Inequality in Film: The Screenwriter’s Role


[This article originally appeared on]

by Angela Bourassa

The USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism has put out a report called Inequality in 700 Popular Films. As you can imagine from the title, it’s not exactly a fun-filled read, but it’s absolutely worthwhile.

The report looks at breakdowns of gender, race, sexual orientation, and how each of those categories is depicted in major films from 2007 to 2014.  I’ll cut right to the chase: the numbers aren’t good.

From the report:

  • Only 30.2% of the 30,835 speaking characters evaluated were female across the 700 top‐grossing films from 2007 to 2014… A total of 21 of the 100 top films of 2014 featured a female lead or roughly equal co lead. This is similar to the percentage in 2007 (20%), but a 7% decrease from the 2013 sample (28%).   In 2014, no female actors over 45 years of age performed a lead or co lead role.

  • Examining patterns of sexualization by age in 2014 revealed that female teens (13‐20 year olds) were just as likely to be sexualized as young adult females (21‐39 year olds). Middle‐aged females (40‐64 year olds) were less likely than these two groups to be sexualized.

  • Of those characters coded for race/ethnicity across 100 top films of 2014, 73.1% were White, 4.9% were Hispanic/Latino, 12.5% were Black, 5.3% were Asian, 2.9% were Middle Eastern, <1% were American Indian/Alaskan Native or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and 1.2% were from “other” racial and/or ethnic groups. This represents no change in the portrayal of apparent race/ethnicity from 2007-2014.

  • In 2014, 17 films did not feature one Black or African American speaking character. This is the same number of movies without Black characters across the 100 top films of 2013. Over 40 movies across the 2014 sample did not depict an Asian speaking character.

  • Across 4,610 speaking characters in the 100 top films of 2014, only 19 were Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual. Not one Transgender character was portrayed. Ten characters were coded as Gay, 4 were Lesbian, and 5 were Bisexual.

And the numbers are just as bad behind the camera.


The Writer’s Role in Combatting Inequality

What can we as writers do to affect change? Unfortunately, not very much.

Unless we’re writer/directors or writer/producers or, you know, Aaron Sorkin, we don’t get much of any say about which scripts get made and which actors get cast. We could write a thousand wonderful screenplays about strong women of color and gay action heroes, but if no one puts up the money to turn those scripts into movies, we’re stuck in the mud.

That said, we’re not completely powerless. As writers, we have a responsibility to reveal the truth about the world, to hold a mirror up to it and reflect what we see. If all we see is a bunch of white, straight men, we’re not looking closely enough.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself as you develop your next script or rewrite an old one:

Does this character need to be this gender?

What would happen to your story if you switched the gender of this character or that one? What new roads could you take? How would your story get better or worse?

I’ll admit that whenever I come up with a new movie idea, I almost always start from, “Maybe it’s about a guy who…”  I’ve had to break myself of the habit of making every story about a white dude. For some reason, that’s the default in my brain, and I don’t think I’m alone.

leading females

Maybe it’s because white men feel like a basic molding block without associations pre-attached to them. They’re the picture of “the everyman” in my brain. For example, if I’m writing a rom-com with a male lead, I can make him learn and grow and everything is peachy. But if I focus that same story around a woman, suddenly I have to ask whether her actions will be perceived as “too slutty” or “too needy,” because I know the audience will be watching her through a different lens, no matter how I write her.

Or maybe it’s because movies, as long as I’ve been watching them, have generally been focused around white men, so that’s what feels expected and natural.

Either way, it’s a bad habit.

What is this character’s race? Does it matter?

Sometimes race plays an important role in the identity of a character. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter at all. When it doesn’t matter, don’t specify a race. Do your best to let casting directors see the character as a person, not a type.

What is this character’s sexual orientation?

Maybe it’s important to the story, maybe it isn’t. Particularly if it’s not a love story, ask yourself, “Why can’t this character be gay/bi/fill-in-the-blank?” If you don’t have a good reason, consider making a change.

Even if it only has minor effects on the plot, or if it has no effect (a la JK Rowling’s reveal of Dumbledore’s sexuality) take that step toward making your script a little more inclusive and reflective of the real world.

Does my script pass the Bechdel Test?

Not every script will, and that’s ok. If you’re writing a rom-com, for example, almost every conversation will be about relationships – that’s the nature of the beast. But if you’re writing a sci-fi or a drama or a horror, see if you pass the test. If you don’t, consider how you might change that.


Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.

[photos taken from the USC Annenberg report]

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