18 Jan 2017

Why did women only speak 27 percent of the dialogue in 2016’s biggest films?

12:52 pm on 18 January 2017

We know words. We know the best words! So why aren’t we saying them in movies?


Only 9 percent of Rogue One's speaking characters were female.

Only 9 percent of Rogue One's speaking characters were female. Photo: Unknown

In a feat of grimly illuminating (yet enjoyably interactive) data journalism, scientist Amber Thomas listened, counted and collated the dialogue from the 10 highest grossing films from 2016 to determine that female characters spoke just 27 percent of the words overall.

Having anticipated a slate of #strongfemalecharacters in the year's cinema, Thomas was disappointed by the amount of time and space the films actually devoted to the women, particularly in Star Wars spin off Rogue One.

“I went into the movie theatre expecting to see men and women fighting side by side”, she wrote. “I left feeling certain that I could count every female character from the movie on one hand.”

So, as scientists are wont to do, she embarked on a data project.

The box office sensations Thomas looked at were Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, Zootopia, The Jungle Book, The Secret Life of Pets, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Rogue One, Deadpool, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and Suicide Squad.

Thomas's visualisation of the 10 movies she examined.

Thomas's visualisation of the 10 movies she examined. Photo: Source: Amber Thomas

None of the top movies of 2016 had a 50 percent female-speaking cast and only one of 2016’s top 10 movies had 50 percent dialogue by a female character.

The best was Finding Dory with 43 percent female characters and 53 percent female dialogue.

Yes, in 2016 the year of our lord, the closest mainstream western cinema came to equality was a hyperactive anthropomorphised CGI fish. But with 76 percent of that dialogue coming from Dory herself, a character whose hallmark is talking irritatingly incessantly, this is perhaps not the victory it could have been.

It still fared far better, however, than the sci-fi franchises that made up a significant proportion of 2016’s Hollywood output, and *gently inhales* compared to her massive presence in the film’s 100 year-long marketing spree, Suicide Squad’s Harley Quinn spoke only 602 words compared to Will Smith’s 1,432.

Rogue One, widely promoted as a girl-kicks-butt deviation from the male hero-centric Star Wars tradition, was found by Thomas to have been the worst of the bunch. With 83 percent male dialogue overall, only 9 percent of its speaking characters were female and, Thomas notes, “out of those 10 characters, 1 was a computer voice, 1 appeared on screen for no more than 5 seconds, and 1 was a CGI cameo that said 1 word.”

What to make of all this? Hollywood storytelling has a long tradition of letting men drive narrative while women provide spectacle, and somehow that doesn’t seem to be changing. With men filling most of the roles behind the camera mind you, this is not altogether surprising and, while a bit more dialogue might help, the problem runs as deep as the earth's core.

But, hey, that was last year! The bad year! 2017 is here and I have a feeling we’ll be just fine.