The percentage of top-grossing films that featured female protagonists “dropped dramatically” last year, down from 40% in 2019 to just 29% in 2020 – a decline of more than 10%, according to the latest study from Dr. Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. The report found that after two years of gains, last year’s percentage of female protagonists was the same as in 2016 – the year before the start of the #MeToo movement.
And the numbers don’t get any better with age: last year, males 40 and over accounted for 52% of all male characters in the 100 top domestic-grossing films, while females 40 and over comprised 32% of all female characters. The report also found that major female characters experience “a precipitous drop” from their 30s to their 40s – falling from 31% of the roles to just 13%.
“We see a handful of mature female actresses and assume that ageism has declined in Hollywood,” Lauzen said. “But unless your last name happens to be Streep or McDormand, chances are you’re not working much in film.”
The report, titled “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World,” found that only 17% of the top-grossing films had more female than male characters; that 78% featured more male than female characters, and that 5% had an equal number.
“As protagonists in films, females took a step back in 2020, after two consecutive years of growth,” Lauzen said. “This decline is reflected in the low number of female-driven films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Only two films on this year’s slate of nominees, Nomadland and Promising Young Woman, feature female protagonists.”
The percentage of Black female roles also dropped: down from 20% of all characters in 2019, to 17% last year – a 15% decline. Only 13% of those roles in 2020 were “major characters,” which the report defines as those who appear in more than one scene and are instrumental to the narrative of the story. Protagonists are those from whose perspective the story is told.
Even so, the percentages of females as major characters and in speaking roles increased slightly last year. The percentage of major female characters rose from 37% in 2019 to 38% in 2020. The percentage of female characters in speaking roles climbed from 34% in 2019 to 36% in 2020.
The percentage of Latina characters was up from 5% in 2019 to 6% last year – a 20% increase, while the percentage of female Asian characters was down: from 7% in 2019 to 6% last year – a 14% drop. Of the major female roles last year, 6% were Latina and 6% were Asian; 74% were white, and 1% were from “some other race or ethnicity.”
The report found that films with at least one woman director and/or writer are much more likely to employ female actors. In those films, females comprised 60% of protagonists, while in films with exclusively male directors and/or writers, females accounted for just 17% of protagonists.
The report also made clear that the number of roles for men and women is not the only gender disparity in the movies: that stereotypically portrayed lifestyles still persist, especially as depicted in the workplace. According to the report:
- A larger proportion of male than female characters had an identifiable job or occupation: 73% vs. 57%.
- A higher percentage of male characters were seen in their work setting, actually working: 59% vs. 42%.
Male characters were seen more often in primarily work-related roles: 59% vs. 41%.
- Female characters were more often seen in primarily personal life-related roles: 54% vs. 36%.
- Male characters were more likely to have primarily work-related goals: 41% vs. 32%.
- Female characters were nearly to have primarily personal life-related goals: 19% vs. 10%.
- Female characters also much more likely than their male counterparts to have a known marital status: 47% vs. 35%.