Do They Ever Make Movies About Women? A Mathematical Analysis From 1989–2013

By , With the exception of The Heat — which earned a solid $40 million on its opening weekend, handily defeating the competition — it has not been a good summer for women in the movies. Put more plainly: With the exception of The Heat, women have barely been in the movies this summer at all. In the words of NPR’s Linda Holmes, who wrote about the problem last month, “if you want to go to see a movie in the theater and see a current movie about a woman — any story about any woman that isn’t a documentary or a cartoon — you can’t.” The 2013 lineup is all superheroes and crass man-boy bonding. Granted, studios release these types of movies every summer, but usually they’ll at least give us one rom-com or female ensemble movie, or a woman in a role that is not “secretary to an Avenger.” Or so I assumed, based on fond memories of The Notebook and every mediocre Kate Hudson film ever made. This year seemed worse to me, and so I decided to do the math, comparing the number of women in major roles in the last five years of major summer releases with those in major releases from twenty years ago. It turns out that yes, 2013 is a bad summer — but it is far from a record low point. This has been a problem for 25 years now.

First, some notes on procedure: This exercise focuses on wide-release summer movies, which I have defined based on theater count, with adjustments for blockbuster screen inflation. For the years 2009 through 2013, I included movies that, at their widest release, were shown on at least 1,000 screens — a slightly generous designation that includes some medium-range, female-friendly movies (like Focus’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) but does not cover other indies, like Before Midnight (897 theaters) or Vicky Cristina Barcelona (726). (Since some smaller 2013 movies have not yet revealed their full potential, assumptions on which ones will cross 1,000 have been made.) For the years 1989 through 1993, the cutoff is 500 theaters to account for the pre-megaplex era (blockbusters maxed out at around 2,500 screens back then, as opposed to today’s 4,000) and also a more varied studio approach. The following charts, which compare the number of films with varying degrees of a female presence in a given year, are presented as a percentage of total wide-release movies for that summer. The summer season is defined as Memorial Day weekend through August for 1989 through 1993 and is expanded to late April through August for the later years, to include the new May rush. Animated films and children’s movies are not included (sorry, Free Willy).

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