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Women may represent half of the global population in real life, but fictional film worlds get by with just a third.
The latest It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World report from San Diego State’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film has found that men outnumbered women onscreen by a factor of 2 to 1 in 2021. This proportion held steady across the shares of lone protagonists (31 percent), major characters (35 percent) and all speaking characters (34 percent), with less than 3 points of deviation from the year before.
“Despite the major disruptions in the film business over the last couple of years, onscreen gender ratios have remained relatively stable,” Martha Lauzen, the Center’s executive director, said in a statement.
Seven percent of the films sampled — the 100 highest-grossing movies in the U.S., according to Box Office Mojo — featured more female than male characters, and 8 percent achieved gender parity. The remaining 85 percent of movies released last year were majority male.
More than half (57.6 percent) of 2021’s major female characters were white, down from nearly three-quarters (74.4 percent) the year before. Black women represented 16.4 percent of major female characters (up from 13.2 percent in 2020), but the increase in BIPOC representation was mainly boosted by Latinas (12.8 percent) and Asian women (10 percent), who each had a 5.7 percent share of the pie in 2020. (There were no major MENA female characters in film last year, and 0.4 percent of major female characters were Native American.)
The study notes that if Latino- and Asian-centered movies like Encanto, In the Heights, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Minari are excluded from the analysis, the share of Latinas and Asian women as major characters falls to their 2020 levels (5.3 percent and 6.7 percent, respectively).
“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,” said Lauzen, “rather than their integration in a wide variety of films.”
It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World also qualitatively analyzed character portrayals, finding that women featured onscreen tended to be younger than men. Their character goals tended to revolve around personal life and their relationship status was more likely to be identified than male characters, who were more likely to have work-related goals and an identifiable occupation. The report also conducted the same analysis on a sampling containing every film that appeared on the Digital Entertainment Group’s weekly Watched at Home Top 20 list in 2021.
SDSU’s study comes out the day after USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released its annual gender/race analysis of movie characters. In that research brief analyzing the 100 highest-grossing films in the U.S., the authors reported that 41 percent of lead or co-lead roles were women.
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