The Economics of Gender Stereotyping

No one would deny that the mass media is big business. According to the American Motion Picture Association, Hollywood films alone pulled in $10 billion in 2011, and that doesn’t include the renting and selling of DVDs. [1] However, media executives argue that the economics of the industry make it impossible to avoid stereotypes of women.

Chasing the Young Male Demographic

Many commentators argue that media content is driven by advertising – in particular the desire to reach the most desirable part of the audience, males ages 18 to 34. [2] San Diego State University communications professor Martha Lauzen reports that shows focusing on a female character tend to be scheduled in “lousy” time slots. Lauzen’s annual study of television content indicates that the higher the number of female creators and actors working on a show, the more likely the program will be “moved around and surrounded by programs not getting high ratings or shares.” [3]

TV writers and producers may also be more inclined to create shows aimed at men, and to give key roles to men, because that’s what they know: as of 2009 just over a quarter of the Writers Guild of America, which represents TV and film writers, were women. (The situation is slightly better here in Canada, where 32 per cent of the Writers Guild of Canada is female.) [4] Whether having women behind the screen makes a difference in the number of female characters varies depending on the medium: when at least one writer on a film is a woman the number of female characters rises from 30 to 40 per cent [5], while on TV – perhaps because of the more collaborative “writers’ room” approach taken in TV writing – the presence of women in the writing staff has a much smaller effect, raising the number of female characters from 39 to 43 per cent.

The Syndication Market

Advertisers’ lack of interest in women is complicated by the fact that shows with women in leading roles don’t perform as well in syndication as shows starring male actors. Since networks make most of their money on re-runs, prime-time programming tends to be “male-skewed.” In addition, as Nancy Hass argues, “shows that don’t focus on men have to feature the sort of women that guys might watch.” [6]

The Movie Market

Movie studios use the same economic arguments to explain the abundance of female stereotypes on the big screen. Movies featuring sex and violence are big international sellers. Why? Sex and action films do not rely on clever, intricate, culture-based scripts or convincing acting. Sex and action films therefore “translate” easily across cultures. Since at least roughly half of the movie industry’s profits come from the international market, [7] studios continue to pump out the same old stereotypes.

Screenwriter Robin Swicord says, “It is very hard to get movies made that are genuinely feminist, or even portray women in a fair way. I genuinely believe there is a big domestic audience for this kind of movie, but if there is only a domestic audience, it won’t get made.” [8]

Director Jan Wahl agrees. “Overseas audiences still want sex and violence. That’s what sells outside the U.S. The whole world may have to change before the picture for women in Hollywood gets brighter.” [9]



[1] Subers, Ray. Sequels, 3D Can’t Save 2011. Box Office Mojo, January 6 2012.
[2] Tamaru, Vicky. What’s the “Big Idea”? San Francisco Chronicle, November 10 2009.
[3] Yeomans, Jeannine. Hey, Hollywood: What’s Wrong With This Picture? Women’s enews, September 18 2000.
[4] Taylor, Kate. Women and TV: They’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe. The Globe and Mail, October 8 2011.
[5] Keegan, Rebecca. Gender inequality still has a starring role in Hollywood, USC study finds. Los Angeles Times, November 22 2011.
[6] Hass, Nancy. Hard Times for Strong-Minded Women. The New York Times, September 27 1998.
[7] Young, S. Mark et al. The business of making money with movies. LSE Research Online, February 2010.
[8] Yeomans, 2000.
[9] Ibid.