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Has The Needle Moved on the Impact of Women in Cinema for 2023?

It’s natural to believe 2023 was indeed the “Year of Women in Cinema,” especially with the release and hype surrounding “Barbie.” Some pundits proclaimed that Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie’s blockbuster paved the way for a big year for women in film and credited the mega hit with even possibly saving Hollywood.

Yet, while hoping this billion-dollar hit along with Taylor Swift and Beyonce’s concert tour films would move the needle and push Hollywood in the right direction, the reality is 2023 marked a historic low for women in the top 100 grossing movies of last year, with only 30 featuring a female-identified actor as the lead or co-lead.

According to the latest USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative Report, this is a substantial downturn from 2022 when 44 films had a girl and/or woman lead. The number was identical to report released in 2010. USC Associate Professor of Communication Stacy L. Smith said, “This is a catastrophic step back … in the last 14 years we have charted progress in the industry, so to see the reversal is both startling and in direct contrast to all of the talk of 2023 as the ‘year of the woman.’”

“The film industry continues to not show up for girls and women and the backpedaling on progress for women of color in leading roles is disappointing,” said Katherine Neff, the study’s lead author. “This is true not only for young women of color but for underrepresented women in middle age and older, whose stories are often completely erased.”

The difficulty for films by and about women was evident in the release of Ava DuVernay’s film “Origin,” starring Academy Award®–nominated actress Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor. Based on Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 award winning Caste, which explores racism in Germany, India, and America through the ideology of the caste system, the film was blatantly ignored and dismissed during the current awards season and at the box office. 

The awards-giving front seemed to promise more progress than the box office, but the lack of representation and growth there has been equally frustrating.

Cinephiles witnessed back-to-back Best Director Oscar victories: Chloé Zhao for “Nomadland” (2020) making her the first woman of color to win and Jane Campion for “The Power of the Dog” (2021), making her the first woman to be nominated twice.

Up until 2023, when Michelle Yeoh won, there had still only been one woman of color to win an Oscar for Best Actress. Halle Berry is still the only Black woman with that honor and America Ferrera is one of the few Latinas ever to be nominated along with Rita Moreno and Ariana Debose (who both won for the same role 60 years apart).

It seems women in the artisan categories seem to have a bit more success, yet it is still not where it should be. When you have an organization in existence for nearly 100 years and the first time you see Black women win for Costume, Hair and Make-up design was 2019 for Ruth E. Carter, Mia Neal, and Jamika Wilson respectively, one has to wonder if the needle is being pushed or nailed down in one spot.

Of the 13,253 nominees at the Academy Awards® since 1929, 17 percent were women and 83 percent were men. The ratio of men to women nominees was 5 to 1. Sixteen percent of all winners across the last 95 years were women. Less than 2 percent of nominees were women of color. The first woman of color was nominated in 1936 (Merle Oberon). Of all Academy Award® winners, women of color were 2 percent.

Even in the lane of film criticism, women have somewhat incrementally moved the needle. There was time when the only people the masses saw speaking on film were men—my mentors and friends Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin to name just a few. Today there are 18.8 percent women chatting about film compared to 81.2 percent men, with less than 1 percent of those women being of color.

So, while there has been incremental change over the decades, it is safe to say that 2023 was light-years away from being proclaimed the “Year of the Woman” we've been promised for years would come. Hopefully, moving through 2024 into 2025, this won’t have to be a conversation or a thorn—it will just become normal to witness women thrive and survive in a space taking leaps and bounds to keep women from having any forward movement.

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