From the Margins towards the Centre

From the Margins towards the Centre:
Women in 1970s and 1980s Hollywood:
Part 1 – General Trends

by Peter Krämer

This blog is based on a paper I presented at the second WFTHN international conference, “Doing Women’s Film and TV History”, in April this year. The paper used a range of quantitative indicators and a case study (see next week’s blog) to gauge the changing status of women in the American film industry between the 1960s and the 1980s. After reaching a historical low-point in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the position of women in Hollywood improved dramatically (though never coming even close to parity with men). This improved position was correlated with a return to prominence of what are traditionally regarded as female-oriented genres in the US box office charts and at the Academy Awards, and also with changes in the construction of gender roles in Hollywood movies.

Barbra Streisand, Film Review (1975)Every year Quigley Publishing asks exhibitors in the United States who they consider to be the top “money-making stars”. Throughout most of the 1960s, the top spot in their annual poll was occupied by a woman – initially Elizabeth Taylor and Doris Day, then Julie Andrews – and on average three out of the top ten stars were women. Towards the end of the decade, this number was reduced to two and women no longer took the top position. In 1970 and 1971 a historical low-point was reached with only one woman in the top ten each year and none ranked above the eighth place. Then, in 1975, Barbra Streisand reached No.2, and again in 1977, when she was joined in the top ten by Diane Keaton.

1977 was, relatively, a (re)turning point. The number of women in the annual top ten went up to three in 1978 and 1979, to four in 1980 and 1981, and then back to two in 1982. The most consistently successful female star of these years was Jane Fonda. She was at no. 8 in 1978, no. 3 in 1979, no. 4 in 1980, no. 5 in 1981 and no. 7 in 1982. In addition to her exalted status as a film star, with a string of critically acclaimed hit movies, Fonda ran her own production company. She used her income from films to fund the political activities she embarked on with her then husband, Tom Hayden, and tended to select film projects that were thematically linked to those activities, while also shaping these projects in line with her political beliefs (see my previous blog on Jane Fonda).

1977 was also a turning point with regards to the success of female-oriented films. Surveys across several decades have consistently shown that women prefer various forms of drama, romantic comedies and musicals, while men list ‘love stories’ and musicals among their least preferred types of film.[1] The main Academy Award winners in the years before 1977 were: the World War II combat movie Patton in 1970, the police procedural The French Connection in 1971, the gangster saga The Godfather in 1972, the crime comedyThe Sting in 1973, The Godfather Part II in 1974, the mental hospital drama One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nestin 1975, and the boxing movie Rocky in 1976. With the exception of the love interest in Rocky and the antagonist figure Nurse Ratched in Cuckoo’s Nest, women had only small parts in these films.

Terms of Endearment (1983) posterBy contrast, the main Oscar winners from 1977 onwards were: the romantic comedy Annie Hall in 1977, the two relationship-focused Vietnam dramas Coming Home and The Deer Hunter in 1978, the family dramas Kramer vs. Kramer, Ordinary People and Terms of Endearment in 1979, 1980 and 1983, the historical dramas Chariots of FireGandhi and Amadeus in 1981, 1982 and 1984, and the romantic historical drama Out of Africa in 1985. At the same time, there was – in comparison to the years before 1977 – an overall increase in the number of musicals, romantic comedies, family dramas and costume dramas among the annual top ten box office hits. Most (but not all) of these films had female stars receiving first or second billing, and there were even a few highly successful female ensemble pictures like Nine to Five (1980) and The Color Purple (1985).

In this period, too, on the production side, Sherry Lansing, who rose higher than any other woman before within Hollywood’s studio hierarchies, was closely involved with Kramer vs. Kramer, the biggest hit of 1979 and a multiple-Oscar winner, almost completely sweeping the top categories; and Fatal Attraction, the second biggest hit of 1987 which received six Oscar nominations, almost all of them in the top categories. To what extent, then, was Hollywood’s reorientation driven by women in the film industry, like Lansing and Jane Fonda?

Sherry Lansing, Head of Fox Productions, 1980The role of women in Hollywood since the 1960s has been the focus of several books, most notably Rachel Abramowitz’s Is That a Gun in Your Pocket? Women’s Experiences of Power in Hollywood (2000) and Mollie Gregory’s Women Who Run the Show: How a Brilliant and Creative New Generation of Women Stormed Hollywood (2002). These books outline the careers of large numbers of women ranging from producers and studio executives to actors and directors, discussing their basic approach to their work, major career decisions and their involvement with particular films.

These two books compare interestingly with Peter Biskind’s almost exclusively male-focused study Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock’n’Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (1998). Such a comparison suggests very strongly that, by and large in Hollywood, women on the production side relate very differently to female colleagues than men do to women, with an emphasis on support and fair competition rather than outright exploitation. They are more interested in female characters than men are and often aim to move them to the centre of their films. They highlight different qualities in their films. Linda Seger comments on her interviews with a wide range of Hollywood women: “Character, behaviour, emotions, and relationships are emphasised over and over again by women filmmakers.”[2]

Studies of women in Hollywood also provide statistical information. One crucial set of data concerns the percentage of women in various Hollywood professions. In most cases women are vastly under-represented, and this imbalance has been changing only slowly. One study of the membership of the Writers Guild of America (West) found that women made up less than 15% of Hollywood screenwriters from the 1930s to the 1970s; since the historic low-point of 10% in the early 1970s, the female share has been increasing, reaching 18% in the early 1990s – almost twice as high as two decades earlier but still a shockingly low figure.

Nine to Five (1980)Other studies have examined the difference in pay between men and women in Hollywood, and the number of women reaching top positions (becoming vice-presidents, for example, or winning Oscar nominations outside the acting categories). Wherever one looks, Hollywood’s record is abysmal; improvements are slow and by no means steady – downturns are always a possibility. However, the late 1970s and 1980s appear to be a period when not only Jane Fonda and Sherry Lansing but Hollywood’s women in general made significant gains.

The impression that these women took a different approach to filmmaking than their male peers is borne out by statistical analyses. In a study of representative samples of films and prime-time television programmes from a slightly later period, Martha M. Lauzen and David M. Dozier conclude: “Overall, the findings indicate that women remain underrepresented in both industries. However, the studies also found a quantitative link between women working behind the scenes and the representation and portrayal of women on screen. In prime-time television, female executive producers exerted influence at a macro level, increasing the percentage of female characters and hiring more female writers. These writers, in turn, provided female characters with more powerful dialogue.”[3]

Between the late 1970s and the late 1980s, over two hundred feature films were released theatrically in the US each year; on average about 75 of these were produced by the major studios, so that across a ten-year period we are dealing with about 750 films from the majors. The sheer size of this number alerts us to the difficulties of determining trends across Hollywood’s overall output. One response to this methodological problem is to concentrate on Hollywood’s biggest box office hits, as I have done throughout this blog. After all, Hollywood is in the business of making money, and box office success is central to this; at the same time, such success indicates that the films were seen, and probably liked, by large numbers of cinema-goers.

For their book Hollywood’s America: Social and Political Themes in Motion Pictures Stephen Powers, David J. Rothman and Stanley Rothman (1996) conducted an analysis of the annual top ten lists from 1946 to 1990. They selected a representative sample of 146 films from these lists and coded their characters and themes, which provided them with the data for a quantitative content analysis. The first and perhaps most striking result is that across the whole period, only about a quarter of all (major or minor) film characters were female, and this percentage did not increase significantly over the decades. Thus, women, who make up more than half of the American population, are severely and consistently underrepresented in hit movies.

Glenn Close as Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction (1987)When it comes to the depiction of working women, however, Hollywood hit movies misrepresent social reality in a different way. Powers, Rothman and Rothman note that the percentage of female characters in “nontraditional occupations” (that is, those not usually associated with women) rose dramatically in films from 1976 onwards; 72% of female lead and supporting characters in films from the period 1976-1990 have jobs other than housewife, nurse, secretary etc., as opposed to 50% in the preceding decades. Indeed, according to the authors, this dramatic increase is over-representing the relative gains women have actually made in society, especially in elite professions.

Powers, Rothman and Rothman point out that professional women characters in hit movies have increasingly adopted goals, attitudes and tactics traditionally associated with men, such as “greed or malevolence, violence, and the exercise of authority”; yet, despite this, throughout their film sample, “women in previously elite, male jobs are less likely to be villains than men in similar positions”. Overall, female characters in hit movies maintain positive character ratings (as judged independently by two coders) even when they move into elevated social positions and adopt forms of behaviour which typically earn negative character ratings for men.

Meryl Streep as Joanna in Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)While the authors have tried to ensure that the procedure by which they rate characters as positive, negative or neutral is intersubjective, there is room, of course, for diverse and idiosyncratic responses to female characters such as Joanna Kramer in Kramer vs. Kramer, a housewife who leaves her family and gets a job, and successful but lonely career woman Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction (see Part 2 of this blog). Nevertheless, it seems that those critics and survey respondents who felt sympathy for Joanna or Alex were in line with a broader trend in Hollywood and its audiences to accept female characters who have embarked on high-powered careers, even if they display many undesirable traits along the way. Powers, Rothman and Rothman’s analysis suggests that far from condemning or demonising career women, Hollywood hits since the mid-1970s have in effect promoted the presence of women in elite professions.

This would, of course, be perfectly in line with an increased presence of women in the Hollywood elite from the late 1970s onwards. However, Hollywood’s bias against women (as characters in films, as employees or executives in the industry, and as members of the audience) has remained astonishingly strong. I have already mentioned the fact that only about a quarter of characters in Hollywood hit movies are female (indeed other research suggests that this is true not just for hit movies). Elsewhere, I have tried to show that, despite some improvements in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hollywood has also consistently neglected female audiences since the late 1960s: by and large Hollywood has expected that women go along with the movie choices of their male partners or their children, rather than making their own choices (see, for example, “A Powerful Cinema-going Force? Hollywood and Female Audiences since the 1960s”, Identifying Hollywood’s Audiences: Cultural Identity and the Movies, ed. Melvyn Stokes and Richard Maltby, 1999). Finally, Powers, Rothman and Rothman’s survey of the film industry in 1982 reveals that, more than almost any other sector of American society (more than politics, business, labor unions or churches), Hollywood had been completely dominated by men, who, by their count, made up 99% of its elite.

[1] Peter Kramer, ‘A Powerful Cinema-going Force? Hollywood and Female Audiences since the 1960s’, Identifying Hollywood’s Audiences: Cultural Identity and the Movies, ed. Melvyn Stokes and Richard Maltby, London: BFI, 1999, pp. 94-5.

[2] Linda Seger, When Women Call the Shots: The Developing Power and Influence of Women in Television and Film, 1996, p. 116.

[3] Martha M. Lauzen and David M. Dozier, ‘The Role of Women on Screen and Behind the Scenes in the Television and Film Industries: Review of a Program of Research’, Journal of Communication Inquiry, vol. 23, no. 4 (October 1999), p. 355.

Peter Krämer is a senior lecturer in film studies at the University of East Anglia. He has published several essays on female film stars and producers (Audrey Hepburn, Sherry Lansing, Jodie Foster and Sandra Bullock) and on female audiences. One of his latest publications on female protagonists in science fiction cinema and adventure stories can be found here. His recent books include The New Hollywood: From Bonnie and Clyde to Star Wars (2005), 2001: A Space Odyssey (2010) and A Clockwork Orange (2011).


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