Women Slay Once Again at the Box Office, Still Horrendously Underrepresented

‘The Divergent Series: Insurgent’ is the third female-fronted film to top the box office this year, but Hollywood still hasn’t gotten the memo.

Shailene Woodley. (Photo: Target Presse Agentur Gmbh/WireImage)

Mar 23, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

For the third time this year, a female-fronted flick has become a bona fide blockbuster.

The Divergent Series: Insurgent grossed an estimated $54 million from Friday to Sunday, owing largely to its 60 percent female audience, according to The New York Times. The Shailene Woodley–starring sci-fi saga confirms the trend we’ve been seeing all year: Female-driven movies are wildly popular, thanks to the buying power of female moviegoers.

The previous weekend, Cinderella debuted in the No. 1 spot at the weekend box office. Its overwhelmingly female audience helped Disney’s live-action adaptation rake in more than $70 million that weekend. But that doesn’t come close to February’s very different female-centric hit: Fifty Shades of Grey, which took in more than $85 million in its opening weekend alone.

As box-office numbers continue to prove the demand for movies told from the female perspective—be it anything from action series to fairy tales to erotic fantasies—another set of data stands in stark contrast: Just 12 percent of movie protagonists are female. That’s according to San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, which analyzed the top 100 grossing films of 2014 to determine how few of them were told from a female point of view.

Analysts say women began proving their box-office buying power in 2008, which saw the massively successful release of Twilight, Sex and the City, and Mamma Mia!, all of which were told from a female character’s perspective and garnered sizable female audiences. And while female-fronted movies have been commercially successful since at least 2008, the rate of female protagonists has only risen 2 percent since 2007, according to research by SDSU’s Martha Lauzen.

Lauzen also found that films featuring male protagonists earn larger grosses overall because of one central caveat: They often have larger budgets. Her conclusion? The differences in grosses are caused by differences in budget size, not the gender of the protagonist. So if women account for the majority of moviegoers, as MPAA data alleges, then why not make more female-fronted movies? It certainly seems to boost movie sales when women can identify with the central character on-screen.

“Among the pleasures of the movies are the new worlds they open up, but there are pleasures in the familiar, too, like seeing other women bigger, badder, and more beautiful than life,” film critic Manohla Dargis wrote in The New York Times in 2008. In recent months, she’s continued to regularly examine the gender gap not just in front of the camera, but behind it as well—perhaps dishearteningly, the percentage of women employed in key roles behind the scenes remains the same as it did in 2005 and 1998: 17 percent.

“In 2008, when a white woman and a black man are running for president and attracting unprecedented numbers of voters partly because they are giving a face to the wildly under-represented, you might think that Hollywood would get a clue,” Dargis wrote in May of that year, prior to the election of President Barack Obama.

But nearly seven years later, after Obama’s election and reelection, and as Hillary Clinton is expected to announce her run for president in 2016, Hollywood has yet to get the memo: Women—and everyone else who is wildly underrepresented, for that matter—want to see themselves on-screen. The box-office numbers speak for themselves.