Skip to content

Good Movies For Gender Analysis Essay

I understand why my 6-year-old daughter loves princess stories, but that doesn't mean I'm thrilled when her pretend play involves falling in love with a prince, getting married, and living happily ever after.

I don't want to ruin her fun, but I do try to turn tales of true love's kiss into teachable moments about why it's important for girls to take care of themselves (and I try to steer her toward the more empowered princesses, such as Moana and Mulan). When kids see outdated gender stereotypes portrayed over and over in media, it can affect the way they think about themselves and their beliefs about what they can grow up to be.

And as much as we love sharing classic movies with our kids, they tend to have plenty of old-fashioned gender roles. Before you push play, be sure you're ready to have a conversation with your kids -- both girls and boys -- about the messages these films are sending. (And if you want some strong-women alternatives, look here.)

  • Annie Get Your Gun: It's fun and upbeat, but this 1950s musical hinges on the idea of the main character downplaying her skill as a sharpshooter to win her -- naturally -- macho, competitive fella's heart (as the song lyric says, "You can't get a man with a gun").
  • Beauty and the Beast: While bookish, independent Belle usually gets a bit more credit than some of her fellow Disney princesses, pompous bad guy Gaston is a walking stereotype of what makes a man "manly." The movie mocks him for it, but it also doesn't really supply any alternatives. And the jiggly barmaids fawning over him add fuel to the fire.
  • Carousel:Darker than most Rodgers and Hammerstein classics, this musical deals with domestic abuse -- and implies that feelings of love can overcome a woman's physical pain.
  • Cinderella: She's stuck in a life of thankless cooking-and-cleaning drudgery, and her circumstances only take a turn for the better when the prince (who's little more than a rich, handsome stereotype himself) falls in love with her at first sight and whisks her off to his castle. Hardly empowering. (For a twist with more girl power, try Interstellar Cinderella.)
  • Grease: It will always be fun to watch on summer nights, but don't forget that Sandy basically changes everything about who she is to increase her appeal to Danny ... and it works. She and her girlfriends also are the subject of plenty of objectification, and Danny feels like he has to lie to his friends about having sex with her for them to think he's cool.
  • The Little Mermaid: Feisty Ariel falls in love with handsome Prince Eric on sight, then gives up her home, her family, and even her voice just to get the chance to be with him. Why isn't it Eric -- another prince who's loved basically just for his looks -- who should want to live under the sea?
  • My Fair Lady: While grumpy Professor Higgins learns some important lessons about treating people with compassion and humanity, his treatment of Eliza can be pretty appalling -- and she doesn't even seem to mind that much. And then there's his "Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man?" number.
  • Oklahoma!: Will Parker gets to go check out the bright lights of Kansas City (including the "bur-lee-cue" -- aka "burlesque"), while Ado Annie, who's presented as so endearingly loose that she MUST want everyone's kisses, just "cain't say no" to anyone. Plus, women are auctioned off to the highest bidder -- well, their picnic baskets are, anyway -- and Curly is a traditionally strong, protective "man's man."
  • Peter Pan: Often cited for its racial stereotypes, this Disney classic has many of its female characters (particularly Tinker Bell) caught up in jealous rivalries over Peter's affections. And Peter even says "Girls talk too much" at one point.
  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The girls wait at home while the boys head out into the wilds. And when Clarice and Mrs. Donner (who doesn't even get her own name!) do try to help, they almost immediately get captured by the abominable snowman.
  • Sixteen Candles: Girls don't get a lot of respect in John Hughes' beloved '80s comedy: Boys pay to see Sam's underwear, and in one scene it's implied that a guy had sex with a girl while she was passed-out drunk. And why is Sam so fixated on Jake, anyway? He's not all that much more than good hair and a nice car.
  • Sleeping Beauty: Poor Aurora falls in love with her prince (another rather one-dimensional handsome Disney hero) after one meeting but then doesn't even get to follow her heart. Instead she's packed off to the castle to marry someone she's been engaged to since birth, with no say in the matter. It works out OK in the end, but she still barely knows him before they say "I do."
  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: After being kicked out by a jealous stepmother who cares only about superficial beauty, Snow White ends up cooking and cleaning for seven men while they're off at work. And despite the fact that she's been warned of evil, she's easily tricked by the witch in disguise -- and then (of course) gets saved by a man.
  • Swiss Family Robinson: The female characters are a bit too dependent on the stereotypically strong, capable boys and men in this classic adventure story. Mrs. Robinson is most excited about her fancy tree-house kitchen, and the boys immediately start fighting over Bertie/Roberta when they discover she's a girl (rather than a "sissy" boy).

Film Dialogue

from 2,000 screenplays, Broken Down by Gender and Age

Lately, Hollywood has been taking so much shit for rampant sexism and racism. The prevailing theme: white men dominate movie roles.

But it’s all rhetoric and no data, which gets us nowhere in terms of having an informed discussion. How many movies are actually about men? What changes by genre, era, or box-office revenue? What circumstances generate more diversity?

We didn’t set out trying to prove anything, but rather compile real data. We framed it as a census rather than a study. So we Googled our way to 8,000 screenplays and matched each character’s lines to an actor. From there, we compiled the number of words spoken by male and female characters across roughly 2,000 films, arguably the largest undertaking of script analysis, ever.

Let’s begin by examining dialogue, by gender, for just Disney films.

In January 2016, researchers reported that men speak more often than women in Disney’s princess films. We validated this claim and doubled the sample size to 30 Disney films, including Pixar. The results: 22 of 30 Disney films have a male majority of dialogue. Even films with female leads, such as Mulan, the dialogue swings male. Mushu, her protector dragon, has 50% more words of dialogue than Mulan herself.

This dataset isn’t perfect. As with Mulan, a plot can center around a character, even though the dialogue doesn’t reflect it. And all of our data is based on screenplays, not a perfect transcription of a film.

Methodology

For each screenplay, we mapped characters with at least 100 words of dialogue to a person’s IMDB page (which identifies people as an actor or actress). We did this because minor characters are poorly labeled on IMDB pages. This has unintended consequences: Schindler’s List, for example, has women with lines, just not over this threshold. Which means a more accurate result would be 99.5% male dialogue instead of our result of 100%. There are other problems with this approach as well: films change quite a bit from script to screen. Directors cut lines. They cut characters. They add characters. They change character names. They cast a different gender for a character. We believe the results are still directionally accurate, but individual films will definitely have errors.

2,000 Screenplays: Dialogue Broken-down by Gender

All Genres

Action

Drama

Comedy

Horror

Each screenplay has at least 90% of its lines categorized by gender. If you notice a missing character from the analysis, their lines may be in the remaining 10%. If a character was cut from the film but is present in the screenplay, we inferred his or her gender based on the script’s pronouns.

Across thousands of films in our dataset, it was hard to find a subset that didn’t over-index male. Even romantic comedies have dialogue that is, on average, 58% male. For example, Pretty Woman and 10 Things I Hate About You both have lead women (i.e., characters with the most amount of dialogue). But the overall dialogue for both films is 52% male, due to the number of male supporting characters.

How many screenplays have women as lead characters?

In 22% of our films, actresses had the most amount of dialogue (i.e., they were the lead). Women are more likely to be in the second place for most amount of dialogue, which occurs in 34% of films. The most abysmal stat is when women occupy at least 2 of the top 3 roles in a film, which occurs in 18% of our films. That same scenario for men occurs in about 82% of films.

Aging out of Hollywood: Men vs. Women

For each film, we also determined the age of each cast member at the time of its release. This allowed us to quantify whether there is a bias toward younger women in Hollywood (or conversely, whether men enjoy a longer career).

Percent of Dialogue by Actors’ Age

Among 2,000 Screenplays, all genres, all years

The amount of dialogue, by age-range, is completely opposite for women versus men. Dialogue available to women who are over 40 years old decrease substantially. For men, it’s the exact opposite: there are more roles available to older actors.

Here’s another look at the same data, but for every age:

Why we made this

This project was born out of the less-than-stellar response to our analysis of films that fail the Bechdel Test. Commenters were quick to point out that the Bechdel Test is flawed and there are justifiable reasons for films to fail (e.g., they are historic). By measuring dialogue, we have much more objective view of gender in film.

Many of readers are drawing conclusions that were anecdotally obvious to women in the film industry. But nobody wanted to do the grunt work of gathering the data. We spent weeks just matching scripts to IMDB pages. It’s still not perfect, but we’re now in a much better place than “you know...women are never love-interests when they’re older than 40. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯”

All of our sources are available in this Google Doc and as much data as we can share (without getting sued) is available here on Github. Here's an FAQ that addresses concerns about the methodology and data. Or if you don’t know how to code, here’s an easy way to comb through every film, genre, and year.

All Films’ Dialogue, by Cast Member and Gender

Why we made this

This project was born out of the less-than-stellar response to our analysis of films that fail the Bechdel Test. Commenters were quick to point out that the Bechdel Test is flawed and there are justifiable reasons for films to fail (i.e., they are historic). By measuring dialogue, we have much more objective measure of gender inclusivity.

Many of the findings are anecdotally obvious to women in the film industry. But nobody wanted to do the grunt work of gathering the data. We spent weeks just matching scripts to IMDB pages. It’s still not perfect, but we’re now in a much better place than “you know...women are never love-interests when they’re older than 40. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯”

*Domestic gross over $45M, inflation-adjusted. Using IMDB box office, 2,500 have hit this threshold.

Screenplay Dialogue, Broken-down by Gender

2,000 Screenplays: Dialogue Broken-down by Gender

Only High-Grossing Films: Ranked in the Top 2,500 by US Box Office*

All Genres

Action

Drama

Comedy

Horror

All Genres

Action

Drama

Comedy

Horror

All Years

2010s

2000s

1990s

1980s