Women scarce in films abroad, USC study finds

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady."
(Weinstein Co)

Meryl Streep won an Oscar for playing a steely yet faltering Margaret Thatcher in the 2011 British film “The Iron Lady.”

The role also warrants another distinction, according to a team of researchers at USC: Streep was the rare female to portray a high-profile politician in a popular film.

That’s according to a study USC released Monday that analyzed the role of women in front of and behind the camera in films from Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and Britain.

Among the findings, films from Britain (37.9%), Brazil (37.1%) and South Korea (35.9%) had the highest percentage of female characters, while Indian films (24.9%) lagged.


Chinese movies were more gender-balanced than American ones: Women made up 35% of characters in Chinese films, compared with 29.3% in American movies. And women directed 16.7% of Chinese films during the period studied -- January 2010 to May 1, 2013 -- as compared to none of the U.S. films.

“It is a critical time ... for the entertainment industry as they expand into international territories, and particularly China,” said Stacy L. Smith, director of the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. “My interest was in ... understanding what audiences in growing markets might already be watching.”

As the movie business is becoming an increasingly global one, the USC study suggests that women are underrepresented behind the camera worldwide. Researchers found that women accounted for 7% of directors, 19.8% of writers and 22.7% of producers.

But in countries with more female content creators, there tended to be more women on screen as well.


Britain, where 27.3% of directors and 59% of writers were female, was the country that had the highest percentage of female characters in its films.

Apart from Streep’s Thatcher in “Iron Lady"-- a film written and directed by women -- women were unlikely to play the roles of powerful executives and politicians.

When they did appear in such roles, the parts were often small or unusual: One character, a fictional representation of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, had no lines; another, a woman rallying her constituents to fight global warming, was an elephant.

“Just like in the U.S., we are not seeing fictional female power brokers in popular films,” Smith said. “This is unfortunate, as stories are only a function of the imagination, and creativity should not be constrained by gender.”