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'Barbie' is the only billion-dollar blockbuster solely directed by a woman

Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie at a <em>Barbie</em> event in June in Sydney, Australia.
Hanna Lassen
Getty Images
Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie at a Barbie event in June in Sydney, Australia.

Barbie will surpass $1 billion worldwide, according to Warner Bros. estimates. Hard as it may be to believe, that makes director Greta Gerwig the only woman in the billion-dollar club with sole credit for directing a film.

A couple of other women have shared credit for directing movies that made more than a billion dollars. Both Frozen and Frozen II were co-directed by a man and a woman, Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck. And Anna Boden co-directed Captain Marvel with Ryan Fleck. Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, is among the top 60 highest grossing films, not adjusted for inflation, but it has not broken the billion dollar barrier.

Most of the movies in the billion dollar club are, predictably, male-oriented and franchise-driven. At this moment, 53 films have made more than a billion dollars. Barbie is among only nine that center female protagonists.

Nine, that is, if you count female fish. Finding Dory (2016) swims in the billion dollar club, along with the animated princesses of Frozen (2013), Frozen II (2019) and Beauty and the Beast (2017). Two mega-franchises managed to spit out a billion-dollar film with women at the story's heart: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) and Captain Marvel (2019). Then, two other billion dollar one-offs: Titanic (1997) and a live-action Alice in Wonderland (2010).

In short, plots centering women and girls currently make up 18% of all billion-dollar movies. Nearly half of them are animated films made for children. Blockbusters with strong girl characters are great. But the dearth of super successful movies about grown women illustrates Hollywood's infamous sluggishness when it comes to gender parity.

"[This] is a reflection of what Hollywood has chosen to back with its biggest budgets, its largest marketing spends, and who it has ... given the opportunity to direct and write and star in these movies," The Hollywood Reporter's senior film editor, Rebecca Keegan, pointed out on a recent episode of the podcast The Town. "So it's a little hard to say that that's responding to market forces versus that is a reflection of the culture that's driven Hollywood for decades."

The Town's host, Matthew Belloni, pointed out that on Barbie's opening weekend, women made up 69% of ticket buyers domestically. "And then it actually rose to 71% female in the second weekend, which is unusual," he said. Anecdotally, it seems numerous women return to the movie, bringing relatives and friends. And Barbie's crossover appeal to men cannot be denied.

Stacey L. Smith of the University of Southern California has long studied inclusion in popular culture. Her most recent report, from February, shows that female representation in television and film has steadily improved. Her study looks at the top 1,600 movies in a given year. In 2007, the percentage of female protagonists was only 20%. In 2022, that number had risen to 44%. Not perfect. But far, far better than the numbers for the world's most successful films that enjoy the most studio support.

You'd hope that with Barbie, the number of women nominated for Oscars for best director might improve. It's a sad little number. Only seven. And those numbers might not even improve in 2024. Barbie director Greta Gerwig has already been nominated for an Oscar, for her 2017 movie Ladybird.

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.