Overview on gender bias and age discrimination in Hollywood

While the average age for Hollywood stars increased somewhat over time since the early 1900s by approximately 8 years, the average age for female actors remained young after the early days of cinema. Estimates vary, but according to a list published in Motion Picture Magazine the average age of female Hollywood stars in 1917 was 24.6, while males were on average 33.9 years of age (Fleck & Hanssen, 2012). Statistics provided by Fleck and Andrew (2012) are only slightly different from those of the 1917 fan magazines. According to their sources, in 1920 the average male lead actor was 35 years old and the average female lead actor was 26. In 2011, the average male lead actor was 42 and the average female was 35. Ten years later, according to another popular film magazine of the time (Motion Picture Classic) the average female stars were 28 years of age, while males were 35 years of age (p. 7). In the 1950s, the median age for female stars was 32-33 years, with a quarter of these roles going to stars under the age of 27 (Guo, 2016). In 2011, as it was in the 1920s, despite the much larger number of total male roles, there were nevertheless more leading roles for young women in popular cinema. Also mirroring the situation in the 1920s, not only were female actors generally younger than their male counterparts, but they had much shorter careers (Fleck & Hanssen, 2012, p. 2).

Although the average age of female and male Oscar winning actors rose from the 1930s to the 1970s, (from 33 in the 1930s, to 37 in the 1950s, to 41 in the 1970s, while for male actors the peak age was 57 years of age in the 1950s), the Oscar winning age decreased for both male and female actors in the 2000s (Shone, 2011). However, the Oscar situation changed in 2020. An article in January 2020 in one of the I Craze Magazine (an online entertainment magazine), discusses the controversy in Hollywood over 2020’s Academy Award nominations. In addition to another year of all male director nominees and a lack of diversity, ageism is quite apparent in the 21.6-year gender age gap for the nominates in the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories. The median age for male actors was 61.3 years and 39.8 for female actors, which is in sharp contrast to the average age of Oscar nominees over the past 25-years: 48.0 for male actor nominees compared to 41.2 for female nominees. It is interesting to note that while the type of roles that are available to (young) women has changed since the early days of cinema, the limits placed on an actor’s age has not.

Robert Fleck and F. Andrew Hanssen, (2012) examined gender and age in US feature films produced between 1920 and 2011 in their 2012 article, Persistence and change in age-specific gender gaps. Their conclusion: youthfulness was as important in 2011 as it was in the 1920s. Based on two data sets: the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB) and the “’Top Ten Moneymaking Stars,” their findings indicated that over the last 90 years, the gender gap slightly increased from 1920 to 2011 with two-thirds of approximately a half-million different roles in more that 50,000 feature films during that time frame played by males (p. 1). In addition, in the same article, Fleck and Hanssen point out the glaring gender biases in cinema. At the beginning of their careers women in their early 20s received 80% of the leading film roles; by age 30 it was 40%; but past age 30, women only had 20% of the leading roles, while men had 80%. However, for male actors by age 30 there are many more roles available to them than women had in their 20s, reflecting a strong gender bias that has remained in place today (Fleck & Hanssen, 2012).