Inspired by the baseball statistics fun of Moneyball, film critic Kevin B. Lee decided to analyze the mechanics of film with the same scientific lens. Lee turned to the Cinemetrics website—which holds statistics for more than 14,000 films—to help him quantify Oscar-nominated performances. What he found was fairly disturbing. In a New York Times article published today Lee revealed there is a distinct gender gap when it comes to the amount of time Oscar nominees spend on-screen.
This year’s Oscar nominated male leads averaged 85 minutes of screen time, while female leads averaged only 57 minutes. That means audiences spent an average of 28 extra minutes watching performers like Matthew McConaughey and Leonardo DiCaprio than they did with Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench. (This year’s biggest outlier is Sandra Bullock who received a whopping 87 percent of Gravity’s screen time, thus making her the exception that proves the rule.) After factoring in supporting nominees in both categories, male actors averaged 59 minutes while women averaged 42. And it turns out the disparity was even worse last year when nominated male leads averaged 100 minutes of screen time compared to female leads’ 49 minutes.
David Bordwell, a film historian, theorizes that genre is likely responsible for that gender gap. Summarizing Bordwell’s theory, Lee writes, “Male stars are typically the protagonists in action or goal-oriented narratives that require the viewer to follow the story through the lead’s experiences. Female stars are more typically cast in melodramas that require the lead to serve as a hub connecting different characters and subplots.” So even when women hold leading roles, they are not the same types of central roles men receive (or perhaps the Academy simply does not praise the truly female-dominated films that do exist). It’s an empirical finding that Olivia Wilde has also expressed recently. After a gender-swapped reading of American Pie made her male co-stars aware of how boring many female roles are, Wilde answered bluntly, “Welcome to our world!”
Perhaps even more concerning, Lee’s article reveals that many might not be aware of the gender gap even when they’re watching it. For example, Jay Cassidy—who was part of American Hustle’s editing team—guessed there wasn’t much of a difference between screen time for the two nominated leads of his film. In reality, however, Christian Bale received 60 minutes of screen time while Amy Adams received 46. And while that 14-minute difference might not seem particularly substantial, consider that Judi Dench won a Supporting Actress Oscar for eight minutes of Shakespeare In Love and Anthony Hopkins was awarded the Best Actor Oscar for a total of 18 minutes in The Silence Of The Lambs; 10 minutes can, in fact, considerably impact an actor’s performance.
Lee’s research is part of a growing awareness of gender inequality in media. Reports from the Center For The Study Of Women In Television And Film and The Women’s Media Center have helped reveal a myriad of statistical gender inequalities (for example, there are fewer women employed in film production today than there were in 1998 and only 28.4 percent of speaking roles in the top 100 films of 2012 went to women). These studies, along with Lee’s findings, will hopefully be enough to prove once and for all that gender inequality is a very real problem and allow advocates to move on to figuring out how to fix it.
Indeed, many in Hollywood are already doing just that. Will Ferrell recently launched a female-driven production company with the explicit mission of creating female-led film and television projects. Geena Davis has also become an outspoken advocate for women in media. Her Institute On Gender In Media seeks to study inequality, while her brilliant essay “Two Easy Steps To Make Hollywood Less Sexist” offers simple solutions to fix the problem.