Hollywood delivers stark rise in female roles in 2019 movies, study finds
It’s still a man’s world, this Hollywood industry of ours, as well as most cultural institutions. But things are generally looking up for gender parity in the movie biz.
A new study from San Diego State University’s Center For the Study of Women in Television and Film logged a “recent historic high” for the number of lead female roles offered by movies in 2019. In 2018, 31 percent of the top-grossing films featured women as protagonists. Last year, that rose to 40 percent.
The latest annual release of “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World” analyzed more than 2,300 roles in the year’s 100 top-grossing films, from Captain Marvel (starring Brie Larson as the comic book hero) to Little Women (starring director Greta Gerwig‘s female-dominated ensemble cast) to Us (starring Lupita Nyong’o in filmmaker Jordan Peele’s new horror story).
In 2019, women accounted for 37 percent of “major characters,” meaning characters who “appear in more than one scene and are instrumental to the action of the story,” a 1 percent increase from last year. Thirty-four percent of all speaking roles among this data pool belonged to women, a 1 percent decrease from last year.
Men still maintained the bigger cut of the pie with 43 percent of films featuring male protagonists and 63 percent of major characters being male. Seventeen percent of the top-grossing films featured ensemble casts or a combination of female and male protagonists.
While these gains for lead roles for women are notable, they largely went to white women in 2019 — 68 percent of all female characters, to be exact. Twenty percent were black women, 7 percent were Asian, and 5 percent with Latina. Similarly for men, 71 percent of all male characters in 2019 were white, 15 percent were black, 6 percent were Asian, and 5 percent were Latino.
“We have now seen two consecutive years of substantial gains for female protagonists, indicating the beginning of a positive shift in representation,” Dr. Martha M. Lauzen, the report’s author, said in a statement. “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.”
A separate study, one released earlier this month by USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, logged a record high for female directors behind the camera, as well, with 10.6 percent of the directors from 2019’s top-grossing films being women. The findings also uncovered disparities between white women and women of color.
Awards season, meant to reflect the crème de la crème if the past year in film, continues to catch up in recognizing this increase in female talent. Both the Golden Globes and BAFTA came under sharp criticism following the release of their annual nominees. Despite high critical and box-office acclaim for many female directors, none were nominated in the Best Director category by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. The same went for the BAFTA nominees, while all the major acting categories recognized white actors. BAFTA CEO Amanda Berry called this “hugely disappointing.”
“It’s clear there is much more to be done and we plan to double down on our efforts to affect real change and to continue to support,” she said in a statement, “and encourage the industry on the urgency of doing so much more.”