Percentage of Films Featuring Female Protagonists Increased in 2019: Study

Saoirse Ronan in Little Women - Columbia Pictures Publicity-H 2020
Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

According to the "It's a Man's (Celluloid) World" study, the number is a drastic jump from the 31 percent of women in protagonist roles in 2018.

Women took up more space on film screens in 2019.

The percentage of films featuring female protagonists jumped from 31 percent in 2018 to 40 percent in 2019, which is a recent historic high, according to the "It's a Man's (Celluloid) World" study released Wednesday.

This year's study, conducted by Martha M. Lauzen at the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, looked at 2,300 characters in the 100 top-grossing domestic films of 2019.

Meanwhile, 43 percent of 2019 films featured male protagonists and 17 percent had ensemble casts. In 2019, female protagonists appeared in 45 percent of studio features and 55 percent appeared in independent features. These findings mark a shift from 2018, in which women were more than twice as likely to appear in independent features as studio features.

Despite the increase in female protagonists, the percentages of women appearing as major characters and as both major- and minor-speaking characters remained relatively stable. Females made up 37 percent of major characters, which is just one percentage point more than in 2018. Women made up 34 percent of speaking characters, which is down one percentage point down from the previous year.

"We have now seen two consecutive years of substantial gains for female protagonists, indicating the beginning of a positive shift in representation. That said, it's important to note that moviegoers are still almost twice as likely to see a male character as a female character in a speaking role," said Lauzen.

When it comes to race and ethnicity, black women played only 20 percent of speaking roles, which is down from the 21 percent in 2018. The percentage of Latina actresses with speaking roles rose from 4 percent in 2018 to 5 percent in 2019. Additionally, the percentage of Asian female characters declined to 7 percent.

Female protagonists mostly starred in horror films, with women playing 26 percent of the lead characters in the genre. Twenty-four percent of distaff protagonists starred in dramas, while 21 percent were in comedies, 16 percent were in action features, 8 percent starred in science-fiction films and 5 percent led animated features.

Some of the 2019 films to feature women in prominent roles include the horror films Us and The Curse of La Llorona, the dramas Little Women and Harriet and the action film Captain Marvel.

While women are booking more lead roles, many gender stereotypes remained prominent in 2019. For example, female characters were more likely to have known marital statuses than males, while 73 percent of male characters and 63 percent of female characters had known occupations. Meanwhile, 59 percent of male characters were seen in their work setting, while only 43 percent of female characters were shown at their place of employment.