Films and TV shows about women do not win prestigious awards. Screen stories about women are not being told.
I analysed the last 25 years’ results for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards for Best Picture (Oscar™), and for the Television Academy’s Prime-Time Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series (Emmy™).1 The data show that tv shows about women never win, and that films about women almost never win. In addition, the central characters of award-winning films are overwhelmingly white.2
I also looked at the proportion of male and female writers who won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay. In both cases, the number of men far outweighs the number of women.3
In the last 25 years exactly one film primarily about women, Chicago, has won the Academy Award for Best Picture. We are 51% of the world; our stories win 4% of the Best Picture Oscar. Six films, or 24%, won that are about both women and men. But most of those (for example Million Dollar Baby, Shakespeare in Love, and Silence of the Lambs) focused on how hard it is to be a woman in a man’s world. In other words, those women were not human beings but those of a lesser species, female people who suffer in a man’s world. This Othering applies, too, with regard to race in films.
Only two films about people of colour, Slumdog Millionaire and 12 Years a Slave have won the Best Picture award. That’s 8%—twice as many as films about women but still a pitiful proportion. Note, too, how few films are about both people of colour and white people. Why is that?4
There was a noticeable difference between Adapted and Original Screenplay protagonists’ gender.
Fewer adapted stories adapted for the screen are about women than are original scripts: 8% about women, 12% about both, and a whopping 80% about men versus 12%, 28%, and 60% for originals. Why? I don’t know. I took a look at who wrote those scripts.
There’s a difference: 16% of the winning original scripts were written solely by women, twice as many as for adapted stories. It’s still a meagre proportion.
And now we come to TV. This is what set me off in the first place: I could find no decent TV drama about women, women as human beings. So I counted Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series.
There was not one. None. Zero. In the last quarter of a century not one single Emmy for Outstanding Drama has been won by a series primarily about women. And this chart does not tell the whole story. Many of the series I categorised as Both are ensemble casts heavily weighted towards male characters. Take, for example, Law and Order and Mad Men. Between them I counted 3 women and 8 men as protagonists. That is, 27%.5 I haven’t counted everything but if this ratio held true of those 77% of shows that could be classified as about both, only about 20% of TV protagonists are women.
So next time you turn on the TV and nothing excites you, you’re not crazy, you’re not wrong. Women’s stories are not there. Our stories are not being told.
1 I used Wikipedia lists of Best Picture winners and Outstanding Drama winners. I assessed the sex and race of the star. If there were co-stars of both sexes I used Academy category nominations (Best Actor/Actress, Supporting Actor/Actress) as the deciding factor. So, for example, I categorised Million Dollar Baby and Silence of the Lambs as Both. In addition, I used one-sheet visuals to check race for Best Picture characters and to count the gender balance on ensemble TV shows. I’d be surprised if this method yielded total accuracy. Also, the charts are a bit messy because I did this piecemeal. (This is more a proof-of-concept than a serious study, one of the reasons I looked at so few awards.) Nonetheless, I welcome corrections.
2 As for other marginalised groups—characters with different physical abilities, religious affiliation, sexuality, or gender presentation—I didn’t even bother counting. Nor did I count race for TV shows. But I hope someone else will.
3 I did not count the producers or show-runners or writers of the TV series. I did not look at the race of writers. Again, I hope someone will.
4 This, sadly, is a rhetorical question. According to Roxanne Gay in the New York Times, in 2012 94% of the Academy were white and 77% were male. In 2011, 10.5% of lead actors were people of colour. Even fewer were written by POC: 7.6%.
5 27% is what I’m coming to think of as the classic Sexist Ratio. It’s amazing how it applies to so many fields.