The most hotly awaited report of the year about who Hollywood puts on screen is out, and it looks grim.
Every year Dr. Stacy Smith’s Media Diversity & Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg drops the most comprehensive study on the representation of women on screen each year. Their work is herculean: They look at the top 100 grossing films of the previous year — in this case, 2015 — and then set about to code gender, race, LGBT status and other demographic information about every single speaking character in every single top-100 film.
While there are plenty of ways to take a stab at analyzing gender in film, as far as completeness goes you can’t beat the MDSCI report.
In 2015, the MDSCI found that 31.4 percent of the 4,370 speaking characters analyzed were female1. While this is an increase from 2014 levels, when 28.1 percent of speaking characters were female, it’s still lower than levels in 2008 and 2009.
But really, come on, men outnumber women more than 2-to-1 on screen. That’s a total absurdity.
- Only 32 percent of the movies had a female lead or co-lead.
- A mere 12 percent had a gender-balanced cast.
- 49 percent didn’t have an Asian character, 40 didn’t have a Hispanic or Latino character, and 17 didn’t have a single black character.
- In 2015, there were only 19 gay, seven lesbian, five bisexual and one transgender characters in the top 100 films, out of 4,370 speaking characters.
In 2014 I reported on the MDSCI for FiveThirtyEight, and I was struck by the immense individual effort that goes into this kind of research. Some excerpts from that article:
- “For the typical coding, you can’t just watch a movie straight through and get it right — it involves stopping, rewinding, teasing out voices from a crowd to figure out not only who is talking, but what she looks like, etc.”
- “The same film has to be reviewed independently by at least three coders, and cross-checked by a fourth, to make sure everything is right.”
- “Keeping in mind that all of these characteristics need to be coded for every speaking character in a film — with about 40 characters per film, give or take — you can see how coding three films in 10 hours takes skill.”
So it’s tough work. When I asked project administrator Marc Choueiti what film he had the hardest time coding, he volunteered one anecdote about coding a film with one of his researchers:
“Choueiti still shivers when remembering “Despicable Me 2.” He had to sit down with a student coder, Angel, to figure out all the minions. “I was like, ‘Angel, we need to track the eye size, the width and height of every single one of these.’ ”
You may recall that last year one of the highest-grossing films of the year was a little picture called “Minions,” in which the Minions characters from “Despicable Me” were spun off into their own franchise about their civilization, which is entirely composed of Minions.
So in order to build this report, think about this: Some poor researcher had to watch the “Minions” movie — stopping, restarting, rewinding to place each voice — to code it for the project. This took hours. She had to discern the Minions from one another. She had to identify core facts about the Minions. She had to file a report about the Minions. This research had to happen three different times. It had to be cross-checked by a fourth researcher!
“We never want to inflate a number or double count, so they represent a challenge,” said Choueiti about how the team coded “Minions.” This involved an “extra document detailing scrupulous notes on the Minion’s eyes, size, tufts of hair on their head [and] their clothing.” In the end, the MDSCI probably has a better reckoning of the Minion speaking population than Illumination, the studio that made the cursed movie.
Other challenging films from 2015 cited by Choueiti and research scientist Dr. Katherine Pieper include “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials,” which had lots of generic soldiers, and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” with the O.G. generic soldiers, stormtroopers. On the other hand, they loved the small-cast, feature-length, bottle-episode film “Ex Machina.”
Without MDSCI’s effort, we wouldn’t have such rock-solid evidence that there’s a fundamental problem in the film industry’s treatment of women, nor would we know that things aren’t even getting that much better.
So if you meet a USC media researcher in Southern California who can’t stand the color yellow anymore, buy them a drink or something.