The NCSL Blog


By Katie Ziegler

Los Angeles—NCSL’s 2018 Legislative Summit brought more than 5,000 people to Los Angeles, and the Women’s Legislative Network closed out the week by putting Hollywood front and center.

Stacy Smith talks Hollywood inequality at the Legislative Summit.The network studies the numbers of women serving in legislatures and in legislative leadership and has documented the slow rate of change in women’s representation. Not unique to politics, this underrepresentation extends to film, as attendees at the network’s lunch learned from keynote speaker Stacy Smith, founder and director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California.

Smith and her colleagues study the 100 top-grossing movies each year to determine the representation of women, minorities and people with disabilities.

Among these films, the share of speaking characters (including those with just one line of dialogue) who are women has held steady at around 30 percent for more than a decade. The share of speaking characters who are racial or ethnic minorities is 29 percent, and the share of those depicted with a disability was just 2.5 percent.

The researchers also considered character roles: Among characters who were C-suite executives, just 3.4 percent were women. Zero percent of movie characters with the highest-clout positions in the financial or legal sectors were women, and women were just 4.5 percent of characters in high-clout political positions.

Why does this matter? Smith discussed how important it is for young girls to see characters who look like them represented in the media (this was a theme of a Women’s Network session earlier in the week).

And, women aren’t exactly box office poison: The three top-grossing films of 2017 had female leads. A cause of the ongoing lack of significant, speaking female characters is the ongoing lack of female directors: Women directors were at the helm of just 4 percent of the top-grossing films since 2007.

Smith noted that female directors feature more girls and women and members of minority groups on screen, feature more women age 40 or older and hire more women in other production jobs.

Role congruity theory explains the bias female directors encounter. When asked to name the traits of a “good director,” film producers and financiers listed characteristics such as “muscular,” “aggressive” and “ambitious,” all traits that are strongly perceived as masculine. This mindset, cumulatively, leads to female directors being overlooked because they don’t fit the profile.

Smith and the Annenberg Initiative have several solutions that can move the needle of women’s representation, one of which got a publicity boost this past March when Frances McDormand mentioned the inclusion rider in her Academy Award acceptance speech.

An inclusion rider in an actor’s contract stipulates that consideration of people from underrepresented groups must be part of the casting and production hiring process, and McDormand urged the A-list talent at the ceremony to start using it.

Smith encourages the creation of objective and quantifiable criteria for Hollywood hiring to avoid bias. She noted that scriptwriters (another occupation in which women are underrepresented) have the power to make change, too: If every script added five additional female speaking characters each year, onscreen parity would be reached by 2020.

Smith had a call to action for state legislators: Consider state film tax incentives.

California has recently amended its film incentive program to require reporting on a project’s diversity, but no state has yet adopted its own inclusion rider. The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative encourages states to tie their incentive programs to inclusion criteria that ensure the movies made in the state are more fully representative.

Finally, Smith encouraged everyone to vote with their dollars and support the films with the kinds of characters they most want to see more of. Next time you’re at the movies, take the time to consider who is on the screen and in the credits, and think about how you’d like to see that change.

Katie Ziegler is the program manager of NCSL's Women's Legislative Network.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.