Hey, Hollywood: It's Time to Adopt the NFL's Rooney Rule — for Women (Guest Column)

Stacy Smith Illo - H 2014
Illustration by: Alexandra Compain-Tissier

Stacy Smith Illo - H 2014

Stacy L. Smith, Ph.D., director of USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative, writes that Hollywood could stand to make three simple changes toward gender equality

This story first appeared in the 2014 Women in Entertainment issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

At USC, we have been researching the representation of females (as well as racial/ethnic groups) in film for nine years. Our research shows that women continue to be vastly underrepresented on the big screen: They represent under a third of all speaking characters across the 100 top-grossing films of 2013, a ratio that's strikingly consistent over the past 25 years. Clearly the needle is not moving. Bias? Sure. Purposefully sexist? Not so fast. Percentages this consistent point to implicit biases — unconscious beliefs that can affect writing, casting and hiring. But it doesn't take mind control to deprogram those beliefs. Three simple steps can make a difference.

A typical feature depicts roughly 45 characters. Most of them aren't leads or even secondary roles, but rather tertiary characters speaking one or more words. Gender stereotyping in these small parts (police, doctors, lawyers) may be why we see consistent imbalance onscreen. This is an easy place to cut out bias without affecting the story: Add five female speaking roles. This approach creates jobs for female actors without taking parts away from male actors, and the cost — based on SAG-AFTRA estimates — is about $4,400 per film.

When a female director is at the helm, audiences see more girls and women onscreen. But across 2013's 100 top-grossing movies, only two were directed by women. In interviews we conducted with industry decision-makers, they used masculine words (such as "authoritative") twice as often as feminine words ("nurturing") to describe successful film directors. To battle this bias, consider the Rooney Rule, an NFL-wide commitment to considering people of color for head coaching positions. A Hollywood Rooney Rule would ask execs and studio heads to at least interview women for director jobs.

What if A-list actors amended every contract with an equity rider? The clause would state that tertiary speaking characters should match the gender distribution of the setting for the film, as long as it's sensible for the plot. If notable actors working across 25 top films in 2013 had made this change to their contracts, the proportion of balanced films (about half-female) would have jumped from 16 percent to 41 percent. Imagine the possibilities if a few actors exercised their power contractually on behalf of women and girls. It wouldn't necessarily mean more lead roles for females, but it would create a diverse onscreen demography reflecting a population comprised of 50 percent women and girls.

In other words, reality.

Smith is the director of USC Annenberg's Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative. Katherine Pieper, Ph.D., contributed to this article.