Will ‘Barbie’ Actually Break Gender Disparity?

New USC Annenberg study shows women are still not getting their due in Hollywood

Greta Gertwig has undoubtedly done a phenomenal job at the box office with Barbie.

And this was from the get-go: the movie, which opened on July 21, grossed $162-million in North American ticket sales, which set the record for a film directed by a woman (besting Captain Marvel, co-directed by Anna Boden (with Ryan Fleck) at $153.4 million in 2019, and Patty Jenkins’ 2017 Wonder Woman, at $103.3 million in its opening weekend).

It has become Warner Bros.’ biggest hit in domestic box office, having grossed $541 million (so far), putting Christoper Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) in second place for the studio, at $533-million.

Yes, Barbie beats Batman.

But according to a just-released report from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, women like Gertwig, Boden and Jenkins are the exceptions, not the rule.

Of the top-grossing films of 2022, only 8.8% were directed by women.

The study, titled “Inequality in 1,600 Popular Films,” encompasses movies made from 2007 to 2022.

And while it is pointed out that that 8.8% is surely better than the 2.7% of women directors back in 2007, it is approximately equal to the 8% of 2008—and remember, that was the year of the financial meltdown, and things have certainly improved since then. Or so it would seem.

Looked at from another perspective, the study finds that over the last 16 years there have been 88 women who directed a top-grossing film (which works out to be an average of 5.5 per year)—and there have been 833 men

Behind the camera, the report examined inclusion among key film personnel. In 2022, 8.8% of top-grossing film directors were women, a percentage which has not changed from 2021 (12.4%) and, while an increase from 2007 (2.7%), is on par with 2008 (8%). A total of 88 individual women have directed a top-grossing movie over the last 16 years, compared to 833 men or approximately 90% more.

In front of the camera things aren’t much better.

Looking at the percentage of girls and women in leading and co-leading roles, the researchers found that in 2022 it was in just 44 of the 100 top-grossing films. While that is certainly better than the 20 back in 2007, according to figures from The World Bank (we are dealing with box office numbers here, after all), in 2022 50.5% of the U.S. population consisted of women, so that 44% isn’t particularly impressive. However, back in 2007 women were 50.7% of the U.S. population so that 20% is absolutely pathetic.

Another way the researchers sliced the numbers was in terms of “female-identified speaking characters.”

Here the numbers are startling—and not in a good way.

In 2007 the number was 29.9%. In 2022 34.6%. That’s right: just a 4.7% increase.

And there’s this: they looked at the films from the standpoint of whether they are gender balanced, meaning having females in 45 to 54.9% of speaking roles.

In 2022 there were 15 films meeting that balance.

In 2007 there were 15 films meeting that balance.

What is arguably one of the most understated observations comes from Dr. Stacy L. Smith, one of the authors of the study:

“It is clear that the entertainment industry has little desire or motivation to improve casting processes in a way that creates meaningful change for girls and women. The lack of progress is particularly disappointing following decades of activism and advocacy.”

Will Barbie change this equation? While the numbers are impressive, there is reason for caution.

In 2017 Wonder Woman”was number-three in domestic box office, behind Star Wars: Episode VIII-The Last Jedi and Beauty and the Beast, but ahead of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Captain Marvel was the fifth highest-grossing movie in 2019, but it was behind a suite of solid franchises—Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Toy Story 4, and Frozen II—but it bested Star Wars Episode IX—The Rise of Skywalker and Spider-Man: Far from Home.

Given that, one might have thought that that 8.8% would have been inconceivable, but evidently it wasn’t.


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Stephen Macaulay

Stephen Macaulay writes about the music industry for Glorious Noise (www.gloriousnoise.com).He began his career in Rockford, Illinois, a place about which Warren Zevon once told a crowd, “How can you miss with a name like Rockford?”

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