Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Kathryn Bigelow at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival two weeks before winning an Oscar for Best Director for "The Hurt Locker" (PHOTO: ASPEN ROCK/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Kathryn Bigelow at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival two weeks before winning an Oscar for Best Director for The Hurt Locker (PHOTO: ASPEN ROCK/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Why Does Hollywood Still Suck at Gender Equality?

• February 22, 2013 • 7:41 AM

Kathryn Bigelow at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival two weeks before winning an Oscar for Best Director for The Hurt Locker (PHOTO: ASPEN ROCK/SHUTTERSTOCK)

It’s 2010, and the room is tight with anticipation. Barbra Streisand, a titan for gender equality in her own right, gingerly opens the envelope. Her voice becomes assertive, “Well, the time has come.”

That night Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win Best Director at the Academy Awards. Her acceptance speech was modest, the words poignant. The orchestra swelled with a bouncy version of “I Am Woman” as she exited, Oscar in hand.

Bigelow’s win was a major milestone in Hollywood, where women historically—big surprise—have been shuttered into the second tier. Some predictably ignored its significance, focusing instead on the fact that her win for The Hurt Locker came at the expense of her ex-husband James Cameron’s “Avatar.” Others saw it as a floodgate opening, demonstrating that big-money studios can invest—soundly—in female filmmakers.

The University of Southern California’s Stacy Smith included Bigelow in her research exploring the role of women within Best Picture-nominated films. Between 2007 to 2010, 14.3 percent of directors, 12.3 percent of writers and 23.9 percent of producers were female. The good news? Female directors of nominated films had risen—between 1997 and 2006, only 3.9 percent of directors were women. The bad news? Even those higher figures are painfully low.

Advocates and researchers became curious about the “Bigelow Effect“—the idea that Bigelow’s directorial success would open the door for other women. In the paper “The Celluloid Ceiling,” San Diego State’s Martha Lauzen analyzed the employment of women in the top 260 films of 2011. The numbers painted a disappointing picture—nothing much had really changed. In 1998, women made up 17 percent of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors. In 2001, the figure was 19 percent. In 2011, 18 percent. The numbers were stagnant.

The number of female writers and executive producers has increased since 2010, but only by inches. For directors alone, 5 percent of all filmmakers of the top 2011 films were women. What happened to the Bigelow Effect?

The Los Angeles Times asked Melissa Silverstein, co-founder of the Athena Film Festival, the same question. She responded that directors and writers are not technically employees of movie studios, so no employment statistics regarding diversity—a visual reminder of a need for change—really exist. “If this were a Fortune 500 company and they looked at these statistics, they would have a diversity committee working on this immediately,” Silverstein remarked. “How could you have a company in the 21st century and less than 10 percent of its leaders are women?”

This year’s nominations include no female candidates for Best Director—not even Bigelow with her Best Picture-nominated Zero Dark Thirty. Of the writers, those in the categories of Adapted and Original Screenplay, one is a woman. Eight executive producers on the ballot are women, sharing the space with 20 men. (Encouragingly, the indie world is dramatically better at equality. In new research (pdf), Smith reported that 23.9 percent of directors at the Sundance festival between 2002 to 2012 were female, compared to the 4.4 percent figure for the 100 biggest grossing films in that same period.)

In the documentary MissRepresentation, actress Rosario Dawson speaks to the need for more women writers and for scripts that reflect raw female experience: “To really have true equality, it also means representing the women out there who sometimes aren’t the best and sometimes do make mistakes. … That’s why it’s extremely important for women to be writing their own stories.”

And on screen? Women have 32.6 percent of speaking roles in the films that win golden statues.

An increase of women behind the scenes likely would raise that number. Smith’s study found that Best Picture-nominated films with at least one female screenwriter featured more girls and women on screen than those with none. That’s 44 percent more Clarices, Violas and Junes on screen, demanding attention.

Bigelow’s Maya, in Zero Dark Thirty, exists and excels in an environment dominated by men. The same could be said of her director. But if Hollywood really is to be the mirror of society and driver of policy that it’s simultaneously lauded and criticized for, it has a long way to go.

Sarah Sloat
Sarah Sloat is an editorial fellow with Pacific Standard. She was previously selected as an intern for the Sara Miller McCune Endowed Internship and Public Service Program and has studied abroad in both Argentina and the U.K. Sarah has recently graduated from the University of California-Santa Barbara with a degree in Global and International Studies. Follow her on Twitter @sarahshmee.

More From Sarah Sloat

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.