This is a summary of my findings. You can find raw data, charts and correlations at my website.
Raters were asked to rate 34 female action heroes in films from the last 20 years on how professionally and practically they were dressed and how much the rater liked how they were dressed. (Study)
Dress for Success and Sexualization
“Professional”, “practical” and “like” are all significantly positively correlated with each other, at p<.001.
“Professional”, “practical” and “like” are all significantly positively correlated with critic ratings (Metacritic, Rotten Tomatoes, VideoHound), at p<.01 or p<.001.
“Professional”, “practical” and “like” are all positively correlated with box office, but not this is not statistically significant. The correlations might become statistically significant with a larger sample, but it is harder to know where this larger sample would come from given that this is already 20 years of female action heroes.
Kids In Mind “sex” is negatively correlated with “professional”, “practical” and “like” and with box office, but it’s not statistically significant.
For the most part, Kids In Mind “sex” is more of a negative with respect to box office than “professional”, “practical” and “like” are positives. So it seems that sexualized content in general is more of a problem than sexualized outfits per se.
Estimated budget is the biggest predictor of box office gross. “Professional”, “practical” and “like” have negligible correlations with budget, and are still positively correlated with box office nets. So I don’t see any need to partial out budget to see what happens.
Filmforecasting.com talks about how actors are either true hero types or anti hero types, and need to play to type for things to work. True heroes have more altruistic motives and are focussed on helping others and stopping the bad guys, while anti heroes have more worldly motives and are focussed on their own wants and needs, including revenge, personal safety, and personal angst. There are about twice as many anti heroes as there are true heroes, among actors and in the general population. You might think that actors would need to be true hero types for action films, but it depends on the story. There are a lot of one-off anti hero films with female leads. However, the biggest action franchises (Alien, Resident Evil, Underworld) feature true hero types. Also, while villains are most likely to be anti hero types, you can have idealistic true hero villains. (Terrorists come to mind.) One type is not better than the other, but they are different and need to be kept in mind.
It turns out that when you classify female action heroes (actors and characters) as true hero and anti hero types, you get gold.1
Kids in Mind content ratings
On average, female action actors who are true hero types have more sex, violence and profanity in their films than anti hero types, regardless of how they are cast. For sex, there is almost no difference for true hero and anti hero types cast as true hero characters and a noticeable difference for those cast as anti heroes. For violence, anti hero characters have about the same amount but for true hero characters true hero types have more violence in their films than anti hero types do. Profanity follows the same pattern as violence.
Dress for Success ratings
Female anti hero actors scored higher on “professional”, “practical”, and “like” than true hero actors regardless of how they were cast. For all three variables, the gap is bigger for anti hero character roles.
Anti hero actors have higher critic ratings regardless of how they are cast. Being cast correctly is also associated with higher critic ratings, moreso for anti hero types. Anti hero types miscast as true hero characters have as high or higher average ratings than true hero types correctly cast as true hero characters. Critics just seem to like female anti hero types better.
For both true hero types and anti hero types, being cast right pays off at the box office. Anti heroes have bigger average grosses, but they also have bigger average budgets (regardless of casting), so true heroes tend to be more profitable. The true hero actors are the ones with the long running franchises (Milla Jovovich in the Resident Evil movies, Kate Beckinsale in the Underworld movies, Sigourney Weaver in the Alien movies).
[To measure profitability, I am using US Net (US gross - budget), Worldwide Net (worldwide gross - 2*budget) and World Ratio (WR = worldwide box office/budget, something I invented myself for convenience). US net is the traditional measure of success, but it's falling out of favour. Personally, I prefer WR because I prefer proportions to subtractions, and because you don't need to take inflation into account. The highest individual WR in this study was Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) with a WR of 6.03. In comparison, Alien (1979) had a WR of 9.54 and Aliens (1986) had a WR of 7.08. You need a WR of at least 2 to make your budget back at the box office. I'd consider anything with a WR less than 2 to be a bomb.]
When characters are miscast
It’s not just actors who need to be cast properly. Sometimes the characters themselves get miscast. Think of the second Lara Croft movie, in which Ms. Anti hero tries to act like a true hero, and is boring, or the second Miss Congeniality movie, in which the true hero spends way too much time worrying about her personal life, and not enough helping others, and is boring. The second Legally Blonde film also made this mistake, taking a fun anti hero and having her try to save the world. (I couldn’t even get through the first act of that film.)
And then there’s Catwoman. Catwoman is an anti hero, and Halle Berry is a true hero type. So that didn’t work. But the story was a true hero story, so even Catwoman was cast wrong. If you’d taken Catwoman out of the equation, and had Berry’s character discover her boss was up to no good and try to stop her, that probably would have worked. But Catwoman has no business trying to save the day. Saying “Hmmm, this could be fun” and playing cat and mouse with her boss until either her boss gives in, she gets bored, or the police show up and take over (or preferably all three at once) would have been far more in character, and far more fun to watch, with the right actor. It’s possible the right actor in the right story could even have gotten that outfit to work. Maybe.
Note that I am not saying that Barb Wire could have been saved with better casting. I think there are limits to what even good casting can do. Though you never know.
Also as an aside, Christina Hendricks and Joss Whedon appear to be anti hero types, so they should probably stay away from Wonder Woman. But they could probably clean up on Catwoman. Just saying.
A special comment on Tank Girl
Tank Girl has the lowest WR in this sample (though I think Cutthroat Island would have an even lower WR if its worldwide gross were available), even though I think the casting was good. As far as I can tell, it’s a true hero cast as a true hero. So casting isn’t bulletproof. Why didn’t Tank Girl do well?
Tank Girl is set in a post-apocalyptic world. Filmforecasting.com talks about how post-apocalyptic films don’t do as well at the box office as films set in the modern world. And I can see how they would have less appeal. Not that many people identify with the post-apocalyptic landscape (and that’s a good thing, mental health-wise), though some people will show up just to watch the spectacle. And zombie apocalypses don’t seem to be doing too badly these days.
Filmforecasting.com also talks about how films need to take themselves seriously, so audiences will. Spoofs don’t do as well, everything else being equal. And Tank Girl is definitely a tongue-in-cheek film. The hero loses most of her friends (they’re killed at the beginning), must rescue the one survivor from a brothel, and stop the Water & Power Company from hurting anyone else, but she simply refuses to act seriously for any of this. Tank Girl is a loving respectful spoof of its genre, the way Buckaroo Bonzai Across the Eighth Dimension spoofs comic book heroes and The Princess Bride spoofs fairy tale romances. I suppose it qualifies as a cult classic. But unlike The Princess Bride, which has a broader appeal because it’s a fairy tale romance, Tank Girl has a fairly small target audience.
Don’t get me wrong. I saw it in theatres and loved it. (And the review in the local paper was so virulent it was funny.) But good casting will not make every film a great success, even relative to budget. Some films are of limited appeal no matter what.
I selected an equivalent number of male action hero films (same criteria) from 2010 and the first part of 2011 (I stopped in July 2011 when I reached the 34th film) for comparison2. I don’t see any point in rating them for “professional”, “practical” and “like” since they mostly all dress the same (Conan the Barbarian didn’t quite make the sample, being released in August 2011). But I have assembled the rest of the data for them. [If you wanted to compare men and women on this, you could assemble a set of matched pairs (matching for "professional" and "practical" from a larger sample of male action films) then look at box office etc., but that is a project I do not wish to do.]
Both male and female action heroes come in true hero and anti hero types. Both male and female action actors are more likely to be true hero types than anti hero types and/or cast in true hero roles than in anti hero roles. This is more true for male action leads than female action leads but it is true for both sexes. Action franchises tend to be led by true hero types and true hero actors tend to make more action films, for both sexes.
Being cast correctly makes a big difference in box office for both sexes.
Male action heroes do better at the box office than female action heroes, even controlling for budget, but there is a considerable amount of variability for both sexes. (And actually, for correctly cast actors, female actors have higher WRs.)
Unlike for female action heroes, male true hero actors have *less* sex, violence and profanity in their films than anti hero actors.
Female true hero actors are more likely to be in R rated films than female anti hero actors. The reverse is true for male action actors.
Unlike for female action heroes, male anti hero actors have *lower* critic ratings than true hero actors.
Female action hero actors are miscast (true hero for anti hero, anti hero for true hero) for 53% of the sample. In comparison, male action hero actors are miscast only 21% of the time1. (This doesn’t include subtypes within the two types – there is more miscasting there, too, for both sexes.) This is a big difference and should be taken into account when discussing sex differences in success.
Why are female action actors miscast more often? I can think of three possible answers:
It may be due to the year the film was made. The female sample was released from 1992 to 2011, while the male sample was released in 2010 and 2011 only. Filmmakers may have gotten better at casting in that time.
It may be because decision makers (who are predominantly male) have an easier time typing men correctly than women. Women are so mysterious and hard to understand, right? Plus “female” is traditionally a personality type, like “jock”, “geek”, etc. (e.g. the Smurfs), as has been mentioned before on this site. You don’t see multiple women much in action movies, so people don’t have as much experience seeing action women as coming in different types.
The women themselves may be choosing a more diverse selection of roles, in a quest for “balance”, while men may prefer to do the same thing over and over again once they find the winning formula. Balance is appropriate for your personal life, but not for your job, where you should probably concentrate on what you do best to maximize success. This is even more true for underrepresented demographic groups, who need to pay a lot more attention to correct casting than white cis straight abled men do. Of course, when you’re first starting out, you have to take what you can get, so not everyone on the list can be blamed for this. But it’s something more experienced actors should keep in mind whenever they have a choice.
Dress for Success does seem to help female action heroes succeed at the box office, but avoiding sexualized content is probably even more important, and correct casting appears to be the most important factor of all.
1I have gone back and forth on some of these classifications, and it doesn’t affect the overall patterns much if at all.
2I took all male action hero films that met the same criteria as the female action films in the study, starting with all of
2010 and continuing through into 2011 until I had 34 films. The list is on my website.