The Largest Ever Analysis of Film Dialogue (Over 4 Million Lines in 2,000 Scripts) Reveals Gender Bias Built Into Cinema

film dialogue analysis

By their col­or palettes, by their dra­mat­ic struc­tures, by their shot lengths, by the fre­quen­cy and vari­ety of their char­ac­ters’ swear­ing: film enthu­si­asts have found ways to ana­lyze just about every aspect of film. But only recent­ly has the world of film analy­sis seen a large-scale study of dia­logue by gen­der and age — in fact, the largest-scale study of dia­logue by gen­der and age yet — under­tak­en by a new site called Poly­graph, “a pub­li­ca­tion that explores pop­u­lar cul­ture with data and visu­al sto­ry­telling.” They want­ed to put to the data test part of the notion, wide­ly expressed in opin­ion pieces, that “white men dom­i­nate movie roles.”

“We Googled our way to 8,000 screen­plays and matched each character’s lines to an actor,” write Poly­graph’s Han­nah Ander­son and Matt Daniels. “From there, we com­piled the num­ber of words spo­ken by male and female char­ac­ters across rough­ly 2,000 films, arguably the largest under­tak­ing of script analy­sis, ever.” They present their quan­ti­ta­tive results with great visu­al clar­i­ty, and you can view them for three dis­tinct areas of cin­e­ma ter­ri­to­ry: just the 2,000 screen­plays the study focused on; only high-gross­ing films at the Amer­i­can box office; and only Dis­ney movies (known, of course, for their abun­dance of princess­es, with or with­out many lines).

film dialogue

“Across thou­sands of films in our dataset,” they write, “it was hard to find a sub­set that didn’t over-index male. Even roman­tic come­dies have dia­logue that is, on aver­age, 58% male. For exam­ple, Pret­ty Woman and 10 Things I Hate About You both have lead women (i.e., char­ac­ters with the most amount of dia­logue). But the over­all dia­logue for both films is 52% male, due to the num­ber of male sup­port­ing char­ac­ters.” And as far as age, “dia­logue avail­able to women who are over 40 years old decrease sub­stan­tial­ly. For men, it’s the exact oppo­site: there are more roles avail­able to old­er actors.”

Depend­ing on what kind of films you watch, this may well jibe with your view­ing expe­ri­ence: main­stream sto­ries have long tend­ed to favor macho and often mature pro­tag­o­nists, and the antag­o­nists they defeat in man-to-man com­bat have some­times reached advanced ages indeed (all the more time, pre­sum­ably, in which to have mas­tered the art of vil­lainy, espe­cial­ly of the one-last-grand-speech-before-I-destroy-the-world vari­ety). The women, and usu­al­ly young women, fea­tured in such pic­tures, when they appear at all, have to do much of their com­mu­ni­ca­tion non­ver­bal­ly.

This all sup­ports a com­plaint I’ve long had about the movies, main­stream or oth­er­wise: over a cen­tu­ry in exis­tence, and they’ve hard­ly touched the vast cre­ative space avail­able to them. The all-female Ghost­busters com­ing this sum­mer will sure­ly do its small part to rec­ti­fy the lack of woman-deliv­ered dia­logue on the sil­ver screen, but the depth of the defi­cien­cy, as revealed by Poly­graph, sug­gests we could do with a few all-female Glen­gar­ry Glen Rosses as well.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Ambi­tious List of 1400 Films Made by Female Film­mak­ers

85 Com­pelling Films Star­ring and/or Direct­ed By Women of Col­or: A List Cre­at­ed by Direc­tor Ava DuVer­nay & Friends on Twit­ter

10 Tips From Bil­ly Wilder on How to Write a Good Screen­play

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Randy says:

    The bias is hard­ly “built into” cin­e­ma, but is mere­ly reflect­ed by it. It is what the pay­ing pub­lic actu­al­ly wants to watch. Even with a major­i­ty female pop­u­la­tion, most peo­ple (includ­ing most women) are far more inter­est­ed in what men do, because in gen­er­al it is men who take on vis­i­ble risks (fights, ath­let­ics, nature) and it is visu­al risk which makes movies — a visu­al medi­um — inter­est­ing. Fur­ther, relat­ing to sto­ry, men in gen­er­al are also more will­ing to take social risks, accept large chal­lenges, advance soci­ety for­ward, inspire change. While it’s true that movies are hard­ly a place to expect real­i­ty, audi­ences do expect that the sto­ry or char­ac­ters or set­ting are the dri­ving fea­tures of the film. They do not want to be bla­tant­ly manip­u­lat­ed to address some sup­posed defect in their per­son­al­i­ty. The Ghost­busters reboot, on top of being plain­ly dis­re­spect­ful to the peo­ple who made the fran­chise, is being mar­ket­ed as a way to “fix” movie fans. It’s not a movie, but a rebuke. For that rea­son, it will attract the self-sat­is­fied, and but most peo­ple will avoid it.

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