the studios should be tapping. A week later, Variety covered the male-female pay gap in depth. None of the Big Six’s top executives have taken action in recent years that indicates they’ll work to improve these disparities.

In April, the Weekly reported on the number of films each studio produced between Jan. 1, 2010, and Dec. 31, 2014, and how many of them were directed by women. It found that of about 375 movies, just 13 were helmed by women.

Building on that data, the Weekly has determined how many women played lead or supporting roles in films produced by the Big Six during the same period. The Weekly requested comments from the same executives it reached out to last spring. Again, the executives, listed below, either did not respond to emails or refused to comment on their track records from 2010 to 2014, also listed below:

  • Jim Gianopulos, chairman and CEO of 20th Century Fox Film. Films produced by 20th Century Fox, including Fox 2000, 20th Century Fox Animation and Fox Searchlight, had 154 lead or supporting roles for men, 86 for women.

  • Kevin Tsujihara, chairman and CEO of Warner Bros., and Greg Silverman, president of creative development and worldwide production. Films produced by Warner Bros. had 264 lead or supporting roles for men, 107 for women.

  • Michael Lynton, chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Films produced by Sony Pictures’ largest studios, Columbia Pictures and TriStar Pictures, had 302 lead or supporting roles for men, 151 for women.

  • Alan Bergman, president of the Walt Disney Studios. Films produced by Walt Disney Studios and Walt Disney Animation Studios combined had 157 lead or supporting roles for men, 67 for women.
  • Brad Grey, chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures Corp. Films produced by Paramount Pictures had 217 lead or supporting roles for men, 73 for women. (With 2.97 male roles for every female role, Paramount’s record is the worst.)
  • Ronald Meyer, vice chairman of NBCUniversal. Films produced by Universal Pictures and its art-house division, Focus Features, had 296 lead or supporting roles for men, 150 for women.

Braun, at UN Women, says her organization works “a lot at systemic changes. When you have to draft a new bill or constitution, that takes enormously long. When you try to change a tradition, whether that is harmful practices like female genital mutilation, that takes enormously long because a whole societal norm and cultural change is involved.

“But to write a film script and write more women into more roles?” she says. “Where is the problem?”

At a recent Women in Film event at Hollywood’s ArcLight Cinemas, director Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight, Thirteen) noted that if things look unbalanced to her on set, she simply changes the character’s gender, race or sexual orientation.

“I take every single part in the script,” Hardwicke explains, “and say, ‘Can it be a woman?’ ”

Shawkat, who writes and produces much of her own material, has been on the receiving end of such a change. Recently, a producer asked her to play a character originally written as male.

The transformation was painless. “Nothing was changed,” Shawkat says, “but the pronouns.”

Upcoming Events


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories
    Send:

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >