Despite Katniss Everdeen, the Odds Are Not in Favor of Hollywood Heroines

Study finds a lack of imagination means women are rarely in leadership roles onscreen.

Jennifer Lawrence. (Photo: Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

Solvej Schou writes regularly for TakePart, and has also contributed to the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, BBC.com, and Entertainment Weekly.

The top-grossing domestic movie in 2013 wasn’t an adventure flick featuring a man wearing a red cape or an iron-clad superhero suit. It was The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, featuring a woman character, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), equipped with a bow and arrow, a steely-eyed gaze, and the strength to jump-start a rebellion.

Given that Catching Fire grossed $409.4 million (that decimal point is important: Iron Man 3 raked in $409 million flat), it's a wonder more big-budget studios aren't demanding films that star women as leaders.

Yet, it's clear Catching Fire is an exception to the rule when looking at last year's 100 top-grossing domestic movies. In those, 21 percent of male characters were depicted as leaders, as compared with 8 percent of female characters, according to a report released Tuesday by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.

“Looking at the measure of leadership is interesting because it tells us whether a character has agency over her life and over others, that the character has the power to have others follow her,” said Martha M. Lauzen, the center's executive director. “We’re most likely to see women as informal leaders, or leaders within an informal setting. Their power is not set by some bureaucratic organization. For men, leadership seems to be more official.”

Hero characters such as Superman, Iron Man, and Thor, who dominated three of the 20 top-grossing films last year, not only sport stereotypically bulging muscles and physical prowess but also come from cultures long steeped in male superhero worship and fulfill that ultimate act of leadership: saving the world.

“We have to remember that film is a world of make-believe. The people onscreen are only limited by our imaginations,” said Lauzen. “It’s remarkable, then, how limited and stereotype driven the characters are onscreen.”

Male characters last year were much more likely to have work-related goals than personal life–related goals. Women in film were more torn, split more evenly between work-related and personal life–related goals, such as romance, the study found. That’s the difference between a character striving to become president of the United States and one purely trying to land a date. In fact, 89 percent of political leaders in film were male, according to the study.

As for the types of leaders depicted in movies, men comprised 97 percent of leading blue-collar characters—roles that usually involve physical labor, said Lauzen. Women are depicted in fewer roles that involve physical abilities. 

“People don’t know what they’re not getting. That’s one thing to remember. Moviegoers should vote with their pocketbooks, with their dollars,” said Lauzen. “If they want to see more films with female protagonists and leaders, they need to pay for those movies and go opening weekend.”

One moviegoer, Sophie Azran, has stepped up publicly, starting an online petition protesting the total exclusion of women in the best hero category of the upcoming 2014 MTV Movie Awards and demanding that Jennifer Lawrence’s hit portrayal of Katniss Everdeen be added. Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman, Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, and Chris Hemsworth as Thor all were nominated.

“Teen girls and young women everywhere need to see that courageous, principled women can be rewarded just like men,” said Azran.

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