Default-Male in Movies

A couple weeks ago, Polygraph released a massive study of dialogue in films, broken down by gender, and compared in various genres and other categories.

What I find most striking about this is that a lot of the skew comes simply from the number of male/female characters in the main cast. Sarah Connor has roughly as many lines as John Connor in Terminator 2, but she’s basically the only female character, so the film as a whole is 3/4-male dialogue.

But why is this? Why is it not at all unusual to have a movie that has an entirely male cast, or just a token female, but even movies whose premise could justify an all-female cast have several men? Sister Act, a movie about a woman hiding in a convent, has fully a quarter of the dialogue given to men. There’s no particular reason for the men to have that much of the dialogue, and other than the mobsters (who need to be men so they can’t easily infiltrate the convent), there’s no reason all the other character couldn’t be female.

The male equivalent of a movie like Bridesmaids could well have no significant speaking parts for women, and it wouldn’t stand out at all. Bridesmaids has six female leads, and still gives 18% of the dialogue to men; The Hangover has only 3 male leads, each of which has a female significant other, and yet women only get 11% of the dialogue. So it’s in part a matter of choice. Writers and directors are choosing to give all the dialogue to the leads in male-lead movies, and choosing to include significant male characters in female-lead movies. Similarly, there’s a general trend that when the lead character is a woman, the sidekick is a man; when the lead character is a man, the sidekick is a man. Why is this?

Why is it so hard to say “all characters are female, unless there’s a reason to be male”, but very common to start from the premise that all characters are male until proven otherwise? Why don’t movies start from the assumption that the lead cast (and the supporting cast, separately considered, for that matter) will be 50/50, roughly reflecting the populace, and only shift from that when story needs or exceptional actors dictate?

And, no, “that would be unrealistic” isn’t an argument. I mean, sure, for certain historical stories, gender skew reflects the times. But look what Outlander has been able to do in 18th-century Scotland and France: there were a lot of women in those places at that time, and it’s not that hard to include them in your story. And, ok, so you’re telling a real story—I get it, Woodward and Bernstein were, in fact, men, as were most (all?) of their sources and all of the people they were investigating. But that’s not most movies. Even most movies “based on a true story” are at least as far removed from the source as The Hobbit: the Battle of Five Armies is from The Hobbit. Why not, while making those changes, insert some women if there weren’t many?

(But please, do it well! Adding a character just so you can say there’s a female character, but not really integrating the character into the story, making them a love interest for no real reason, and then killing them off so that a male character whom you also added and wasn’t part of the original story can be the badass that kills the male villain whom you also added and wasn’t part of the original story is not really helping things. I’m pretty sure making a couple of the dwarves female would’ve been less jarring.)

And when you’re making up your story? well, you see, that’s the nature of fiction: you can decide the genders of the characters. It can be aspirational or inspirational, instead of “realistic”. You can make half the cops in your fictional police department in your fictional city women—so long as they act like cops, it shouldn’t really matter.


It’s not a perfect analysis, of course—sometimes the lead character is relatively taciturn. But looking at movies I’m familiar with, I think it’s safe to say the aggregate is pretty representative. Plus, they’ve got a detailed explanation of their methodology, a FAQ, and access to most of the data. And it’s sad.

It’s a truism that little boys aren’t interested in movies with female leads, while little girls are perfectly capable of identifying with male leads. I don’t know to what degree this is actually true, or if anyone has even researched it seriously, but how much of this is due to exposure? If boys and men can avoid movies with female leads and still have tons of choice, that makes it easy to be persnickety. Whereas if girls and women basically have the choices of “empathize with male leads”, “watch a very tiny subset of dramas and romcoms”, or “don’t see movies”—well of course they develop the ability to relate to movies that have male leads. Maybe if rejecting female action figures meant rejecting half the set (instead of just one token character), little boys would get over this.

Batman v. Superman v. Storytelling

Just heard a news report referring to the “long-awaited movie Batman vs. Superman“.

Long-awaited by whom? I keep running into reviews of it, and articles scattered across the last 6 months, that imply or outright state that what fans of superhero movies, and particularly fans of Superman and/or Batman, want is to see them fight for no reason. Is there this huge market of people who care enough about these characters to be interested in this conflict, but don’t care so much about these characters that they mind that the person wearing the red cape shares none of the characteristics that have defined Superman for the last 75+ years?

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Critique ≠ Hate

The AV Club posted If you like Return of the Jedi, but hate the Ewoks, you understand feminist criticism, and I have thoughts:

I actually don’t mind the ewoks —I think I was just young enough that the forced pathos wasn’t obviously forced, and I mentally explained their accomplishments as a whole people of super forest ninja commandos.

But the point stands: it is possible to critique something *and* like it. That’s where the phrase “liking problematic things” comes from. In fact, I’m one of those people that, in many cases the more I like something the more I critique it. I’ll also light into something that I think is awful, but the motivation isn’t that dissimilar—the difference is in how much I praise the thing, not in how much I critique it. This isn’t a zero-sum game where praise+critique is some sort of fixed quantity.

And to the specific point of this article: therefore, saying a movie is sexist doesn’t mean it is all bad. It could be an excellent movie in every other way that just falls short in this one area. But, on the flipside, that doesn’t mean such a shortcoming doesn’t matter. Not all criticisms are “just matters of taste”—well-done feminist critique (or any other sort of critique coming from an articulated formal intellectual framework) is identifying a real thing, even if there are debates about the details. Just as you shouldn’t confuse “this part of a thing is bad” with “the whole thing is bad”, don’t turn “this part of your argument doesn’t stand up” into “there is no merit to any part of your argument.”