The Economics of Gender Stereotyping

No one would deny that the mass media is big business. According to the American Motion Picture Association, the Hollywood box office alone pulled in $41.1 billion USD in 2018 and that doesn’t include home entertainment services.[i] Media executives argue that the economics of the industry make it impossible to avoid stereotypes of women, but the numbers show that isn’t true.

Chasing the Young Male Demographic

Media industry representatives often argue that stereotyping is driven by demographics – in particular, the desire to reach the most desirable part of the audience, males ages 18 to 34.[ii] The conventional wisdom in the media industry is that while girls will consume media aimed at boys, the reverse is not true.[iii]

A similar truism is that gendered products are more profitable than unisex ones; while this was once limited to marketing women’s versions of unisex products – a “pink tax” that resulted in women paying, on average, 7% more for the same products than men[iv] - marketers are increasingly trying to cash in on men’s vulnerable masculinity by selling “male” versions of products such as Q-Tips, which have a corrugated-metal pattern on the box and are described as “men’s ultimate multi-tool.”

Q-tips® Men's PackHowever, while both of those views pretend to be based on financial reality, the actual numbers don’t bear them out. In fact, movies with female protagonists earn on average 20% more than films with male ones, with $116 million (USD) as the gross average for female-led movies versus $97 million (USD) for male-led ones,[v] while a 2018 study found that female-led movies had outperformed male-led ones for the previous four years.[vi] Nor is it true that movies with female leads do worse among international audiences.[vii] Movies made by female directors are, on average, more profitable than those by men[viii] and movies that pass the “Bechdel test” (see “Resisting Stereotypes and Pushing for Change”) are more profitable than those that don’t.[ix]

When it comes to advertising, not only do over three-quarters of Canadians think gender stereotyping is unacceptable,[x] ads that challenge stereotypes are both more positively perceived but more likely to be watched in full rather than skipped.[xi]

When pressed on this point, media producers will sometimes say that gendering is essential for the toys and other merchandising that, for many kids’ properties, are a larger source of revenue than the actual show or movie. Shane Black, the director of Iron Man 3, was told to reduce the role of two female characters because “the toy won’t sell as well if it’s a female... We had to change the entire script because of toy making.”[xii] In this case, too, the actual numbers contradict the conventional wisdom. Despite Disney’s concerns that girls wouldn’t play with a “boy toy,” the bow used by Merida in 2012’s Brave became a top-seller.[xiii] Similarly, despite the relatively poor box-office performance of the 2016 female-led Ghostbusters, the tie-in toys sold better than expected,[xiv] suggesting a strong demand for female action toys. In fact, a recent study found that “a modern hallmark of successful cross-platform and cross-category entertainment properties is their appeal to both genders,” pointing to brands such as SpongeBob, Minions and Harry Potter, noting that gender-skewed brands such as Barbie and WWE are becoming niche interests. It is true, however, that there is still a “pink penalty”: most of the growth of cross-gender brands has been from girls taking an interest in neutral or traditionally boy-focused brands, such as Pokémon or Marvel superheroes, while boys still don’t feel comfortable exploring girls’ brands.[xv]

While the industry’s conventional wisdom may not be based on facts, though, it still has an impact. Despite the better returns from films directed by women, in 2018 they made up only 8% of directors – actually a percentage point below the number in 1998.[xvi] In her 2015 documentary Half of the Picture, Amy Adrion interviewed 50 female directors of successful films who were snubbed at the beginning or end of their creative processes. Despite the massive success of the Twilight movies, director Catherine Hardwicke was not offered the three-motion picture deal a male director typically would have been given after a successful film.[xvii]

“You can apparently make an endless collection of high-priced action flops and everybody says ‘win some, lose some’ and nobody decides that They Are Poison, but it feels like every ‘surprise success’ about women is an anomaly and every failure is an abject lesson about how we really ought to just leave it all to The Rock.“[xviii]

A double standard is often at work when movies do poorly – while flops starring or directed by men aren’t generally seen as part of any particular pattern, when films with female directors or stars fail it’s taken as evidence that female-fronted movies can’t succeed.[xix] For example, the poor performance of Ghostbusters did not hurt director Paul Feig’s career, but the franchise was “rebooted” to get rid of the all-female cast.


[i] Motion Picture Association (2019) New Report: Global Theatrical and Home entertainment market reached $96.8 billion in 2018. Retrieved from

[ii] Tamaru, Vicky. What’s the “Big Idea”? San Francisco Chronicle, November 10 2009.

[iii] Lemish, D. (2010). Screening gender in children’s TV: The views of producers around the world. New York and Abingdon: Routledge.

[iv] Byron, Ellen. “Does Your Razor Need a Gender?” Wall Street Journal, February 1 2020.

[v] PGA women’s impact network and women and Hollywood (2015). The Ms. Factor: The Power of female driven content. Retrieved from

[vi] Buckley, Cara. “Movies Starring Women Earn More Than Male-Led Films, Study Finds.” The New York Times, December 11 2018.

[vii] Pedace, Roberto. “Why aren’t Hollywood films more diverse? The international box office might be to blame.” The Conversation, December 6 2017. Retrieved from

[viii] Sun, Rebecca. “Study: Films Directed by Women Receive 63 Percent Less Distribution Than Male-Helmed Movies.” The Hollywood Reporter, June 29 2016.

[ix] Hickey, Walt. “The Dollars and Cents Case Against Hollywood’s Exclusion of Women.” FiveThirtyEight, April 1 2014. Retrieved from

[x] Consumer Perspectives on Advertising. (2018) (Rep.) Ad Standards Research

[xi] Wojcicki, Susan. “Ads That Empower Women Don’t Just Break Stereotypes, They’re Also Efective.” Adweek, April 24 2016.

[xii] Erbland, Kate. “Shane Black: ‘Iron Man 3’ Villain Was Going to be a Woman, but She Wouldn’t Have Sold Toys.” IndieWire, May 16 2016. Retrieved from

[xiii] Foster, Elizabeth. “You Go, Girls!” Kidscreen, May 19 2017. Retrieved from

[xiv] McNary, Dave. “Mattel Reports ‘Ghostbusters’ Toy Sales Have ‘Exceeded Expectations’.” Variety, July 22 2016. Retrieved from

[xv] Tyree, Wynne. Study shows gender-inclusive brands score big with kids. Kidscreen, March 8 2016. Retrieved from

[xvi] Lauzen, M (2019). The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 100, 250, and 500 Films of 2018. Retrieved from

[xvii] Omar, Y (2018) Why there are so few female directors working in Hollywood. Harper’s Bazaar. Retrieved from

[xviii] Holmes, Linda. “At the Movies, the Women are Gone.” NPR, June 14 2013. Retrieved from

[xix] Mendelson, Scott. “The Box Office Failure of Olivia Wilde’s ‘Booksmart’ is a Sadly Predictable Tragedy.” Forbes, May 27 2019. Retrieved from