Ting-Tine Liu (left) speaks with Marc Choueiti (right), while logging data at the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative, part of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, on December 12, 2013.
USC Annenberg

Gender Stereotypes: The Global Status Quo in Film

Half the world’s population may be female, but in popular movies from around the globe, girls and women are still outnumbered.

A new study from the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg reveals that less than a third of all speaking characters are female across 120 films in 11 worldwide territories. The study, commissioned by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and supported by UN Women and The Rockefeller Foundation, was released Sept. 22 at the Institute’s Global Symposium.

The study analyzed films from Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea, the United States and the United Kingdom — as well as UK-US collaborations.

“We examined films from some of the most profitable international territories,” said USC Annenberg Professor Stacy L. Smith, author of the study and founding director of the Initiative. “The results illuminate that globally, we have more than a film problem when it comes to valuing girls and women. We have a human problem.”

Extending previous work to new media markets yielded insights into the prevalence and portrayal of female characters in other parts of the world. The study measured how many characters were shown working, demonstrating that just 22.5% of the fictional global workforce is comprised of women. Employed females are largely missing from influential occupations. Under 15% of business executives, political figures, or science, technology, engineering and/or math (STEM) employees are women.

“How do we encourage a lot more girls to pursue science, technology and engineering careers? By casting droves of women in STEM, politics, law and other professions today in movies,” said Geena Davis, Founder & Chair of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Internationally, male characters outnumber females as attorneys and judges (13 to 1), professors (16 to 1) and doctors (5 to 1).

Across the sample, female characters were twice as likely to be portrayed in a sexualized light compared to their male counterparts. “There is still a gap in equality between males and females across every country we studied,” said Marc Choueiti, one of the study’s co-authors. “Filmmakers around the world have the power to change this – stories and characters are only limited by imagination.”

Less than a quarter of all the films in the sample depicted a female in the lead or co-lead role, and just 10% of the films had a gender balanced cast.

“Filmmakers make more than movies, they make choices,” said Katherine Pieper, another author on the study. “The findings from this study reveal that globally, these choices can mean that girls and women are left out of the picture.”

There were a few standout countries in the study, though no territory depicted females in fully half of all speaking roles. Films from the UK (37.9%), Brazil (37.1%) and South Korea (35.9%) were the frontrunners for females, while Indian films (24.9%) and UK-US collaborations (23.6%) lagged.

Over 100 students from several USC schools and majors assisted with the study, which relied on USC’s large international student population to recruit research assistants familiar with the countries studied.

“I am extremely proud of all the USC students who worked with us on this project,” said Professor Smith. “These are some of the best and brightest thinkers in the world, and they are going to solve the enigma of gender inequality in film.”

“We gained an understanding of the entertainment industry,” said Yoobin Cha, a senior communication and psychology major who served as a research assistant on the study. “We talk so much about giving opportunities, but surprisingly, gender is not there yet in film. Not in the U.S., Korea or other countries.”

“The differences are not only on screen but in the industry as well,” said Cha. The study found that just 20.5% of the individuals working behind the scenes as directors, writers and producers were women across the full sample, a ratio of nearly four males to every female. Among the countries studied, Brazil was the most balanced (1.7 males to every female) and France the least (9.6 males to 1 female). Films with a female director or writer had significantly more girls and women on screen.

“It was revealing to see some of the differences and similarities between Russian media and media in the U.S.,” said Artur Tofan, a senior communication major and research assistant. “I hope the study will bring change, and I hope we’ll see more diversity in terms of ethnicity, age and gender representation.”

Key Findings:

  • Only 30.9 percent of all speaking characters are female.
  • A few countries are better than the global norm: U.K. (37.9 percent), Brazil (37.1 percent), and South Korea (35.9 percent). However, these percentages fall well below population norms of 50 percent. Two samples fall behind: U.S./U.K. hybrid films (23.6 percent) and Indian films (24.9 percent) show female characters in less than one-quarter of all speaking roles.
  • Females are missing in action/adventure films. Just 23 percent of speaking characters in this genre are female.
  • Out of a total of 1,452 filmmakers with an identifiable gender, 20.5 percent were female and 79.5 percent were male. Females comprised 7 percent of directors, 19.7 percent of writers, and 22.7 percent of producers across the sample.
  • Films with a female director or female writer attached had significantly more girls and women on screen than did those without a female director or writer attached.
  • Sexualization is the standard for female characters globally: girls and women are twice as likely as boys and men to be shown in sexually revealing clothing, partially or fully naked, thin, and five times as likely to be referenced as attractive. Films for younger audiences are less likely to sexualize females than are those films for older audiences.
  • Teen females (13-20 years) are just as likely as young adult females (21-39 years) to be sexualized.
  • Female characters only comprise 22.5 percent of the global film workforce, whereas male characters form 77.5 percent.
  • Leadership positions favor males; only 13.9 percent of executives and just 9.5 percent of high-level politicians were women.
  • Across notable professions, male characters outnumbered their female counterparts as attorneys and judges (13 to 1), professors (16 to 1), medical practitioners (5 to 1), and in STEM fields (7 to 1).