Women made “unprecedented gains” as protagonists in the top-grossing films of 2019, according to the latest installment of “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World,” an annual report out of San Diego State University, which found that women achieved “recent historic highs” as lead characters in last year’s biggest hits.
The report, which examined the 100 domestic top-grossing feature films, found that the percentage of female protagonists rose from 31% in 2018, to 40% in 2019, “reaching a recent historic high.” Females also accounted for 37% of major characters in last year’s top films – an increase of 1 percentage point from 36% in 2018. Males comprised 63% of major characters, and 66% of all speaking roles. Females made up 34% of all speaking roles, a decrease of 1 percentage point from 35% in 2018. In speaking roles, men outnumbered women 2-to-1.
“We have now seen two consecutive years of substantial gains for female protagonists, indicating the beginning of a positive shift in representation,” said Dr. Martha M. Lauzen, the report’s author and executive director of SDSU’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. “That said, it is important to note that moviegoers are still almost twice as likely to see a male character as a female character in a speaking role.”
The release of the study comes a week after Lauzen released her annual “Celluloid Ceiling” report, which found that women directors had also achieved “recent historic highs” on top-grossing films.
In her latest report, which surveyed more than 2,300 characters, Lauzen and her researchers found that women actors also made significant gains last year on “studio features,” with 45% of sole female protagonists appearing in studio feature, compared to 55% in indie films. That’s compared to 2018, when females were more than twice as likely to appear in independent features than in studio features (68% vs. 32%). In comparison, sole male protagonists were more likely to appear in studio features (57%) than in independent features (43%) in 2019.
Racially, female roles were slightly more diverse. The report found that “68% of all female characters with speaking roles were White, 20% were Black, 5% were Latina, 7% were Asian, and 1% were of some other race or ethnicity.” It found that “71% of all male characters were White, 15% were Black, 5% were Latino, 6% were Asian, and 3% were of some other race or ethnicity.” It did not include data on Native Americans.
The report also found that women are much more likely to find roles in films with at least one female director and/or writer. According to the report, women accounted for 58% of protagonists in those films, but only 30% with exclusive male writers and directors. In her report last week, Lauzen found that films with female directors are far more likely to employ women in key behind-the-scenes jobs than are films directed exclusively by men.
Not surprisingly, the report also found that female characters tend to be considerably younger than their male co-stars. The majority of female characters were in their 20s (22%) and 30s (31%), while the majority of male characters were in their 30s (32%) and 40s (26%). Males 40 and over accounted for 47% of all male characters. Females 40 and over made up only 30% of all female roles. Actresses over 60 got only 6% of the female roles, compared to 9% for men of the same age. “Female characters experience a precipitous drop from their 30s to their 40s, and few women age into their 60s,” the report found.
Among the other findings:
• Male characters were more likely than females to be seen in primarily work-related roles (60% vs. 40%). Female characters were more likely than males to be seen in primarily personal life-related roles (52% vs. 34%).
• Female characters were more likely than male characters to have a known marital status. 46% of female characters but 34% of male characters had a known marital status.
• A larger proportion of male than female characters were seen in their work setting, actually working (59% vs. 43%).
• Females comprised 26% of leaders, while males accounted for 74% of leaders.
• Females were least likely to be portrayed as political leaders or leaders of criminal groups. Females were most likely to be leaders in professional jobs (67% vs. males 33%)
• Female protagonists were most likely to appear in horror films (26%), followed by dramas (24%), comedies (21%), action features (16%), science fiction (8%), and animated features (5%).
• Male protagonists were most likely to appear in action features (26%), followed by dramas (24%), animated features (21%), comedies (14%), horror features (12%), and science fiction features (2%)
The report notes that “For the purposes of the study, protagonists are the characters from whose perspective the story is told. Major characters appear in more than one scene and are instrumental to the narrative of the story. Characters classified as leaders are those individuals who occupy a leadership position in an organization, government or group and whose instructions and/or behaviors are followed by two or more other characters.”