Smart Thinking

We need to talk about sex in the movies

The BFI’s survey of British film history has just been completed, and it shows we need to look very carefully about how women are represented in film

Words by
Aleks Cvetkovic

Film buffs. Some news for you. Jim Broadbent is the most credited actor of this decade. Michael Caine is the most prolific working actor of the last century (if only everything he’d made was as good as Get Carter). And, get this, we Brits make more films about Europe than Great Britain. Oh the irony.

These revelations and many more came to light this morning with the launch of BFI Filmography, the world’s first complete living record of UK cinema. Now everyone, from film fans to researchers and students, can search British film history – for free. It’s a wonderful achievement.

However, it wasn’t the discovery that Sherlock Holmes is the most popular character of the last 100 years that caught my eye. What stood out was the troubling detail that only 28 per cent of all actors cast in British film this year were female. What’s more, it turns out this percentage has been the same for over 100 years. And less than one per cent of the last century’s films had a majority female cast or crew.

“A world where women come second on screen is a world where we fail to accurately represent half the population”

The gender equality debate has raged in recent months, primarily over wages, with figures released in March stating that on average women earn 24 per cent less than men in corresponding job roles per annum. Now, exciting though the BFI Filmography’s completion is, to learn that there’s a gender imbalance not just in the commercial world, but in one of our society’s largest creative industries too, doesn’t sit well.

Thing is, this matters. Most of the information we absorb these days comes through our screens, and so logically, what we see on-screen influences how we see the world. Google reckons that by the end of this year, 74 per cent of all content consumed online will be video.

A world where women come second on screen is a world where we fail to accurately represent half the population. Worse, the Filmography survey also discovered that the most common female roles of the past century are unnamed; generic prostitutes, housekeepers, receptionists and nurses. True, the Filmography is skewed by early 20th century films, but the bottom line remains – things haven’t changed.

I was at the premiere of hit film of the moment, Kingsman: The Golden Circle on Monday, and got a first-hand view of the problem. Spoiler alert; one female protagonist gets blown to pieces 10 minutes in, one is the villain, a third is simply the ‘love interest’, and the final female lead is a Glastonbury-going Sloaney written into the film simply to take her clothes off. Yes, it’s entertaining, but it’s also a gross misrepresentation of the role women play in society today – this in a mainstream film for mass consumption.

Is there a solution? How can the British movie industry change? Cards on the table, I don’t have the answer, save to say the BFI Filmography should be a wake-up call to both the industry and to those of us buying into this unfairly biased narrative. As Jean Rhys put it, ‘there is always the other side.’