Top-Grossing Films Of 2021 Featured Slight Rise In Female Leads & BIPOC Women Representation Than 2020 Titles, Study Finds

er Hudson, Rachel Zegler and Youn Yuh-Jung
(L-R) Kristen Stewart, Jennifer Hudson, Rachel Zegler and Youn Yuh-Jung

Representation of female protagonists and BIPOC women in 2021’s top-grossing films have ticked up slightly from the previous year, the latest study from San Diego State University’s Dr. Martha Lauzen finds.

The study, titled It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World, Even in a Pandemic Year: Portrayals of Female Characters in the Top U.S. Films of 2021, found that female protagonists led 31% of the year’s highest-grossing films, up slightly from 2020‘s 29%. However, even with the incremental shift, 57% of the surveyed films featured male protagonists.

“Despite the major disruptions in the film business over the last couple of years, on-screen gender ratios have remained relatively stable,” Lauzen noted. “Last year audiences saw almost 2 male characters for every female character, and although women protagonists led some of the most high-profile films including Spencer, Being the Ricardos, and The Eyes of Tammy Faye, women comprised slightly less than one third of sole protagonists last year.”

San Diego State University

Lauzen’s latest It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World report also highlighted increases in representation among BIPOC women:

  • Black females comprised 16.4% of all major female characters in 2021, up from 13.2% in 2020
  • The percentage of major Latina characters doubled, rising from 5.7% in 2020 to 12.8% in 2021
  • The percentage of major Asian and Asian American females increased from 5.7% in 2020 to 10.0% in 2021

When it comes to increases for Latina and Asian and Asian American women, the report attributes the rise of on-screen representation to titles like Encanto, In The Heights, West Side Story, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Minari and Mortal Kombat. Without such culturally-specific titles, both demographics fell slightly below their 2020 levels. 

“These findings suggest that the increases in Latinas and Asian and Asian American females in major roles are largely due to their presence in a handful of films, rather than their integration in a wide variety of films,” said Lauzen.

Among the additional on-screen gender parity shortcomings of 2021’s highest-grossing films were the following:

  • 85% of the surveyed films featured more male than female characters
  • Female characters accounted for 35% of major characters, down 3 percentage points from 38% in 2020 and down 2 percentage points from 37% in 2019 
  • Females comprised 34% of all speaking characters, down 2 percentage points from 36% in 2020 but even with the percentage in 2019
  • Only 7% of films had more female than male characters
  • Only 8% of films featured equal numbers of female and male characters

Additionally, gender stereotypes persisted in the 2021 films. Female characters, who were more likely to have a known marital status, were younger than their male counterparts. Girls and women were more likely to have personal life-related roles and goals, whereas boys and men were more likely to have work-related roles, as well as anti-social goals.

The 2021 report, analyzed over 3,100 characters in the 100 top domestic grossing films. This year’s study also considers portrayals of girls and women on recently released films included on the Digital Entertainment Group’s Watched at Home list. Read the full report here. 

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