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If Women Were Erased From Movies, How Much Would the Average Script Change?

If you were to scan 1,000 random film scripts, you might notice a common trend: female characters are rarely central to the plot. While this might seem preposterous, a group of scientists from the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering’s Signal Analysis and Interpretation Lab (SAIL) conducted this analysis and confirmed there is a serious entrenched gender inequality issue plaguing the film industry. Women and girls are still lacking opportunities, and the spotlight.


Using computational language analysis and interaction modeling tools, the team pulled nearly 1,000 random film scripts and analyzed the dialogues to track any patterns or themes. The researchers analyzed content of the characters’ language and their interactions across gender, race, and age. Beyond the cast, they also looked at genre and the production teams across films including writers, directors, and casting agents. The findings allowed them to quantify the sophistication and the tone of language of 7,000 characters and over 53,000 dialogues.

Of the scripts analyzed, men had over 37,000 dialogues, while women had just over 15,000. Beyond the volume of dialogue attributed to men, male dialogue contained more words related to achievement, death, and more cursing than the dialogue scripted for women. Women portrayed just over 2,000 characters, whereas men portrayed almost 4,900. Overall, female characters, regardless of race, tended to be about five years younger than their male counterparts.

The study also revealed that there were seven times more male writers than female writers, almost 12 times more male directors than female directors, and a little over three times as many male producers than female producers.

The researchers also used a graph theory to determine how central characters are to the plot of a movie by analyzing the ties and relationships to the other characters within the film – assigning dialogues to specific nodes or hubs. They found that when removing the female character nodes from most movie genres, the plot and the relationships did not need to be altered significantly. The exception was when women were in horror movies when they were most likely to be portrayed as victims. Thus, female characters could be easily removed from most scripts and not cause much of a disruption in flow or outcome.

Shri Narayanan, senior author of the study and a professor in computer science, linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, and pediatrics, said that the data from their research reveals that gender inequalities in film are real. “What we’re seeing is trends in unconscious biases,” he said in a phone call. “We’re providing one more objective way to look at the data that science can back up.”

A separate study conducted at the University of Southern California revealed that only a third of speaking parts go to women in the world’s biggest movie markets. The study, commissioned by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and supported by UN Women and The Rockefeller Foundation, concluded that “girls are nowhere to be scene” and that no matter where in the world the film is released, female characters cannot escape an emphasis on appearance. Additionally, according to an article in AAUW Outlook magazine titled “The High Cost of Hollywood’s Gender Bias,” women are often portrayed in traditionally female-dominated occupations, such as teachers, nurses, and waitresses, and underrepresented in high-level occupations, such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers.

Off screen, the underrepresentation of women in positions at all levels of the film industry is called the “celluloid ceiling,” a metaphor for the material that was once used to make film stock (strip). San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film released its annual Celluloid Ceiling report earlier this year, revealing that women constituted just 17 percent of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2016. Women directed just seven percent of the top 250 in 2016, a two percent drop from 2015 and 1998, the first year the study was conducted.

Geena Davis, Oscar-winning actress, advocate, and founder and chair of the nonprofit Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, believes that entrenched gender inequality in film is a problem that can be fixed. “We can absolutely fix it overnight, the next TV show – the next movie can be gender balanced,” she said, in a recent NBC News article. Adding, “When the needle moves on onscreen representation for the first time in seven decades, that will be historic.”

For parents, talking to our children about gender inequalities opens the door to action. When we have these hard conversations, children become more aware of the biases and can use that information to make a difference. With media, help them choose movies and TV shows that give women equal time in the spotlight and support women behind the scenes. Common Sense Media will soon be developing their ratings system to also account for representations of gender. Until then, look for productions directed by women and those with strong, central female characters.

What movies and TV shows would you recommend? Share in the comments!

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