Anna Paquin in The Irishman

Women in Hollywood: the number of female speaking roles fell in 2019, and it’s not good enough

Posted by for Life

According to a new report, women made up only 34% of all speaking roles in film in 2019. Here’s why that’s not good enough.

Over the last couple of years, Hollywood has made some serious progress. Thanks to the rise of movements such as #MeToo and Time’s Up, there’s more awareness than ever about the experiences of women in the film industry.

But still, underneath all of this progress, Hollywood has a problem with women. 2019 may have been an incredible year for female directors – think Greta Gerwig’s Little Women or Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers – but still, the Golden Globes failed to nominate even one female director. And according to a new report, that blatant reduction of women’s roles continues onscreen, too. 

The report, published by the San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, revealed that females made up just 34% of all speaking characters in 2019, a 1% decrease from 2018. What makes these results even more frustrating is the fact that, according to the report, the percentage of top-grossing movies with female protagonists actually rose by 9% from 2018-2019, reaching a historic high of 40%. The female characters were there – they just weren’t saying anything. 

For many people, these figures come as no big surprise – the evidence was there in some of 2019’s top films. 

The problem was first made clear in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, in which Margot Robbie – playing the role of Sharon Tate, a critically-acclaimed actress who was murdered by Charles Manson’s “family” – appears in only a few brief scenes, and speaks very little. The issue was first brought up at the Cannes Film Festival premiere of the film, when a New York Times journalist asked Tarantino why Robbie had so little dialogue. He told the journalist he rejected her “hypothesis” – only offering some clarification on the situation later on when he added two minutes more Robbie dialogue to the final cut.

And Once Upon A Time In Hollywood wasn’t the only film to face backlash for it’s silencing of female characters – in November’s The Irishman, Anna Paquin, who plays Robert De Niro’s character’s daughter, has but six lines of dialogue. 

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.
Women in Hollywood: Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.

This continued silencing of female voices – an effect Stylist’s digital editor Kayleigh Dray has aptly termed “the Little Mermaid effect” – is an incredibly disappointing occurrence that has widespread consequences for the film industry as a whole.

It’s great that female characters are increasingly making their way to the forefront of the highest-grossing movies, but if they’re not speaking, those films are perpetuating a damaging stereotype: that women should be seen and not heard.

As for the answer to this problem, the study may also hold some answers. According to the report, in films with at least one female director/writer, women made up 39% of all speaking characters, compared to 32% in films with exclusively male directors/writers. 

It’s not exactly a massive difference, but it proves a well-known fact; we need more women in all aspects of the film-making process if we’re ever going to make real progress.

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.

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