By most accounts 2013 was a good year for women with silver screen ambitions. Even a brief glimpse at any of the extensive Oscars coverage offers a year of Jennifer Lawrence and Lupita Nyong’o fighting for the title of cinema’s youthful film darling (as well as Nyong’o’s golden statuette), Cate Blanchett and Sandra Bullock weighing in as heavyweight solo leading ladies, Julia Roberts playing a role far removed from her Pretty Woman, bordering on unattractive and undeniably unstable, and our glorious empress Meryl maintaining her gilded throne.
Yet, even when the women behind the screen are pushed into the limelight, as Kathryn Bigelow has been, these ladies remain far from leading the pack. This apparent horde of women taking on the red carpet like bullfighters in stilettos and expensive blow-dries, at all ages and levels of cinematic pedigree, masks the fact that in cinema women are a rare breed.
A recent study has found that, even in a year deemed ‘female heavy’, women are still only playing 30% of given speaking roles. And that does not mean integral, central characters who dominate talk time, that includes any line spoken in all of the top 100 US films. Women’s voices are still stuck in the silent movie era – the majority are on mute.
Of course, the view only gets darker when looking at major female characters. If only a third of speech is female, then it’s already clear that in terms of solo screen time, the ladies just aren’t getting their fair turn. However the fact that only 15% of protagonists are women, still strikes as a sharp blow. For every Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine there are at least three Leos, or Brads, or Johnnys, or Will Ferrells. The truth is that, despite J.Law winning our hearts, her gender are still losing in the battle for serious parts and equal representation on screen. The hard fact to face is that it is still commonplace for women to be the supporting props to their male protagonists. Of all the already few female characters in 2012, over 30% were at some point partially naked, in comparison to 17% of nudey males. Of course, this sexy statistic is skewed to slightly soothe the truth of the sexualisation matter – when we talk teenage female roles, the rate of provocative clothing and nudity jumps to 57% The message is clear; if you’re a girl, expect a tough battle to the silver screen, and if you do make it in front of the camera, you better have your mouth shut and kit off.
The truly sad thing is that these numbers don’t even represent an all too gradual creep towards fairness – the stats remain comparable to 1940s level, with 2012 representation falling to the lowest point in five years. The few glittering stars breaking through the ranks to press their faces against Ellen Degeneres and Bradley Cooper are blinding us to the whole moving picture. The lads are running this show. As the title of the recent study clearly says, ‘It’s a Mans (Celluloid) World’. Hollywood may as well be the Wolf of Wall Street’s offices.
All we can hope is that the lucky few females who are enjoying screen time, recognition and respect (some of them don’t even have to take their tops off), can give a hand up to the others and keep knocking on the Acadamy’s golden doors. Cate Blanchett spoke out during her speech at the Oscars, using her special podium place to remind those behind the cinema screens something that should be glaringly obvious. Speaking directly to “those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences”, Blanchett added her voice to the proof she and her clutched statuette already demonstrated, telling everyone “they are not. Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money.” We really shouldn’t need her to say it, but until the 13% of films deemed equal in representing both sexes tips slightly further into the double digits then we need anyone and everyone to point out our collective blind spot. As Cate put it, “the world is round, people.”