Movies in 2016 Featured a Record Number of Women Protagonists

Hidden Figures - Still 1 -Octavia Spencer - H 2016
Courtesy of Hopper Stone

But, overall, female characters accounted for just 32 percent of all speaking roles, down slightly from 2015, according to a new study.

Female protagonists were more visible on movie screens in 2015, comprising 29 percent of the lead characters in the top 100 domestic grossing films. But overall, male characters in both large and small parts still dominated, according to a new study from the Center for the Study of Women in Television at San Diego State University, released Tuesday. 

Titled "It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World," the study reports that the percentage of female protagonists, 29 percent, was up 7 percent from the percentage in 2015 and represented a historical high.

Looking at the bigger picture, women accounted for 37 percent of major characters, up 3 percentage points from 2015. But the percentage of female characters in speaking roles, both major and minor, accounted for just 32 percent of all roles, down 1 percentage point from 2015.

“While audiences were still more than twice as likely to see male characters as female characters in top-grossing movies, females fare better as protagonists and major characters in 2016,” Dr. Martha Lauzen, executive director of the center, commented.

In terms of race and ethnicity, 76 percent of all female characters were white, 14 percent were black, 6 percent were Asian, 3 percent were Latina and 1 percent were classified as other. The percentage of Asian female characters actually doubled from 3 percent in 2015 and the percentage of black female characters increased by one percentage point, but the percentage of Latina characters declined by a percentage point.

The report noted that gender stereotypes remained in place: Female characters were less likely than male characters to be seen at work and were less likely to be portrayed as leaders. They also tended to be younger than their male counterparts. The majority of female characters were in their 20s (23 percent) and 30s (32 percent), while the majority of male characters were in their 30s (31 percent) and 40s (30 percent).

Female protagonists were more likely to appear in comedies (28 percent), followed by dramas (24 percent), horror films (17 percent), animated features (14 percent), science fiction (14 percent) and action films (3 percent).

One factor that appeared to make a difference — the presence of women writers and directors. In films with at least one woman director and/or writer, women comprised 57 percent of protagonists. In films with exclusively male directors and writers, females accounted for just 18 percent of protagonists.

In films with a woman behind the camera, women also comprised 38 percent of major characters and 38 percent of all speaking characters.