Study: More Female Protagonists in 2018 Films, but Speaking Parts Stagnant

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'The Spy Who Dumped Me'

The latest report from the San Diego University's Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found female protagonists led 31 percent of the movies in 2018, but women still had only 35 percent of all the speaking parts.

Thanks to movies ranging from comedies like The Life of the Party and The Spy Who Dumped Me to horror movies like Hereditary and Halloween, the percentage of films featuring female protagonists rose to 31 percent in 2018 — up 7 percentage points from 2017’s 24 percent and slightly surpassing the previous high of 29 percent registered in 2016.  

But, overall, the prominence of female characters across the 100 top-grossing movies at the domestic box office showed little change last year. Only 35 percent of those top-grossing films in 2018 featured 10 or more female characters in speaking roles in 2018, compared with 82 percent of the same movies that had 10 or more male characters in speaking roles.

Women had 35 percent of all speaking parts, combining both major and minor roles, up just 1 percentage point from 34 percent in 2017; considering just major characters, women commanded those type of roles in 36 percent of the films, down 1 percent from 2017. 

Dr. Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego University, which released the report, It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World, today, said: “2018 may be remembered as the year in which things were not quite as they appeared for female characters.” 

Lauzen explained, “While female protagonists rebounded last year, slightly besting the previous high achieved in 2016, the percentages of females as speaking characters and major characters remained relatively stagnant. Protagonists are the characters from whose perspective the story is told and so seeing more females in these roles is tremendously important. However, we are not seeing similar gains in the broader populations of major characters and in all speaking roles.” 

In terms of race and ethnicity, the percentage of black females in speaking roles increased from 16 percent in 2017 to 21 percent in 2018, a recent historical high. The percentage of Latinas declined from 7 percent in 2017 to 4 percent in 2018. The percentage of Asian females increased from 7 percent in 2017 to 10 percent in 2018. However, Lauzen noted, “This increase is due largely to one film, Crazy Rich Asians. When this film is excluded from the analysis, Asians accounted for 8 percent of females, only 1 percentage point above the 7 percent achieved in 2017.”  

Female protagonists were most likely to appear in comedies (32 percent), followed by dramas (29 percent), horror films (19 percent), science-fiction features (10 percent), action features (7 percent) and films in other genres (3 percent). “Their appearance in a variety of genres suggests female characters are being woven more deeply into all types of stories. If a particular genre temporarily falls out of favor, it is less likely that substantial numbers of female protagonists will disappear from the big screen,” Lauzen added.

In other findings: When a woman appeared as the sole protagonist of a film, it was more likely to be an indie feature (68 percent) than a studio film (32 percent).

Female characters were often younger than their male counterparts. The majority of female characters were in their 20s (29 percent) and 30s (28 percent). The majority of male characters were in their 30s (35 percent) and 40s (25 percent). And while men 40 and over accounted for 45 percent of all male characters, women 40 and older comprised only 31 percent of all female characters.

The marital status of female characters was more likely to be noted than that of male characters. Forty-seven percent of female characters, but 36 percent of male characters, had a known marital status. At the same time, 76 percent of male characters had an identifiable job or occupation, while only 62 percent of female characters had that.

Films with at least one woman director and/or writer featured higher percentages of female protagonists, major female characters and females in speaking roles than films with exclusively male directors and/or writers. For example, in films with at least one woman director and/or writer, females comprised 57 percent of protagonists. In films with exclusively male directors and/or writers, females accounted for 21 percent of protagonists. 

This study reports the findings of a content analysis of over 2,500 characters appearing in the 100 top, domestic-grossing films of 2018. Overall, the study considers the representation of more than 18,500 characters appearing in approximately 800 films released between 2002 and 2018.

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