Marvel just hired its first female film composer. Here's why that's a big deal.

My daughter and I watched a documentary about film composers and were stunned by how few women were in it.

Like, seriously stunned.

Of the many composers featured in the film "Score," only one was a woman. But I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised. If I were to list famous film scorers, I’d offer up names like John Williams, James Horner, Hans Zimmer, and Howard Shore. I don’t even know the name of a female film composer off the top of my head.


John Williams received a lifetime achievement award for his film composition work in 2016. Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images.

That’s not good news for my daughter, who wants to be a film composer. She'll be studying music composition at university this fall, and while I have no doubt she’ll rock it, it's disheartening to find out how male-dominated her chosen field is.

But perhaps change is on the horizon.

Marvel just made superhero movie history by hiring a female film composer.

As a bright spot in the darkness, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has brought on Pinar Toprak to score the much-anticipated "Captain Marvel" film. Toprak, who helped score the popular video game "Fortnite," will be the first female film scorer in a comic superhero movie.

To give you a sense of why this is significant, take a look at this list of DC superhero films and this list of Marvel superhero films. Just scroll through to see the sheer number of films — presumably all of which have included a score of some sort.

It’s not that women don’t ever score movies. They do — but only 3% of the top 250 films of 2017 included female composers (up from 1-2% a few years before). The industry has long been dominated by men and has been slow to change.

It’s not just film scores. The whole music composition world is heavily skewed toward male composers.

In some ways, it’s understandable. The most well-known classical music pieces come from the likes of Mozart, Bach, Schubert, Brahms, Vivaldi, and other male composers from generations past. The problem is that as the landscape has changed for women in music, the music that gets played and celebrated hasn’t.

The statistics from Drama Musica and the Donne — Women in Music project show that among 1,445 classical concerts performed around the world in a year, only 76 included at least one piece by a woman. That means 95% of classical concerts only include male composers.

Image via Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, used with permission.

The numbers are not just due to the predominance of famous dead men in the classical music repertoire. In a survey of the 22 largest American orchestras during the 2014-15 symphony season, women only accounted for 14.3% of living composers whose work was performed.

"These numbers are both abysmal and embarrassing, particularly in this day and age," said Kristin Kuster, composer and associate professor of composition at the University of Michigan.

When an industry has been male-dominated for centuries, it takes a concerted, purposeful effort to level the field.

And there are some in the music world — like Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic Music director/conductor Ulysses James — leading the way.

After reading an article about the gender disparities for composers in orchestra performances, James responded with this:

"Washington Metropolitan Philharmonic Association Board members and I saw this article and decided to do something about it. Fourteen of the sixteen works we will be performing in the 2018-19 season will be composed by women. I'll also commit to programming 50% of the following season and beyond to women composers. Thank you for the article."

That's how it's done. It takes a conscious effort to turn the tide, and even just one decision like James' can break a pattern.

Thank you James and others making the effort and giving my daughter hope for a successful career doing what she loves. Let's hope more will follow your lead.

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