Gender in Film: A Brief Quantitative Analysis

Attempts to point out the gender imbalance in the movie industry often meet with allegations of anecdotal evidence; pointing out that a film doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test is likely to be greeted with one of three responses: Either that it’s only one film and not representative, or that this particular film had a good reason not to pass and ought to be the exception, or that the Bechdel Test is arbitrary and meaningless.  Thus, I’m here presenting a quantitative study of the relative number of film roles for men and women.

Since men and women each comprise about half the population, you’d expect each to have an approximately equal number of roles in movies* (unless you think that women’s lives are inherently less important or interesting, in which case you may feel free to smack yourself).  This doesn’t mean, as is often assumed, that each individual movie should have a cast that’s half male and half female.  Rather, it means that films should fall into a rough bell curve; 50 randomly-selected films might look like this:

The majority have roughly equal numbers of men and women, some have more men, some have more women, and a small minority are all or almost all male or female.  If you prefer, the curve could be flatter, with more films at the ends and relatively fewer in the middle, but either way the overall male/female ratio should be about even.

I looked at Wikipedia’s 50 highest-grossing films of the 2000s, using IMDB cast lists to count the male and female characters.  When the cast was listed in order of importance, I used only the first billed cast members; when listed alphabetically (The Lord of the Rings) or in order of appearance (Harry Potter) I used the entire cast.  In either case, I usually skipped unnamed characters and characters without IMDB character pages, a strong indicator that it’s a tiny bit part, but exceptions had to be made on a film-by-film basis because neither naming nor IMDB pages are necessarily consistent (for instance, I wouldn’t want to omit Tigress from Kung Fu Panda for not having a real name).  Characters without gender were usually counted as the gender of the actor or actress, because there is significance to the sorting hat from Harry Potter and the computer from WALL-E being voiced by male actors.  The results are below.

Drastically different.  It’s closer to an S-curve than a bell curve: Until you pass the 90% male mark, each bracket contains more films than the one below it.  Thus, not only is a film extremely likely to have more men than women, but it’s more likely to be two-thirds male than half male, more likely to be three-quarters male than two-thirds male, and more likely to be four-fifths male than three-quarters.  Only Mamma Mia! prevents all 50 films from containing more men than women.

The obvious objection is that high-grossing movies are usually summer action films and children’s movies, which are not representative of movies in general–aside from Mamma Mia!, chick flicks are absent, for instance.  The 2000s might also be non-representative because they’re skewed by franchises like The Lord of the Rings and Transformers.  The first objection raises the question why action movies and children’s films are not expected to have a strong representation of female characters, and the second is effectively canceled out by the more gender-equitable Harry Potter films, but fair enough.  Let’s have a look at the 20 most-acclaimed films of the decade, as analyzed by Metacritic.

Better; the 90%-100% male category is now empty, and, even though there are fewer total films, the 40%-50% category contains multiple films.  If you take out the three Lord of the Rings films, only one remains in the 80%-90% category (The Dark Knight).  On the other hand, the foreign films (Amelie, 4 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days) fall towards the lower end of the graph, so maybe it’s just American cinema that’s the problem here.

But the graph is still centered at 60%-70%.  That is, the average acclaimed film has twice as many men as women, or to put the same thing another way, men’s voices are considered twice as important to express in film.  And there still isn’t a single film with more than 60% women: Everything is either mostly men or about even.  Women’s stories, with a large majority of women in the cast, are simply not present.

And now for the second round of objections.  Yes, there are many films that are neither popular nor critically acclaimed, but at that point you’re grouping movies starring women with Gigli.  I don’t have time to get into the thorny mess of rebuttals–nobody wants to see movies about women; all movies about women are bad–except to say that a few really good female-dominated films could start changing that landscape.

Men are not twice as important as women.  We can do better.


You can find my original data here (.xls).

*People who don’t identify as either male or female are, of course, egregiously underrepresented in film as well, but that’s a much more complex issue to address.  As far as I know, none of the films studied included human characters who identified as neither male nor female.



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28 responses to “Gender in Film: A Brief Quantitative Analysis

  1. Bryce Laliberte

    Why the assumption that representation shall be equal? The interests of men and women are not necessarily going to be equally in favor of male and female characters in movies, and we have no reason to believe that the propensity towards favoring the representation of one sex over the other is illicit or due to some societal problem.

    Allow me to make a comparison with magazine covers. Which sex is overtly represented on magazine covers? Between male-oriented, female-oriented, and neutrally-oriented magazines, I would expect there to be a greater representation of females. Why? Because men prefer women on their magazine covers, and so do women. The neutrally-oriented magazines aren’t going to favor men on their covers to the extent that they outweigh the representation already heavily in favor women.

    Should we take it that a deviation from a perfectly equitable distribution of male-female representation in some medium proves sexism? I am really skeptical of this claim. It seems altogether simplistic. For all your quantitative analysis, you may have simply demonstrated that moviegoers prefer male characters, something which bears out my experience with females and their stated preferences.

    • katz

      The short answer would be that you’re assuming a premise that supports your existing privilege (women prefer movies about men), providing no evidence for it, and then speculating on why it’s true. Anyone could prove anything that way. For instance, it would be easy to “prove” that there has never been any discrimination against any demographic, ever, because they preferred being treated that way.

      • Bryce Laliberte

        I might be making the assumption right now, but only arguendo. You have done nothing to show me why women don’t prefer to watch male characters. Why is your sexism measure accurate? Your measure would seem to indicate that representation on magazine covers is heavily biased towards women. Does this indicate sexism? Is it men or women that are being oppressed in this case, and by whom?

        Further, I don’t see why this is an assumption which supports my “existing privilege.” Exactly how does women preferring male characters in movies privilege me or men in general? If women do prefer male characters, why aren’t they equally privileged in that the market is quite adept at giving them what they want?

        Moreover, I do have evidence in favor of the premise that women do prefer male characters;

        1) Anecdote: virtually all females I know have a preference for male-dominated stories, i.e. Batman, Jurassic Park, Die Hard, The Princess Bride, and so on (this holds up in other narrative mediums, such as video games and literature)

        2) Economics: the market serves demand, and we have here an industry with a heavy propensity towards male-dominated products

        3) Statistics: there are many fields and disciplines which have inequitable sex distributions, so it isn’t unlikely that an industry like film would represent one more than the other

        I don’t see what the problem is, I don’t see how you establish that it’s a problem, and I don’t know what you mean for the “normative” setting to be.

      • katz

        You have done nothing to show me why women don’t prefer to watch male characters.

        You’re…demanding that I disprove your unsubstantiated assertion. I know you’re smarter than this–you know perfectly well that, because anyone can make any sort of unsupported statement, the burden of proof always lies on the person who makes it–so I’m forced to assume you’re being disingenuous on purpose.

      • Bryce Laliberte


        My argument hardly stopped with “but you haven’t proven otherwise.” The rest of the comment that followed was meant to construct what I saw as lacking, or at least what were unsubstantiated assumptions. The prime assumption behind your whole quantitative analysis is that equality (in the value-laden sense) exists only in equitability. I don’t see the force of your assumption. I’m reaching a different conclusion (that equality is more than equitability) due to the fact that, for as much as women complain, they’re still supporting the industry’s standards with cash. The market serves demand.


        Why is it skewed? It represents an ideal of beauty, something which people prefer to focus their senses on. That is just what beauty is, for it to be palatable to the senses. Beauty sells. There’s a reason Michelangelo was picked to paint the Sistine Chapel rather than some random slob off the street.

        For that, people ought to understand the difference between fiction and reality. A magazine cover sells a fiction. To take it for reality is to be mistaken. But then what are you pointing out except that people ought not to take a fiction for reality?

      • katz

        You’re committing what’s known as the just world fallacy–the assumption that because the world is a certain way, it should be that way. The evidence you’re providing (women go to movies) is, of course, meaningless because if 98% of movies star men, then 98% of the movies women go to are likely to star men. And 98% of the movies they don’t go to. And 98% of the movies they don’t go to. And 98% of just about any other subset of movies. If this doesn’t make sense to you, go take an introductory statistics course; I shouldn’t have to be explaining this to you.

        It’s fallacious under the best of circumstances because you’re ignoring the existence of any extenuating factors (such as advertising; advertisers would love it if everyone accepted what they present as unquestioningly as you), but when your using it to defend your own privilege over other people, it just makes you look entitled (and, you know, sexist), because you’re saying “Everything should be a way that just happens to benefit me the most.” Let me throw some examples at the wall and see if anything sticks.

        (1940) “Black people shouldn’t be in movies. Black people go to movies to see white people. I know because black people buy tickets to movies with white people in them.”

        (1905) “Nobody needs food inspections. People prefer eating meat with a little ground rat in it. I know because all the ground meat has rat in it and people buy it.”

        (1966) “Miscegenation is an abomination. Everyone is happiest marrying people of his own race. I know because black people marry black people and white people marry white people.”

        (any year you like) “Poor people shouldn’t be able to hold public office. Poor people are happiest when they’re represented by rich people. I know because rich people run for office and poor people vote for them.”

        (2012) “Catholics prefer pedophiles as priests. I know because so many of their priests are pedophiles. If they were opposed to pedophilia, they wouldn’t stay at a church with so many pedophiles.”

      • Bryce Laliberte

        Not every appeal to the way the world is constitutes a just world fallacy. Otherwise the price system should be completely meaningless.

        You’ve done nothing to answer any of my negative objections against your assumptions. Why is equality = equitability? Why can’t women just happen to prefer male characters? Why is it sexist that male characters are overrpresented, but not sexist that 99% of plumbers are male? Or is that sexist? What is and isn’t sexist?

      • katz

        If you were really interested in answers to those questions, you could read Feminism 101, but of course you aren’t; you’re just dumping questions so that if I don’t answer them to your satisfaction you can declare victory.

        Look, you’re swimming in privilege. You’ve advocated racial profiling on this blog, too. You honestly think that the world would be best if it were arranged in the way that most benefits you, and you interpret everything in that light–either as a confirmation that you’re right or as an attack. You’re not stupid, but I can’t possibly have a real discussion with you until you decide to step out of the cave.

    • Jordan

      Take this blog post, then, as a data point for the existence of at least one woman who is expressing her preference to see more female characters in movies. You should take it into account as part of your anecdotal evidence in future comments.

      Magazine covers are perhaps a better analogy than you realize, but they make the opposite argument from what you made. Ask any woman about how the heavily-photoshopped women on magazine covers reflect on representations of women in media… and I’ll guarantee that what will come up will include the shallowness and ridiculous beauty expectations given to both women and men about how women should look. It’s a skewed view, and should not be thought of as “normal” or “just the way it is.”

      Women buy magazines, of course, and they watch movies. But I’d posit that, apart from a couple of easy-to-name exceptions, they don’t have much variety in how they’re portrayed or how much screen-time they get. The “problem” here is the somewhat prevalent attitude that the shallow appearance on covers and limited screen-time and character-development in movies really IS all there is to women and how they want to be seen, which is idiotic to say the least, and again, an assumption proven wrong by the mere existence of women saying the opposite.

  2. Bard

    This commenter has been banned for inappropriate behavior.

    • Bard

      This commenter has been banned for inappropriate behavior.

    • katz

      The Help came out in 2011; this is an analysis of popular and critically acclaimed films from 2000-2009.

    • Jordan

      The first objection is a little self-defeating – you’re either admitting that men are being “small people” and mind stepping into the shoes of a female protagonist, or else you’re basically arguing the same as the OP and that Hollywood should be more open to stories from the female perspective, because, why not? It’s not reverse-discrimination to find yourself wishing both men and women would wind up with about equal chances to have their viewpoints stretched. I’m one of those rare guys who’s watched and liked Fried Green Tomatoes, though. :-p

      Your second objection is not really an objection either; I appreciate that you and Ray Bradbury seem to be open to women writers and stories about women being made into movies. The issue is the kinda subtextual attitude of “obviously women should just write more women-stories, not that *I’d* go see them, and obviously the ones they’ve *been* writing aren’t good enough to appeal to general audiences, which is why producers don’t make them.” I think that attitude is naive, and contributes to the problem; if that isn’t the subtext for what you’re saying, then great!

      • Bard

        This commenter has been banned for inappropriate behavior.

      • katz

        Of course if you want to have the attitude “Your problems don’t matter to me; deal with them yourself,” you can, but it’s not generally the sort of thing one proclaims proudly.

      • Bard

        This commenter has been banned for inappropriate behavior.

      • katz

        It’s fine if a problem doesn’t bother you personally, but how does that give you the right to unequivocally state that it shouldn’t be a problem for anyone? If a friend tells you “Ugh, I had a 102-degree fever so I had to stay home and now I’m behind on all my homework,” you don’t say “Suck it up, I had a 102-degree fever last week and I went to 4 classes and then wrote a research paper,” do you?

      • Jordan

        1) Sounds good! I think the “teacup tragedy” complaint is exactly what we’re talking about – I’d like more stories about women that aren’t so easily pigeonholed, is all, and it sounds like you would as well.

        2) You have my apologies – you are indeed one of the first females I’ve encountered on the interwebs to make the arguments you do – and so if I have a defense, it’s that while I try not to assume maleness on the internet in general, I do tend to assume it of people who are somehow unaware of male privilege, and satisfied with the way Hollywood shows women. Unfortunately, I have lots of experience with those sorts of commenters. I’m not sure how my own slip into blindness could turn into an implication that privilege isn’t an actual problem, though. Seems the opposite.

        3) “Write your own” is the best solution, of course, but systemic problems have this nasty habit of being self-perpetuating… so long as producers see it as going out on a limb to make movies about women (besides the standard chick-flicks), then to me, there is still going to be a problem when it comes to getting those awesome stories you write to actually be made into films. I’m not sure what’s so controversial about pointing out that the current stories don’t reflect the breadth of characters out there, and that it might not be such a crazy and unprofitable idea to broaden the horizons a bit.

      • Bard

        This commenter has been banned for inappropriate behavior.

      • katz

        You’re really pulling that interpretation out of the aether. No one is forcing you to care, much less do anything about it; you’re the one who feels the need to invest this much effort into making it clear that you don’t care.

      • Bard

        This commenter has been banned for inappropriate behavior.

      • katz

        Aaaand the ad hominem claim. If you don’t like how you’re being treated here, you are welcome to go elsewhere. You’re not contributing anything and I don’t know why you care whether or not other people are aware that you don’t care about an issue.

  3. Bard

    This commenter has been banned for inappropriate behavior.

  4. Pingback: Links of Great Interest: …and we’re back! — The Hathor Legacy

  5. It’s good to see some hard data. Obviously there’s some sort of bias/skewing effect, given how sharply the data diverges from a gender-blind model. People might disagree on the causes but it’s hard to deny the bias exists, based on this data.

    I also think it’s significant, as you point out, that gender-neutral objects such as computers and hats are given male voices; in a gender-blind casting situation, one would expect the distribution to be roughly 50%. One could probably an entire article on that alone, if they were so inclined.

    Great analysis, and thanks for compiling some hard stats. I’m bookmarking this for future reference.

  6. The Other Anne

    I think the folks commenting that they and other women like male dominated narratives are making the assumption that those narratives have to be male-centric. Really, we’re being told that these movies have to be male centric because Hollywood as a whole insists on KEEPING them male-centric, which then informs our views of what it means to be male-centric versus female centric, i.e. action as opposed to romance or subdued drama. So because we’re always presented with these roles, we internalize them and think that’s what we like and we come up with a reason for liking them as a status quo. I like movies which typically have a male-centric storyline, because I like those stories. They could easily be told with casts that are equal parts male and female. However, because I like stories that tend to be cast as male, I might assume I like male-driven plots. This is just not really accurate.

    It would be interesting to go back to a fairly equal split of male/female directors and writers, such as they had before the 40s, and see what people today would come up with. Would we see as much inequality if the majority of filmmakers weren’t male, and weren’t kept that way by a system that pushes women into producing and not creative roles?

    Great analysis. It’s not something I didn’t intuit before, but seeing numbers on it makes it all the more apparent.

    • katz

      Excellent points, especially this:

      So because we’re always presented with these roles, we internalize them and think that’s what we like and we come up with a reason for liking them as a status quo.

      The film industry loves it when we equate what we always see with what we like, because that allows them to just keep replicating the same formula and guarantee that it will keep being a hit.

    • Jordan

      To me, a great example of this done right is “Alien,” and the Ripley character, who was originally scripted as a “generic male.” The movie would still have been good if the casting director had just filled in males, but they decided to think outside the box a bit and do a more equitable split, and even have a female lead… and… the world didn’t end, and the movie didn’t immediately turn into a chick flick, and both men and women related to Ripley just fine without too much fuss.

      What’s silly is the continued habit of other directors to default to male characters, and the perception that casting a roughly 50/50 split of men/women would somehow be going out on a limb, rather than something that might give a movie even broader appeal. :-p

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