Backup material for my Where Are the Women rating criteria, originally published on January 12, 2015, and now updated to include the modified and new criteria developed over the course of analyzing 295 films over the past 16 months.
• the ranking of 270 films released in 2015 in the US, Canada, and the UK, in both limited and wide release (including every wide-release North American film and most of the UK wide-release films), with links to each individual film’s rating
• the ranking of all films nominated for the 2014 Oscars (awarded in early 2015)
• the ranking of all films nominated for the 2015 Oscars (awarded in early 2016)
I crunched numbers on the 153 films that opened in wide release in the United States between December 25, 2014, and December 18, 2015. Get an introduction to this analysis here. You can examine a comprehensive spreadsheet of the details about these 153 films here.
• only 22% of 2015’s movies had female protagonists
• best and worst representations of women on film in 2015 (and the average WATW score for the year)
• critics are slightly more likely to rate a film highly if it represents women well
• mainstream moviegoers are not turned off by films with female protagonists
• movies that represent women well are just as likely to be profitable as movies that don’t, and are less risky as business propositions
The best example of how poorly girls and women are represented in film is how few movies feature female protagonists. It is essential when trying to improve that representation that we get more movies in which it is a girl or a woman — instead of the usual boy or man — who is at the center of a story, who is given the chance to have personal, spiritual, and/or physical adventure during which she learns something about herself, acts as the driving force in her own life, and comes out on the other end having grown or changed as a person (or, in the case of the antihero, stubbornly clinging to her misery or asshole-ishness). Even the dumbest action movie with the lunkheadest hero is still about a guy’s journey… and the situation for female protagonists is so dire that even a slew of dumb action movies with lunkheaded female heroes will be an improvement. So mega points are awarded for a female protagonist.
Women of color are even more poorly represented in film than white women, hence a few extra points for a female WOC protagonist.
It has been suggested that I award additional points for a female character cast in a colorblind role, and that I deduct points if a female character could have been a POC without impacting the story. But addressing the issue of the representation of people of color (men and women, boys and girls) is most properly dealt with in a separate project like this one devoted to the topic. Also, as a white person, I don’t feel qualified to make such judgments; I simply do not have the perspective such decisions would demand.
Filmmakers frequently default to creating stories about male characters, either unconsciously or by direction of Hollywood studios, who often hold an unreasonable and unsupportable presumption that movies about girls and women don’t sell tickets. But unless a protagonist is required by the story to do or experience something uniquely male — father a child; suffer from testicular cancer or male pattern baldness — there is almost no reason why that protagonist cannot be female. The few examples of scripts written for male leads that ended up as movies with female leads without any meaningful alteration in their stories — Alien; Salt — demonstrate that gender-swapping even action roles is possible, and results in kickass movies. Even placing female characters into roles that may once have been or still are almost exclusively male, such as the military, can result in stories that shake up clichés in well-trodden genres. The presence of a female character in a nontraditional role could also work as fantasy or wish-fulfillment for audiences in the same way that men doing outrageous or ridiculous things in movies can: Indiana Jones was not a realistic depiction of an archaeologist anyway, and Biblical artifacts with supernatural powers do not actually exist, so would it really have been a stretch to cast a female Indy? Of course not.
There is the perception in our pop culture that stories about men have universal appeal and speak to universal human needs, desires, and fears, while stories about women appeal only to women and speak only to women. This is because we too often see movies about men performing the full spectrum of human experiences while we see women doing only “women’s” things (caring for men and children; keeping house; etc.). More female protagonists in genderblind roles would begin to counter that nonsensical belief.
Even a film with a male protagonist can still acknowledge that women are people with hopes and dreams and lives of their own, so a few points for that. A film centered on a boy or man does not necessarily have to relegate women to thankless roles in which they do nothing but encourage and support men in their journeys and adventures.
See above about the even more appalling lack of women of color in film.
A strong supporting female character is great… but not if she’s a token girl. Films that are about “teams” — see: many action movies — often treat women as if they are a “type” of person. A team that consists of a (male) leader, a (male) grunt, a (male) nerd, a (male) wiseass, and a woman is infuriating for how it suggests that her gender is the defining quality of her humanity in a way that the same does not apply to the men.
Think of Trinity in The Matrix and Wyldstyle in The Lego Movie. They have all the qualities that supposedly define the Chosen One in their mythic scenarios. They should be the heroes of their stories… and yet they must stand aside while a newcomer fuckup guy gets all the glory. Not cool.
Of course, characters who are already awesome and perfect don’t always make the best protagonists: a character needs some room to grow and change to make for an interesting story. But characters like Trinity and Wyldstyle appear to be an attempt to acknowledge the lack of “strong” female characters onscreen while still falling back into problematic depictions of women as unsuitable for driving stories, suitable only for supporting men as they drive stories.
Similar to the awesome and perfect girl, but more applicable to romantic comedies and dramedies. MPDGs are problematic because they tie into notions of women as responsible for helping men grow into romantic adulthood, and also of women as people who do not need any help on their own in that respect.
As with the awesome and perfect girl, the prevalence of the MPDG and the lack of the gender-swapped opposite (there are no manic pixie dream guys who escort womenchildren into acceptable adulthood with their kooky antics) might appear to be positive depictions of women: “Hey, women are totally cool and have it all together, and only men are the screwups.” But this denies women their full humanity: women are not perfect but are flawed, messed-up human beings, just like men, who also need support in their journeys toward unfucked-upness.
Does the film contain a character (either male or female, though most likely to be female) who espouses stereotypically “feminist” attitudes only so that those attitudes can be knocked down? (Think: a romantic comedy with a “best friend” character who puts down all men and disparages romance — which aren’t feminist stances at all! — only so that the female lead can prove her wrong by marrying the man of her dreams.) Not cool.
There are legitimate stories to be told that do not include any female characters at all; a film will not lose points for that. But see below.
But not all stories that are cast as “male only” actually need to be. Many war stories, for example, are set in environments that should feature women, such as in civilian roles. There are very few spaces in the world that entirely exclude women in any and all capacities.
When girls and women (and boys and men!) fail to see women doing the full range of jobs humans do, they get a limited idea about the options open to them. I’ve even had male readers complain that they don’t want to see more women in movies because they don’t want to see all that girlie stuff ruining their movies. This suggests that those men are not even able to conceive of women doing things onscreen that aren’t “girly.” This needs to change… and seeing women in positions of leadership and authority can go a long way toward reshaping those outmoded attitudes. But see below.
Seeing women in positions of leadership and authority is good (see above) only if a movie doesn’t depict women leaders and authority figures as suffering because of those positions. When a movie casts powerful women as irritable, unreasonable harridans because they’ve got power, this only reinforces notions about leadership and power as unfeminine and inappropriate for women and detrimental to their lives.
This isn’t to say that a movie cannot realistically depict the challenges faced by women with high-powered jobs, or cannot offer flawed female characters in such positions, simply that they shouldn’t caricature powerful women as less-than-women because of their jobs.
See above about the appalling lack of women of color in film.
Even better than a film with one powerful female leader or authority figure is a film with more than one. Because powerful women are not a freakish anomaly.
Those cops interviewing witnesses in one scene of the murder mystery? Those senators speaking in a news clip in the alien-invasion flick? They probably don’t all need to be male.
Even better than a film with one woman doing a job with power and authority is a film with more than one. Because authoritative women are not a freakish anomaly.
A call for “strong” female characters onscreen doesn’t mean we need to see only women who are “good” or noble or heroic. Women — because they encompass the full range of what it means to be a human being — can also do terrible things. But see below.
A woman villain is great… unless her villainy is specifically female in nature. Think a “woman scorned” who gets revenge on a man for dumping her (as in Fatal Attraction). Or a woman who goes cartoonishly crazy over the death of a child (as in The Woman in Black). These only reinforce unfortunate stereotypes about women, including the one that movies love: that women are all about their gender, and nothing else.
This does not mean that a film cannot realistically depict a woman coping with the aftermath of a bad romance or of losing a child… but it does mean that such a depiction probably couldn’t be characterized as a villainous one.
Part of the problem with the representation of women onscreen is that filmmakers (and casting directors) default to maleness unless a script specifies that a character must be female. We need to get away from maleness as the default state of human (and even nonhuman) people in movies.
Even better than a film with one woman in a role that could have been played by a man is a film with more than one. Because women whose lives and actions are not specifically defined by their gender is the reality.
Even worse than a story about a man in which women do nothing but stand aside looking on adoringly and giving him love and encouragement in his journey is a movie in which a woman is abused or killed in order to motivate a man along his journey. This is not to deny that in real life, men do indeed care about their wives, girlfriends, and daughters and would likely go to great extremes to protect them. (The same can also be said about women and their relationships with their husbands, boyfriends, and sons, yet men being murdered so that women can avenge them is not a cliché of cinema.) But as in so many of the other limited and limiting depictions of women onscreen (see here and here, for example), this places women on the traditional pedestal of being somehow “better” than men — which denies women their fully humanity — while also simultaneously depicting women as wholly at the mercy of men, either their (male) attackers or their (male) rescuers.
This trope is also frequently used to titillate viewers with the prospect of female violation as a sort of ticking bomb the hero must race against. Not cool.
THE MALE GAZE
You know all those movies in which a bunch of guys and one girl have an adventure in a jungle/the Outback/the woods/a haunted house/an alien planet, and the guys are all wearing heavy jeans and boots and long-sleeved flannel shirts and warm jackets, and the girl is in short-shorts and a tank top? It makes her look stupid, and it makes the filmmakers look ridiculous for catering to an audience that it presumes must be horny and straight and male. (That a few lesbians in the audience might be turned on by the female character’s lack of attire is sheer accidental, unintended byproduct.)
It’s even worse when there’s more than one woman dressed so stupidly.
Until our culture starts treating the female chest the way it does the male chest — as, in most cases, something asexual and blandly uninteresting — it is going to be problematic to have women appearing topless onscreen, and it’s made worse by how frequent and sexualized even partial female nudity is. Bare female breasts in movies are almost always gratuitous and almost always intended to titillate the (presumed straight male) viewer. (If not, there would be lots of scenes of women casually breastfeeding babies… but this would defeat the let’s-titillate-the-guys aim by reminding men that the fundamental reason for the existence of women’s breasts is not for their pleasure.) Lots of women baring their breasts only compounds the problem.
Complete female nudity is, as with bare breasts, almost always gratuitous and almost always intended to titillate the (presumed straight male) viewer. It also occurs onscreen wildly out of proportion with full male nudity. Men are afforded a degree of dignity onscreen that is not afforded women, and more naked women in a film only compounds the problem. But see below.
A man or men appearing fully nude in a movie cannot quite balance out its female nudity, given the overuse of the latter, but almost. (This applies only to a film with female nudity because a film in which a man or men are nude but not a woman or women does nothing to improve female representation onscreen.)
Unless the scene involves exploring what it’s like to be a stripper at her job, or discussing the running of a strip club as a business (and even these could be problematic), there’s probably no legit excuse for setting a scene in a strip club. Usually, this is just a way to get some bare breasts onscreen.
Women treated as valuable or interesting because of what their bodies look like, and how they might arouse the (presumed straight male) viewer? Not cool. This could stop being a problem once filmmakers start using a camera to visually caress male characters to the same degree — hence catering as much to the female (and queer male) gaze — but until that time, it’s a problem that only women are presented this way.
Think of scenes in which a man is shown to be enjoying his wealth and power by lounging around with half-naked (and nameless/anonymous) women in a hot tub. Or scenes in which nerdy teen boys ogle beautiful bikini-clad women jogging in slo-mo along a beach. Or any movie in which women are generally scantily or otherwise provocatively dressed and presented in a sexualized manner (ridiculous poses, imagery focusing on their bodies, etc.) while men are not.
Movies frequently use such visual language to reinforce — sometimes unconsciously, sometimes not — their perspectives as exclusively (straight) male, and to reinforce — sometimes unconsciously, sometimes not — notions of women as the property of men and/or as existing merely for the pleasure of men.
Using the tropes of womanhood as a joke is demeaning to women in that it says that womanhood itself is a joke. Compare how a man dressing as a woman is generally considered either intentionally or unintentionally humorous (Tyler Perry’s Madea; drag queens in a homophobic context) while a woman dressing as a man (Annie Hall) is considered either chic and cool or simply nothing to comment on at all. These are expressions of the relative powers of the genders: A man trying to look womanly is subject to ridicule, because why would a man voluntarily place himself in a lower position of a woman? Yet a woman who wants to look like a man is clearly looking to appropriate some male power for herself. (Unless she’s a lesbian, but that’s another issue entirely.)
An entire movie premised on a man dressing as a woman might have some redeeming feminist values (ie, Tootsie), but in such a case, it’s unlikely that femininity itself would be the butt of the movie’s humor. In most cases (such as Madea), any feminist point to be made could just as easily be made with a woman in the central role, and so the problem is compounded by the fact that a female actor lost out on the job.
Even a film with a female protagonist isn’t doing to much to help female representation on film if her story is all about pursuing traditional lady-goals of acquiring a husband and/or having children. Of course, in real life, many women do have marriage and children as life goals… but so do many men, and we don’t see an entire genre of stories devoted to men pursuing romance.
A film can avoid this trap by giving us a female protagonist with other nontraditional goals as well that are explored in the story.
On the other hand, lesbians and lesbian romances are so absent from the big screen that a lesbian romance would be a step ahead for female representation.
This is to account for an all-too-typical role women get slotted into on film: as the dutiful wife and/or mother who appears to have nothing else in her life beside her husband and/or children. In real life, even devoted stay-at-home moms have hobbies, friends, and other interests beyond their families. Also: it is vanishingly rare for a film to depict a man as nothing other than a husband or father.
Orphanhood is a state with a long and noble history in movies. And there’s nothing wrong with it, per se, as a storytelling trope. But frequently a dead mother — or one who is out of the picture in some other way, such as abandonment, estrangement, divorce, etc. — appears to be merely an excuse to not have another (or any) female character in the mix, and/or a way to define (yet again) womanhood as exclusively motherhood, or in such cases, a lack of appropriate female influence (as a mother) on a character. (Think of all the Disney movies with female protagonists with dead and hence absent mothers!)
This can be balanced out if the character’s father is also dead or otherwise absent from the story.
A variant on the dead or absent mother. And, of course, more than one woman absent as a character yet intended to have some impact on the story is even worse.
Men do not get to tell a woman (a daughter, a sister, a cousin, a friend) whom they may and may not date, sleep with, or marry. Yet many a movie features a plot or subplot revolving around a man vetting potential romantic partners for a woman in his life. Not cool.
This trope can be redeemed if the movie treats this man’s actions as unacceptable.
Yes, in real life, some women prefer to date or marry much older men. But most people marry a partner very close in age to themselves. You’d never guess this from Hollywood movies, though. Hollywood’s lack of use for women over 35 or so is reflected in the romantic matchups we see onscreen, in which leading men in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and even beyond are paired with women 20, 30, and even 40 years younger with them as if this were normal and unremarkable. The age differences between such couples are rarely — almost never — an issue.
While actors can and do play characters either older or younger than their own actual ages, while using this criterion I will be using the actors’s own ages. Because this is a matter of who is getting cast in movies.
Similar to the problem of women paired romantically with men old enough to be their fathers or grandfathers is the problem of women portraying mothers to offspring (either still children or grown adults) whom they could not reasonably have been old enough to have given birth to. This is almost always a result of Hollywood being unwilling to cast older women in any kind of role, even when it would be age-appropriate. This can be mitigated or entirely offset if the story includes flashbacks to periods when the child or children were much younger, and hence the mother must be much younger as well, or if the story actually acknowledges and deals with, in a significant way, the fact that a woman had become a mother at a very young age. Though even this has a lower limit: pregnant at 16 is not very unlikely; pregnant at 12 is rare and would have had such a dramatic impact on a girl that it would almost have to be an inescapable part of her story. Yet it is not at all rare to see women cast as mothers to actors only 12 or 14 years younger than them, and for a movie to seem not to even be aware of what a remarkable impact this would have on a woman’s life.
A passing comment, on the other hand, about how young a woman looks to have kids so old, or that she was a teenage mother, is not enough to mitigate this problem.
While actors can and do play characters either older or younger than their own actual ages, while using this criterion I will be using the actors’s own ages. Because this is a matter of who is getting cast in movies.