Hollywood is notorious for being a boys' club, so much so that the American Civil Liberties Union recently called for an investigation into the film industry's hiring practices after statistical evidence and testimony from over 50 female directors pointed to gross gender disparities in above-the-line roles. Among these statistics was a study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, which found that just 12% of the 100 top grossing movies released in 2014 had female protagonists, and women comprised just 30% of all speaking parts.
The subject of sexism in Hollywood casting has come into play this week after actress Maggie Gyllenhaal recalled a recent experience in which she was informed that at 37 she was "too old to play the lover of a man of a man who was 55." The story is anecdotal and lacks details such as what the project was and who specifically told Gyllenhaal that she was too old for the part. You could (and many have) dismiss it with the assumption that there's a plot-related reason for the older man's lover being much younger than he, as dictated by whoever wrote the script.
"It was astonishing to me," said Gyllenhaal, in an interview with TheWrap. "It made me feel bad, and then it made me feel angry, and then it made me laugh." She's far from the only actress to have discussed such an experience. In an interview with Glamour this month, Anna Kendrick (who recently starred in box office winner Pitch Perfect 2) discussed a current situation where her ability to audition has a rather frustrating prerequisite.
"There’s [a film I’m considering] now where I have to wait for all the male roles to be cast before I can even become a part of the conversation. Part of me gets that. [But] part of me is like, ‘What the f***? You have to cast for females based on who’s cast as males?"
Some industries can defend gender bias by arguing that it's based on consumer demographics, but Hollywood is producing movies for a global audience with a near perfect 50/50 gender split. Even in the comic book movie world, where it might be assumed that the overwhelming number of white male protagonists is simply catering to a white male audience, female moviegoers make up a hefty portion of ticket buyers. According to polls, 40% of ticket buyers for The Avengers were female - a percentage that equates to over $607 million at the box office.
Another argument that could be made is that stories about men are simply so fascinating that they attract both genders in a way that movies about women simply can't. Perhaps only a small percentage of the top 100 grossing films of 2014 had female protagonists because movies about female protagonists simply don't make money as well as those with male protagonists do.
Yet the highest grossing movies are less indicative of movies that people will pay money to see than they are indicative of which movies studios will pay money to make. Summer blockbusters with massive production and marketing budgets have a huge advantage over midrange and low-budget movies with little to no studio support. Last year the top 10 highest grossing movies almost all had budgets ranging from $150-200+ million. The lowest budget movie in the top 10 was The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 ($125 million) and the lowest budget movie in the top 20 was Lucy ($40 million).
Mockingjay - Part 1 and Lucy were two out of just three movies with female protagonists in the top 20 for 2014, the other one being Disney's live-action fairy tale Maleficent. The fact that they both had the lowest production budgets in their respective categories is significant; even when given less money to work with, movies with female protagonists are still able to fight their way to the top.
Last weekend the top movies at the box office were Pitch Perfect 2, which has an almost entirely female main cast, and the notoriously 'feminist' Mad Max: Fury Road, in which Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy had joint protagonist roles. In the face of this, the financial argument against movies with female leads doesn't seem to hold much water. It's almost as though Hollywood isn't a gender-blind meritocracy, and the bias towards male protagonists has more to do with sexism than smarts.
Looked at on its own, Gyllenhaal's anecdote could be written off as an isolated incident. Within the context of Kendrick's experience and those of many other actresses working in the film industry today, however, it clearly seems to be part of a pattern.
Some of the most absurd casting stories from women have been collected in the simultaneously hilarious and depressing blog Lady Parts, which lists real casting calls discovered by actresses while seeking work. Here are a few representative examples:
Beautiful mom. Caucasian/27-35. Incredibly Good Looking! Her profession is ambiguous.
Eye Candy. Extra. Beautiful 'model-type' redhead, must be comfortable playing a dead body.
Edgy yet attractive prostitute. Sex scene with the lead.
1 Exotic Dancer AKA Stripper Type... She will be topless but you will not see her face.
Sexy Girl (No Lines).
[Male lead's] wife, a victim, tall with model good looks.
For those wondering if male characters get similar descriptions, the answer is - for the most part - no. Last year Salon conducted a breakdown of casting notices and found that calls for roles in the same projects consistently advertised for male roles using descriptors of personality traits, and for female roles using descriptors of attractiveness (generally variations on the word "sexy.")
There's definitely a sense that screenwriters and directors have an ingrained way of thinking when it comes to female characters, so much so that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes director Matt Reeves was asked by Vulture why the movie had only one female speaking role, he fell "uncharacteristically silent" before replying: "It wasn’t a conscious decision. I don’t know... Gosh, I don’t know … it’s sort of a shame that, as you say, that’s sort of true."
Whether it's intentional or whether it's simply a case of filmmakers forgetting to write significant and varied female roles into their stories, the effect for actresses trying to find work remains the same.
For those who do want to see Gyllenhaal play a female lead and aren't concerned about her being too old to do so, check out Sundance TV's political drama series The Honorable Woman, which was one of Screen Rant's most highly recommended TV shows of 2014.