If aliens were to watch the majority of films Hollywood releases each year, they could be excused for thinking that our world is mainly male, white and has a decidedly adolescent bent.
Closing the gender gap — in both pay and representation — in top-level Hollywood feature films has been a growing battle cry (just ask Jennifer Lawrence, Geena Davis, Patricia Arquette and Meryl Streep, who are among the many who continue to speak out on the problem). Yet this year, a surprising number of notable female-centric movies give some credence to a long-hoped-for tipping point where women's stories can be told in equal measure.
Consider some of 2015's offerings: "Woman in Gold," starring Helen Mirren, which tells the true tale of a woman's fight to recover artwork stolen by the Nazis; "Suffragette," starring Carey Mulligan in a story about women's struggle to win the vote (and written, directed and produced by women); "Brooklyn," the story of a young woman (Saoirse Ronan) coming into her own in a new land; "Carol," the 1950s-set tale of two women (Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara) falling in love; "Joy," a based-on-real-life story about the woman (Lawrence) who invented the Miracle Mop. Then there's the upcoming Tina Fey-Amy Poehler comedy "Sisters," and don't forget "Pitch Perfect 2," written and directed by women, in which the Barden Bellas returned to rake in nearly $300 million in worldwide box office.
It's a fine list of female-oriented films boasting some solid successes on both sides of the camera and at the box office. But can those gains be sustained?
Some quick 2014 statistics taken from the study "It's a Man's (Celluloid) World," released by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, unless otherwise noted:
Women constitute just 12% of protagonists (characters from whose perspective the story is told) featured in the top 100 grossing films.
Just 7% of directors and 11% of writers working on the top 250 grossing movies are women. ("Celluloid Ceiling" study, Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film).
Men are more likely than women to be identified primarily by a work-related role, such as doctor or business executive (61% of male characters versus 34% of females).
And of the top-grossing films for the last two decades, 77% of the crews were male. ("Gender Within Film Crews," producer Stephen Follows).
Not exactly cheery numbers for feminists.
"We never seem to get any momentum going," says Davis, Academy Award-winning actress and founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.
The problem is the theory of the one-off.
"I remember when 'Thelma and Louise' came out, all of the press was predicting that this would start a whole wave of female-centric films," Davis says. "The next film I did was 'A League of Their Own,' which was also a big hit, and the same prediction was made, especially for female sport movies. But neither prediction proved true.
"[It's] the same for the many female-driven films over the last 20-plus years since then. No matter how successful female-centric films have been, Hollywood just keeps feeling they're one-offs, that men won't like films starring women, and so they should not be made often."
And because these female films are continuously seen by mostly male decision-makers as the exception, they're still considered high risk. And high risk makes those holding the economic strings of a project (again, primarily men) nervous, especially now, given the vast new developing economic markets.
"The economics of feature-filmmaking have dramatically changed in the last decade or so, with international sales to developing markets increasing hugely," says "Suffragette" producer Alison Owen. "These markets tend to be somewhat behind the curve in terms of gender equality and thus, the movies that do well in these markets are extremely male-skewed. So that's challenging for female filmmakers, with a female perspective."
"We've had a long history of filmmaking dominated by men, and it's hard to shift the paradigm and change attitudes," says "Suffragette" screenwriter Abi Morgan, "but it seems as if, at last, the tide may be turning."
That tide has seen some government action. Spurred by a request from the ACLU, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in October began investigating complaints of gender discrimination in Hollywood. It's an action that may well have penetrating consequences.
"Until a substantial number of decision-makers in the mainstream film industry recognize their own biases, acknowledge them as problematic, and take action to change their practices, we will not see significant changes in the behind-the-scenes and on-screen gender ratios," notes Martha M. Lauzen, executive director of San Diego State's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.