The so-called Golden Age of Hollywood produced some of the most memorable films ever made, from the 1927s The Jazz Singer until Gone with the wind (1939) and burger Kane (1941). But it hasn’t been so golden for women in the movie industry, according to a recent article published in PLOS One that analyzed a century of data and concluded that the rise of the infamous studio system was causing serious gender inequality. Female representation began to rise again in the 1950s, after two pivotal lawsuits effectively broke the studios’ stranglehold on the industry.
Lead author Luis Amaral, of Northwestern University, is a trained physicist specializing in the study of complex systems. The latter work builds on a 2015 study he co-authored, examining the correlations between production budget, gross box office, and total user votes for movies on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB). That study concluded that the total number of IMDB votes was a strong indicator of the fame or notoriety of a particular film.
Three years ago, co-author Murielle Dunande, then a high school girl spending her summer vacation in Amaral’s lab, proposed an investigation into the representation of women in films. Initially focusing on films in the 1960s, Amaral thought it would be interesting to go back to the birth of the film industry to better understand the historical origins of gender inequality.
amaral et al† used data from IMDB and focused on American movies. The IMDB data turned out to be as good, if not better, than the data collected in the American Film Institute Archive, which is widely regarded as the gold standard for such records. Altogether, they analyzed 26,000 films produced between 1910 and 2010, across all genres (westerns, musicals, comedy, horror, fantasy, science fiction, action/adventure, romance, etc.), specifically measuring how many women worked in four capacities: as actors, directors, screenwriters or producers.
The resulting graphs show a sharp U-shaped pattern, with female roles increasing in the first ten years of the 100-year period and then decreasing sharply after 1920. From 1910 to 1920, women accounted for 40 percent of the casts, wrote 20 percent of the films, and produced and directed 5 percent. By 1930, in just ten years, the number of women in the cast had halved and the number of women producing and directing was almost zero.
Female representation only started to increase in 1950 and steadily increased in 2010. “This is amazing,” Amaral said. “These things don’t happen by accident. They happen because someone decides to do things that way.”
The researchers also took into account as many other variables they could think of that could have influenced those trends: female representation in the workforce, industry growth, GDP growth, the popularity of certain genres, and so on. “None of them had any impact,” Amaral said. “The things that influenced what we saw were the changing concentration in the industry and whether the producers and directors were male or female.”
The pattern they found in the data reminded Amaral of what had happened in the software industry, where women were much more common in the early 1980s, before the industry consolidated and was dominated by just a few players, most notably Microsoft and apple. In fact, women have a long history as wartime codebreakers and computer scientists — including Grace Hopper and Margaret Hamilton, among many others — arguably going all the way back to Ada Lovelace.
“It’s driving me crazy,” Amaral told Ars. “So many people have a very bad knowledge of history, so they make statements like, ‘Oh, all the great computer scientists are men.’ No, they aren’t. There used to be a lot of women. So how can you say that? Are you ignorant or dishonest? But that argument never seems to go away.”
Amaral had long considered the possibility of looking at gender inequality in a field where arguments about innate ability or natural interest, based on long-standing cultural stereotypes, would be (or at least should be) irrelevant. The film industry seemed like a good candidate as it is generally believed that women are interested in art, acting, singing, dancing and the like. “If there’s an interest rate deficit, it’s on the side of men,” Amaral said. No shortage of talent either; it is easy to point out very talented and prominent women in film. So you would expect there to be gender equality, and yet there isn’t.
According to Amaral, the American film industry flourished after the First World War, because there was no longer much competition from Europe. Those with deeper pockets and/or better access to capital started buying other studios, not to mention distribution companies and movie theaters, resulting in a vertical integration with the major studios controlling every aspect of the business. “You made the movies, you distributed the movies, you owned the theaters where the movies were shown,” Amaral said. “So if you wanted to kick out competitors, it was very easy. You just refused to distribute or show their films.”
As power concentrated in a few studios, women’s representation declined sharply, Amaral said. “As the studio system went on, more and more movies were being produced by fewer and fewer players, and these fewer players had more control over everything,” he said. Women got fewer jobs because male producers hired male directors and male writers.
“There is a link between increased concentration of power and decreased female participation.”
Exactly how the studio system went down is a complicated question, but it’s generally agreed that there were two particularly pivotal events that contributed to its downfall. The first was a 1943 lawsuit filed by actress Olivia de Havilland against Warner Bros., seeking to be released from her contract. Bette Davis had filed a similar legal challenge against Warner Bros. in 1937. and lost. But de Havilland prevailed, resulting in what is still popularly known as California’s De Havilland Act (Labor Code Section 2855). Although the actress was blacklisted by the studios for a few years as revenge, her sister and fellow actress Joan Fontaine once remarked, “Hollywood owes Olivia a lot.”
Just six years later, the US federal government filed an antitrust lawsuit known as the… Decisive case, arguing that studios should not be able to both produce and distribute their films and own the theaters in which they were shown. The studios eventually lost that case when the US Supreme Court ruled against them in May 1948. And when Howard Hughes, who owned a controlling interest in RKO (one of the smaller studios), entered into a consent decree with the federal government over the production/distribution and exhibition aspects of RKO’s business, the counter-arguments of the other studios fell apart.
“When the studio systems had to disintegrate to some extent, a lot of movie stars became producers and directors, and I think that opened the door to more diversity,” Amaral said. “The changes in the law took power away from a handful of men and gave more people the power to change the industry.”
He cites the film from 1980 9 to 5 as an example, arguing that it probably wouldn’t have been made without the power of Jane Fonda at the time. (Fonda had recently set up her own production company.) In short, “There is a link between increased concentration of power and decreased participation of women,” Amaral said, adding that the same is true a hundredfold for racial diversity in the film industry.
DOI: PLOS One2020. 10.1371/journal.pone.0229662 (About DOIs).