The Other Huge Gender Inequality in Hollywood That No One Is Talking About
We've been hearing about sexism in Hollywood for years. But most of these conversations usually focus around the lack of female directors and producers, or other instances of gender inequality in the industry. Most recently, #MeToo and #TimesUp have showcased a trend of rampant sexual abuse by male executives against female actors.
But a recent study that analyzed Best Picture winners throughout the history of the Academy Awards demonstrates that sexism in the film industry runs much deeper. The movies themselves tend to overlook female characters and stories. In its history of Best Picture winners, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has disproportionately chosen movies that focus on male characters and the struggle of men.
Just 36 out of 89 Best Picture winners throughout the Oscars’ history passed the Bechdel Test, a new Direct TV study shows. To fulfil all three of the Bechdel Test’s criteria, a film has to 1) include at least two women; 2) who talk to each other; 3) about something (anything) other than a man. It is a simple way of measuring a film’s portrayal of women and assessing which movies bypass female narratives. Consider how low this bar is for a moment: the test doesn’t require that films center around female storylines or even give female actors equal screentime as men. It doesn’t even exclude films that include outright or vaguely sexist depictions of women’s roles (as the Best Picture of 1965, My Fair Lady, arguably does).
The history of the Academy Awards includes huge expanses of time in which not a single Best Picture winner passed the Bechdel test. It’s not so shocking that in less socially progressive eras, like 1927 (the first Oscars ceremony) through 1960, only 11 of the 33 top awarded films passed the test. But even later in the 20th century, not much had changed. After the Bechdel-approved Sound of Music won in 1966 just as second-wave feminist movement was kicking off, only Annie Hall passed the Bechdel test during a 19-year dry spell, until Amadeus won in 1985. Since then, just over half of Best Picture winners have received full Bechdel marks.
Much has been written to explain how accurate representation in film and television impacts self-esteem among oppressed and marginalized groups; just look at the recent megahit Black Panther to see the impact of featuring these narratives in popular culture. The lack of concern attention to women’s stories in Hollywood is arguably a more deeply systemic form of sexism than the many barriers women working in the film industry face; the absence of Bechdel-passing films affects all women who watch movies, not just aspiring filmmakers and producers. Even Kathryn Bigelow, lauded as the only female director ever to have won Best Director (for The Hurt Locker), did not create a Bechdel-approved film herself.
As with My Fair Lady, some highly respected films that pass the Bechdel test still don’t go far enough to fairly portray women’s lives. As some critics have pointed out, in some cases when Bechdel-passing films do score a 3 out of 3, the female characters are discussing marriage, pregnancy, babies, or some other topic generally delegated to women.
Of course, the lack of Bechdel-passing Oscar winners is likely the result of the few female-centered films produced in Hollywood overall. Though women comprise half the world’s population and 52% of moviegoers, Hollywood has historically shown limited interest in creating films with predominantly female narratives. A study from Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University found that although female stories are on the rise, women made up only 29 percent of protagonists in 2016, and female actors played only 37 percent of major characters in films. As HuffPost notes, these numbers mark a historic high.
Around 1928, Goldwyn Pictures founder Samuel Goldwyn said, “There is no denying the fact that women rule Hollywood—or that they will continue to rule as long as they select the screen entertainment for their families, as long as they continue to be the great majority in every theater audience.” Yet 90 years later, the lack of focus on female narratives in films proves Goldwyn’s statement is far from the reality.