Institutions, Gender, Age, and the Careers of Hollywood Actors

F. Andrew Hanssen (Clemson University)
Robert K. Fleck (Clemson University)

Abstract: The relationship between gender, age, and employment has interested scholars – and inspired activists – since the advent of the women’s rights movement. In this paper, we examine the gender and age mix for an unusually visible profession: acting in motion pictures. Using almost a century of data, we find that although there are several interesting long run changes (e.g., “40 is the new 30”), the striking feature is stability – the gender-age profiles of actors today strongly resemble those of their silent-era predecessors. For the entire period, actors in leading roles have tended be on the younger side of the overall actor age distribution, and this is especially true for women. Current day female actors are, on average, 5-6 years younger than males, and in recent years, women over the age of 50 have played only 3% of leading roles, as compared to 14% played by men over the age of 50. Thus, the common lament about the paucity of roles for middle-aged women appears to be rooted in fact – but a similar complaint could have been made at any time since the silent-era. Moreover, it is not just older females that see a dearth: Roughly two-thirds of all roles are (and have long been) filled by males. These patterns could change if (i) the mix of film genres changed in a gender-relevant way (e.g., more romance and less action would, holding the gender-genre relationship constant, increase the share of roles played by women) or (ii) the genres that disproportionately employ men (e.g., action) increasingly employed women. The long run trends have not, however, been going in either of these directions – most probably because of consumer demand. The apparent stability of demand in the face of extraordinary institutional changes (e.g., industry structure, contracting processes) has implications for understanding the literature on returns to youth and appearance.

Download the paper