Women in the Film Industry



Class Information







“The real Hollywood is still an old boys club”

“Film too often suggests women should see themselves as supporting characters.”

Persons from across the globe consume Hollywood films along with other media products on a quotidian basis. These films figure prominently in shaping viewers’ ideas about cultural, economic, political, and social issues and challenges. Indeed, movies are peppered with overt and covert messages that a global audience and understand and internalize. Such messages profoundly underlie people’s comprehension of the world and their worldviews, especially hegemonic ideas and perceptions of women. Although women have made a lot of process in various domains, including on film, it remains unequivocal that their portrayal on screen remains tethered to antiquated, patriarchal stereotypes in addition to normative ideologies that simply do not accurately limn reality. One particular reason for this is because Hollywood continues to produce genre films that serve merely to perpetuate such unrealistic depictions. It is thus necessary to analyze the semiotics in a contemporary film such as Toy Story 3 to ascertain  whether women are portrayed as being powerful, autonomous beings who exert their agency in the public realm or if they are portrayed as being the converse. There is a panoply of examples elucidating how Hollywood has a “gender problem,” as films overwhelmingly underrepresented women and depict them in ways that frames them as being less talented and inferior to their male counterparts. Holding a leading role in the film directing and production industry remains an elusive dream for women despite that there have been a litany of advancements and revolutionary steps taken to eliminate such discriminatory practices towards women. Nonetheless, gender barriers are gradually vanishing because equal pay and equal treatment between men and women have gained traction in public discourses and political circles, thereby allowing more women have to join this sector amidst various challenges.

Even though 2013 has been viewed as a watershed moment for women in film—indeed, female-led films such as Gravity, The Hunger Games, and Frozen all were extremely successful-, –females still only comprised 15% of leading roles in films. Moreover, women were granted only 30% of available speaking roles, and they were discursively framed as being inferior, passive, meek, submissive characters that lacked the agency to carve out their own fates or make important decisions (McKinney). Part and parcel with this lack of representation is the fact that there has been and remains such a large disparity between what male actors pay and what female actors pay. According to McKinney, “the top 10 highest-paid actors from 2013 made a collective $465 million dollars. The top 10 highest-paid actresses made $181 million. The highest-paid actress, Angelina Jolie with $33 million, made the same amount of money as the ninth and 10th highest-paid men, Liam Neeson [sic] and Denzel Washington” (McKinney). As such, while women may be the center of attention on red carpets because of media outlets often objectify women based on who they are wearing, their hair and make-up, and their beauty, the landscape of women and when it comes to the industry of making and producing film, both in front of the camera and behind it, merit a discussion and application of what gender representation is.

Explaining gender representation and discursive framing in the film industry history

Gender representation in Hollywood is comprised of two separate elements: 1. The amount of persons on screen and creating what on the screen who happen to be female; and the ways that those women get represented vis-à-vis the media (McKinney). Gender representation is often a nebulous concept and can be described as consisting of two elements when contextualized within the contemporary film industry: the quantitative amount (I,e, percentage) of persons who are in films and television shows and the amount of people who produce what hits the screen in terms of the discursive framing of women; and the manner in those females are portrayed. What McKinney underscores is that Hollywood fails on both accounts, something that can be understood when looking and implementing the Bechdel Test (McKinney). According to the Oxford dictionary, the definition of the Bechdel test is as follows:

a way of evaluating whether or not a film or other work of fiction portrays women in a way that is sexist or characterized by gender stereotyping. To pass the Bechdel test a work must feature at least two women, these women must talk to each other, and their conversation must concern something other than a man.

It can be safe to assume that the preponderance of Hollywood films fail to past the test. The Bechdel Test has thus emerged as a barometer that is deployed as a test whether female characters in movies are portrayed as fully human characters or whether they are just objects and plot devices that exist so that the male characters can critique and make comments on, As a result of the Bechdel Test, it is far easier to ascertain the raw percentage of females both onscreen and behind the camera (McKinney). What becomes a difficult hurdle to pass is to answer the question of how these female actors appear onscreen and how can that be quantified. To pass the Bechdel Test, a movie must yield the answer “yes”: 1. Do the films contain more than two female characters who are named and figure prominently in the plot? 2. Do the female characters engage in dialogue at some point in the film? 3. If there is conversation, does the content of the conversation contain anything other than a male character? Such criteria seem to be very easy to pass, yet the reality is that there are very few movies that can adequately pass this test. What is so fascinating is that in reality, ordinary women engage in conversations about their lives, work, and a bunch of other topics that have no relevance to men and male interests. When engaged in conversations on film, it becomes abundantly clear that female conversations of a significant nature are far less salient.

The much lauded American Hustle film, for example, was nominated for an Oscar for its poignant portrayal of con artists. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence both played the leading roles as two female characters who had wild personalities and figured prominently in the plot. Nonetheless, American Hustle did not pass the aforementioned Bechdel Test. Some film critics point to one abbreviated scene in which Jennifer Lawrence’s character discusses nail polish with the wife of a politician; most movies would never incorporate such a scene into its narrative for public viewing (McKinney). As such, to better comprehend the visibility of women in the film industry, a macro and micro analysis must be conducted to truly see if women have gained traction in a male-dominated domain.

How has history shaped women and their roles in the male-dominated film industry?

The word “Hollywood” often conjures up certain images when it comes to the Golden Globes and the Oscars: women donning extravagant, high-end dresses who tell reporters what designer they are wearing and where they got their jewelry from. Although women often steal the show at those events, the reality is that they only star in 15% of films, a figure that has not improved since the 1930s (McKinney). It is quite surprising that women have not always been so vastly underrepresented in Hollywood and films; rather, between 1917 and 1923 women actually dominated the film industry (McKinney). La Fee aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy) was one of the most lauded and well-known narrative films that was shocked and directed by a female filmmaker named Alice Guy-Blache in 1896 (McKinney). She had pioneered and spearheaded her own film studio and created over one thousand movies over the course of her entire career (McKinney). To further underscore how pioneering she was in the film industry, it is imperative to note that her films were linked with sound far before the invention of the walkie-talkie (McKinney) . Unfortunately, Guy-Blanche has been written out of history because film historians would rather focus on more contemporary male film directors like the Lumiere Brothers and other behemoths within the film industry.  Other seminal female directors during the early twentieth century include Dorothy Arzner and Lois Weber, yet perhaps the most lauded and successful screenwriter in the history of American film was Frances Marion as she was the highest paid film screenwriter during the 1920s and `930a. Ironically, the efforts and successes of these women have been erased out of the grand narrative and history books.

As mentioned above, for almost a decade in the 1910s and 1920s, the film industry was dominated by women. During that transient period in American history, women possessed a great amount of clout in cinema just as the praised Jane Gaines penned her study on film history at the graduate level at Harvard University (McKinney). Towards the end of the 1920s, however, women began to disappear from working in film behind the scenes while on-screen they were portrayed as being desirable objects who were the subjects of love and affection of their male counterparts. Gaines notes in her dissertation that, “the commercial conditions which gave rise to the production of these fictions by women turn out to be the same conditions that produced their condition later on” (Gaines, as cited by McKinney).

Nonetheless, it became unequivocal that, even during its nascent stages, Hollywood celeritously came to favor men since there was “a misguided notion that viewers prefer male leads” in addition to a “now-obscure set of internal censorship rules [that] institutionalized gender problems” that the film industry had thereto failed to address. This gender problem is so significant because films and iconic movie stars become so entrenched and engrained in the public imagination; their words are frequently quoted and remembered, thereby underscoring how “movie stars define our cultural references for generations…those cultural touchstones [need to] be inclusive instead of exclusive” (McKinney). Unfortunately, in terms of representation, Hollywood is far from perfect. Indeed, there is very little diversity just looking at the lead actors for television shows and movies. The same can be said about the diversity of those in the film industry working behind the scenes. A paltry 10.7% of films produced between 2007 and 2012 had casts comprised of equal women and equal men. White men remain the most visible cast members in the film industry, which reflects how the modal subject—white men of Protestant faith and Anglo-Saxon ethnicity—can clearly be discerned within the film industry. Women remain second-class citizens and are underrepresented and depicted in a way that props up their male counterparts.

During Hollywood filmmaking’s nascent stages, it is important to note that the industry did not have any set hierarchy, so females were able to move from being an assistant or secretary and become a producer in a lateral fashion. Eventually, the film industry became unionized, which resulted in women being denied more and more roles that were so essential to the creation of films (McKinney). What is so fascinating is how the passage of the 1934 Hays Code, ended up subjugating females in the film industry rather than empowering them. Prior to the passage of the Hays Code, actresses deployed their popularity and fame to play roles aimed at subverting hegemonic gender norms and thus eschewed conforming to salient female expectations. Subsequent to the passage of the Hayes Code, however, the quantity of roles for women in the film industry dwindled.  One major development that happened during the nascent stages of Hollywood film industry was the production of a myriad of risqué films like The Queen of Sheba in 1922 (McKinney). As a result, the Motion Picture Association called on William H. Hays, an elder from a renowned Presbyterian Church, to clean up to soiled reputation of Hollywood due to the sinful semiotics that had hitherto been on display. Repairing the image of the film industry meant taking women out of it and thus can be pinpointed as the reason for the rate of women onscreen to drop dramatically.

The Hayes Code, although passed in 1934, still profoundly affects women in the film industry today because it laid the foundational rules for what was rendered inappropriate and appropriate on the screen while dictating what producers chose carefully to be on screen (McKinney). The passage of the Hayes Code meant that women both behind-the-scenes on onscreen exponentially dropped due to stringent regulations that were passed with regards to hegemonic standards of morality. Some of these stipulations included the following: “any licentious or suggestive nudity—in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture; scenes to actual childbirth—in fact or in silhouette; sex hygiene” (Mckinney).Ultimately, by the end of the 1930s, the Hayes Code emerged as a means to censor mainstream films with female corporality and female roles peripheral to marital bliss (McKinney). It was not until 1968 that the Hayes Code was revoked because of the emergence of the complex movie ratings system. However, most of the standards barely changed, so female representation did not improve much in the aftermath. Nonetheless, the Hays Code left and indelible legacy that continues to shape Hollywood and Hollywood culture in terms of gender today.

According to Andi Zeiser in her monograph entitled Feminism and Pop Culture: Seal Studies, “characterizations of women in post-code films were indeed less brazen, less sexual, and far less powerful, It was the new female character in the film industry who faced some kind of danger or peril, whether it be because some malady or by love or unfortunate circumstance (McKinney). The films that featured these women were extremely popular starting in the 1940 all the way into the 1960s. It should be noted, however, that essentially all of these movies failed the Bechdel Test as described above. This was most likely the case because so-called “female films” only focused on marriage, love and family, thereby underscoring how very little women had to say because their male counterparts spoke on their behalf. This “code”  essentially prohibited any ongoing dialogues about family, marriage, and love because of the central focus on blissful marriage. It is unfortunate how the Hays Code had little effect on the portrayal in movies once it was completely abolished and the movie raging system was established. The lack of female representation is so significant because Hollywood movies often reach a huge audience at the micro and macro levels. As such, they are prominent in shaping the way people from different cultures view women. In reality, the portrayal of women on Hollywood screens typically reflects the contemporary cosmogony and how people view themselves and the world around them. As Geena Davis notes:

The fact is –women are seriously under-represented  across nearly all sectors of society around the globe, not just on-screen, but for the most part we’re simply not aware of the extent. And media images exert a powerful influence in creating and perpetuating our unconscious biases (McKinney).

Female representation and visibility on screen continues to be extremely valuable due to the fact that movies often lead women to perceiving themselves as supporting or ancillary characters rather than leading ones. Hollywood movies have a far reach to audiences at the micro and macro levels. What consumers view on the big screen conveys what the American people believe about not only the world around them but also about people themselves.  One study carried out by San Diego State University regarding women and the film industry proffered some puzzling news that gender diversity in the media has worsened rather than become expanded.

The current situation for women in the film industry: Assault, Harassment, and Distrust.

In light of the #meToo movement and accusations that have come out against high profile stars like Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Weinstein, it is unsurprising that the issue of female safety in the film industry continues to germinate. Indeed, sexual assault and harassment pervades the world of Hollywood due to how deeply entrenched patriarchal notions dictate the attitudes and behavior of the most powerful men in Hollywood and other potent circles. USA Today conducted a survey in which the preponderance of the respondents reported that they were the victim of some kind of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct (Pulver). While this survey only 850 women, it was very telling as the results mimicked several other studies ascertaining similar results. As Pulver notes, the women who were surveyed noted that they were the victims of “unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures” while also “being touched in a sexual way” as well as “being shown sexual pictures without consent” (Pulver). Although the #MeToo movement has brought to light the issue of sexual harassment and assault in the film industry, there has hitherto been no efficacious solutions. We must take a cogent grassroots approach to formulate an effective strategy to provide correctives to the current disparity due to gender.








Works Cited

French, Lisa. “Gender Then, Gender Now: Surveying Women’s Participation In  Australian Film And Television Industries”. Continuum, vol 28, no. 2, 2014, pp. 188-200. Informa UK Limited, DOI:10.1080/10304312.2014.888040

Gaines, Jane M. Pink-slipped: what happened to women in the silent film industries? University of Illinois Press, 2018.

Hobbs, Julia. “What 2018 Means For Women In Film”. British Vogue, 2018,


Knight, Julia, and Christine Gledhill. Making Women’s Film History. 2015.

Lauzen, Martha M. “Where Are The Film Directors (Who Happen To Be Women)?”.Quarterly Review Of Film And Video, vol 29, no. 4, 2012, pp. 310-319. Informa UK Limited, oi:10.1080/10509201003601167. Accessed 4 Dec 2019.

McKinney, Kelsey. “Hollywood’s Devastating Gender Divide.” How has history shaped women and their roles in the male-dominated film industry.” Vox,26 Jan. 2015. Web.  https://www.vox.com/2015/1/26/7874295/gender-hollywood

Murphy, Jocelyn N. The role of women in film: Supporting the men–An analysis of how culture influences the changing discourse on gender representations in film. Diss. 2015

Pulver, Mark. “94% of Women in Hollywood Experience Sexual Harassment or assault, Says Survey.” 21 Feb 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/feb/21/94-of-women-in-hollywood-experience-sexual-harassment-or-assault-says-survey

Quick, Miriam. “The Data That Reveals The Film Industry’S ‘Woman Problem.'”

Bbc.Com, 2018, http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20180508-the-data-that-reveals-the-film-industrys-woman-problem.

Smith-Doerr, Laurel. “Flexible Organizations, Innovation And Gender Equality: Writing

The US Film Industry, 1907–27”. Industry & Innovation, vol 17, no. 1, 2010, pp.

5-22. Informa UK Limited, DOI:10.1080/13662710903573810.

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