Not Seen and Not Heard: Is the Film Industry Ignoring its Audience?

Since 2012, women have consistently made up 52% of moviegoers, according to the Motion Picture Association of America’s 2016 report. Male characters, however, are seen and heard twice as often as female characters. Does this mean that male-dominated movies are out-performing female-led films? Are male-led films what women want to watch?

Research says no. Yet, scripts say yes.

There are institutes dedicated to analyzing female representation in films and one of the most respected is the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Other researchers concerned with the same issues can be found at Polygraph’s The Pudding, at Google, and at The University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering’s Signal Analysis and Interpretation Lab.

FemaleThese groups measure the representation of both genders by examining film dialogue, counting the number of words each character and each gender has. In addition, according to Google’s Gender Equality in Films analysis, new tools, like machine learning, have emerged “to detect different characters on-screen, determine their gender, and calculate how often and for how long they spoke in relation to one another.”

In a September article in Box Office magazine titled “Diversity in Hollywood,” author John Fithian cites important findings from the University of Southern California’s SAIL tool that analyzed 1,000 scripts, revealing that men had 70% of the dialogue, and that women played just 29% of the roles.

It seems as though male-centric movies keep getting written, produced and released, but are these male dominated films more profitable than female-led films?

According to the Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient, “films led by women grossed 15.8% more on average than films led by men.” Google’s analysis echoes this concept by comparing the average earnings of male-led films ($75,738,095) to the average earnings of female-led films ($89,941,176). These earnings translate to female-led films earning 16% more than male-led films.

If females make up the majority of a film audience, and if they support female-led films 16% more than male-led films, then why is there such a discrepancy in onscreen representation?

Here are a few examples of “female-centric” films, where female characters deliver at least 51% of the dialogue:

The Help has 92% of its dialogue spoken by female characters. The film opened with the 7th largest Labor Day Weekend gross, and its global box office totaled $217mil.

Bridesmaids has 82% female dialogue. The film’s global box office totaled $288mil, and is the #1 R-rated female comedy.

Inside Out measured 64% female dialogue. Inside Out grossed $858mil globally, and the film holds the #1 opening for an original movie. The previous record holder was James Cameron’s Avatar.


These percentages were estimated by The Pudding’s 2,000 script analysis which can be found here. The Box Office Gross-to-Date estimates are from BoxOfficeMojo.

Each of the above films is from a different genre (drama, comedy and family), and the trend is apparent across the board. Female-centric films are profitable, and female-centric films are very different from films with a lead female protagonist. There are great female protagonists, like Rey from Star Wars and Anna and Elsa from Frozen, yet Star Wars has only a 28% female dialogue rate, and (surprisingly) Frozen has a 43% rate.

According to the The Pudding, though there may be strong, female protagonists, men occupy at least two of the top three roles in 82% of the film and this occurs in about 82% of the films analyzed.

This post is not suggesting a demise of male-led films, it only hopes to persuade the idea of leveling the playing field. This kind of research is a great first step, because there are already those in the industry measuring these concepts and identifying these issues.

Now, it’s up to screenwriters, producers and audiences to give women a voice and listen to it.

-Laney Kraus-Taddeo

4 thoughts on “Not Seen and Not Heard: Is the Film Industry Ignoring its Audience?

  1. I find this topic very interesting and after reading this post I can’t help but notice the male-dominated aspect of movies. I would like to say Wonder Woman was a prime example of a recent female lead movie that did extraordinarily well in terms of the box office. It was and it did; however the more I think about it the more I realize the majority of lines were spoken by the supporting male actors. While there is a strong female presence towards the beginning of the film, it shifts dramatically for the remainder of the screen time.
    As much as I don’t like to say we live in a patriarchy; we live in a patriarchy. The Hollywood industry is male dominated. Maybe it’s time they listen to the numbers and give audiences more of what they want to see. This should be an easy sell since increased profits are a main factor in a decision such as this and female films have proven themselves to be profitable.

  2. I love that you continue to fight to bring this issue to other’s awareness. Before speaking to you about women’s representation in the industry (not just movies, but with directors as well), I hadn’t really realized how under-represented women were! Now after reading your post it is sad, and even a bit infuriating that it is so difficult to come across a 50/50 film of women/male leads, and even harder to find over 50% for female led films. While of course this needs to change, I appreciate that you note that the male led films do not need to diminish, we simply need more female led films as well. Very nice post!

  3. This is a great topic. Not only is it interesting, but it also incredibly important. It’s no secret woman are cut short in the movie industry. All you have to do is go see a few movies in theatres and you’ll see how little female characters there are.

    Of course, some movies skew towards a particular gender that their trying to reach; however, your average movie that isn’t supposed to skew towards a gender has a baffling lack of female characters. It’s 2017 but we have a grossly large difference in the number of male characters vs female characters.

    Worse still, you have movies like Star Wars the Force Awakens that trumpets how they have a lead female character, yet men still hold the majority of screen time and lines of dialogue. I can think of several examples of other movies that have the same issue.

    This is such an important topic. This post does a fantastic job of describing the issue and backing it up with statistics and facts.

  4. This is a topic that I think of a lot, and I’m very glad that you researched about it. It is just outrageous to me that this sort of issue is such a prominent issue, and that we exuberantly celebrate movies and tv shows that are able to achieve the minimum of having an equal movie of males and females. We come up with tests like the Bechdel test that asks that two women have a name and talk to each other about something other than a men. So many movies don’t pass this test. There is the lamp test that analyzes whether or not a woman could be replaced with a lamp, but the plot wouldn’t change at all. There are so many female characters that wouldn’t be affected if they were turned into a lamp. Though I have not watched it myself, I have seen people talking online about a show called “Godless” on Netflix where a male outlaw finds a town populated only by women. Would you like to guess who speaks about 75% of the lines?

    People write what they’re comfortable writing. Naturally this means that when men are the writers and the producers and the directors, they are more comfortable with working with men and male topics. Along with other representations, we need people to realize that there is a deep issue going on throughout the entirety of media that needs to be addressed.

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