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Why men speak louder than women in Hollywood


The movie Mad Max: Fury Road starring Charlize Theron passes the Bechdel test.

By now, most people have heard of “the Bechdel test.” To pass this famous three-part test, which measures whether female characters in a film are anything more than superficial, a movie has to 1) have at least two female characters 2) who talk to each other 3) about something other than a man.

It seems like a pretty low bar, but at least 40 percent of films fail, according to BechdelTest.com, a site that crowdsources these test results. Birdman fails. The Lord of the Rings movies all fail. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire fails. Even Toy Story fails. And it’s hard to think of a movie that doesn’t pass the Reverse Bechdel test – where two male characters don’t talk to each other about something other than a woman (according to the IMDB universe, some do exist.)

Sandra Bullock stars in the movie, Gravity.
Sandra Bullock stars in the movie, Gravity.

The Bechdel test has its critics. Some films with prominent female roles, like Sandra Bullock in Gravity, don’t pass the test, while other films that are male dominated or sexist do. But, as Walter Hickey wrote for FiveThirtyEight.com in 2014, for a long time the crowd-sourced information on the Bechdel test was the best data on gender equity in film that we had.

Two years later, we’re amassing more data that gives a clearer look at the real role of women in film. In a new project, Hanah Anderson and Matt Daniels at Polygraph analyzed screenplays for 2,000 popular movies, and broke down the number of words spoken by male and female characters – “arguably the largest undertaking of script analysis, ever,” they say.

To do the analysis, Anderson and Daniels mapped characters who have at least 100 words of dialogue in a movie from the screenplay to the actor’s IMDB page. (They caution that their analysis is based on the screenplay, not the actual film – sometimes directors may cut or change lines from the screenplay, and or even change the name or sex of the characters. So there may be small variations between the screenplay and the final film, though the results should be fairly accurate.)

What they find isn’t that pretty. As the Bechdel test suggested, most popular movie scripts are dominated by male characters.

In their analysis of 2,005 screenplays, there are few films in which even half of the dialogue is spoken by women, and quite a few films in which 100 percent of the lines are male.

The Boss starring Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Bell is amongst the 22 per cent of films where women have the most dialogue.
The Boss starring Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Bell is amongst the 22 per cent of films where women have the most dialogue.

Overall, a woman ended up having the most dialogue (i.e., being the lead) in 22 percent of the films they looked at. In about a third of the films, a woman was in second-place in terms of having the most dialogue. And only in about 18 percent of films did women occupy at least two of the top three speaking roles. In contrast, men occupied at least two of the top three speaking roles in 82 percent of films.

Another major critique of Hollywood’s gender issues is that women can only obtain big roles when they’re young – which is why movies feature so many female scientists, astronauts and criminal defense attorneys that are somehow all in their 20’s. While men can get leading roles into their 40’s and 50’s, women disappear from the screen.

Anderson and Daniels’ data confirms this. For women, 22- to 31-year-old actresses have the most lines, speaking 20 million words; for men, 42- to 65-year-old actors speak the most, with nearly three times as many words as the most outspoken group of women.

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