Strong Female Characters Still Underrepresented in Hollywood, New Study Shows

12:04 AM PST 03/11/2014 by Debbie Emery
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

The "It's a Man's (Celluloid) World" study revealed that women are still dramatically outnumbered by men when it comes to playing protagonists, major characters and speaking roles.

A new study shows that despite the wealth of talented actresses in Hollywood, women remain underrepresented when it comes to major film roles.

The "It’s a Man's (Celluloid) World" survey, which was released by Martha M. Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, revealed that women accounted for only 15 percent of protagonists, 29 percent of major characters and 30 percent of speaking characters in the top 100 (domestic) grossing films of 2013.

Read the Full Study Here.

The study showed that only 13 percent of the top 100 films featured equal numbers of female and male characters. Those that were cast were younger than their male counterparts and less likely than males to have clear goals or be portrayed as leaders.

"Overall, we have seen little movement in the numbers of female protagonists and females as speaking characters over the last decade," said Lauzen in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter.  "Moreover, female characters are less likely than males to have identifiable goals or to be portrayed as leaders of any kind."

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Covering analysis of more than 2,300 characters appearing in the top-grossing films, the study compared them with findings from 2011 and 2002, considering a total of 7,000 characters in 300 films.

Along with being especially relevant in light of Cate Blanchett's Oscar win for playing a dominant female role in Blue Jasmine, the study also includes measures that are directly relevant to the recent discussion of popular tests assessing the quality of film portrayals of female characters, such as the Bechdel Test, which asks if a work of fiction has at least two women who talk to each other about something besides a man, Lauzen explained.

However, rather than just raising the general population's awareness of the underrepresentation of female characters, the new study considers the centrality of female characters to the story, as well as whether they have identifiable goals and are portrayed as leaders. 

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Other key findings include:

  • Only 15 percent of all clearly identifiable protagonists were female, up 4 percentage points from 2011, down 1 percent from 2002.
  • Females comprised 29 percent of major characters, down 4 percent from 2011 but up 2 percent from 2002. 
  • Females accounted for 30 percent of all speaking characters (includes major and minor characters) in 2013, down 3 percent from 2011 but up 2 percent from 2002.
  • Female characters remain younger than their male counterparts, with the majority being in their 20s and 30s.
  • Males age 40 and over accounted for 55 percent of all male characters. Females 40 and over comprised 30 percent of all female characters.
  • A substantially larger portion of male than female characters were seen in their work setting actually working (61 percent versus 40 percent).

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The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film conducts an extensive agenda of original research documenting women's representation onscreen and behind the scenes in film and television and investigating the reasons for continuing inequities in the entertainment industries.

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