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Percentage of Female Protagonists in Film ‘Slightly’ Increases, Report Finds

Last Updated: July 1, 2023
After facing its flawed ethos, Hollywood still under-represents minority communities, according to report from San Diego State’s Center of the Study of Women in Television and Film.

The pandemic shifted Hollywood in transformative ways: the industry reckoned with its moral compass, cost of film production spiked as box office sales understandably plummeted, and streamers capitalized on it all. A new study is now unveiling that in spite of the industry’s changing climate, women experienced only a slight increase in the role of protagonists across films from 2020 to 2021. 

The latest finding comes from “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World,” a comprehensive report from Dr. Martha M. Lauzen for the San Diego State’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. The slight increase in female protagonists — 29% in 2020 to 31% in 2021 — is just one thread of a complex web. 

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In the top 100 domestic grossing films, a soaring 85% of films featured more male than female characters, whereas a disconcerting 7% of films had more female than male characters. The foundational bias woven into the film space seems to persist as a whopping 66% of men are speaking characters in these films. 

The surmised bias also trickles down to the struggles with representation. “In 2021, 60.6% of female characters in speaking roles were White (down from 71.0% in 2020), 19.3% were Black (up from 16.9% in 2020),” Lauren writes. “9.5% were Latina (up from 5.8% in 2020), 8.4% were Asian or Asian American (up from 6% in 2020), 0.3% were Native American, 0.5 were MENA, and 1.4% were of multiple races or ethnicities.”

Skewed representation for minorities were similar amongst male characters in speaking roles, with Black, Latinx, Asian and Native Americans comprising a collective 35.6%. These findings confirm that minority communities are still largely exiled to the margins. 

The link between on-screen and off-screen representation is apparent. “Films with at least one woman director and/or writer were more likely than films with no women in these roles to feature higher percentages of females as protagonists, in major roles, and as speaking characters,” Lauzen writes. 

In films with at least one woman director and/or writer, females comprised 57% of protagonists and 41% of major characters. Contrastingly,  in films with exclusively male directors and/or writers, females accounted for 19% of protagonists and 33% of major characters.