a still from blue is the warmest color shows two girls smiling

French film "Blue is the Warmest Color" centered on compelling female stories—but behind the camera, men outnumber women in the French industry nine to one. Film still from Sundance

We know that women woefully make up only 30 percent of speaking roles in American films. But a new study looks at how women fare in cinema internationally.

The study from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media and a group of partner organizations analyzed 120 films from the 10 countries with the most profitable film industries in the world. On average, women don't fare much better in films internationally than they do in the United States: only 30 percent of characters with speaking parts or names are women. However, the cinematic gender balance varies greatly between countries. In Korea, for example, 50 percent of leading parts went to women while women played only 10 percent of leading roles in Russian films.

a chart breaks down gender representation in film by country

One thing that's frustrating about this disparity is not just that women aren't reflected in our media but that films featuring women in speaking roles are often better movies. When a film has few women in speaking roles, that's usually a red flag to me that it's a poorly written film. That was backed up by American box office revenues last year: major films that passed the Bechdel test made far more money, overall, than films that failed to have two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than men.  I'd be excited about a plan for American theaters to follow the example of a few theaters in Sweden that post whether a film passes the Bechdel test—then I'd be able to know which films to skip.

When thinking about gender representation in media, it's essential to look at who is making our media. Female directors are more likely to work on projects with more women on screen. There's no country that has gender balance behind the scenes in the film industry, but some do better than others. At the bottom of the pile is France, where male directors, writers, and producers outnumber women nine to one. Brazil is the most equitable overall, but the UK gets the special distinction of being the only film market where women make up a majority of film writers.

gender prevalence behind the camera by country

The study also looked at how women are portrayed on screen, including what jobs they hold. Discussions of how women are portrayed in film are endless, but I think the most interesting part of this analysis is its number-crunching on the actual jobs women hold in films. The researchers looked at the number of characters who hold jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields and other male-dominated careers. The results are telling. In the United States for example, women hold 24 percent of jobs in STEM fields. But onscreen, only 12.5 percent of characters with jobs in STEM fields are women. Women are also absent onscreen from high-level political positions: only 9.5 percent of high-ranking politicians in films internationally are women. These onscreen representations are important because they offer role models for the viewer—not always good role models, of course, but even if women are playing nefarious scientists or politicians plotting global domination, people sitting in the audience understand that women are a vital presence in the laboratories and capitol buildings of the world. As the study notes, "Filmmakers make more than just movies, they make choices. Those choices could be for balance, for less sexualization, and for more powerful female roles. The choice could be for gender equality." 

Related Reading: Sweden is Now Rating Films for Gender Bias. 

Sarah Mirk is Bitch Media's online editor. Right now, she's really into watching Elisabeth Moss in "Top of the Lake." 

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