Female Roles In Top-Grossing Films Increased “Slightly” Last Year, Report Finds

The percentage of female characters portrayed in the 100 top domestic grossing films increased only “slightly” last year compared to 2021, according to the latest report from San Diego State. Last year, they accounted for 33% of the protagonists – up from 31% in 2021, but well below the 40% high-water mark achieved in 2019.

Women also made of 38% of the major characters – up from 35% in 2021, and 37% of all speaking roles – up from 34% the year before. The percentage of female speaking roles last year was an all-time high since the school began collecting data in 2002, when they received only 28% of all speaking roles.

Even so, only 11 of the top 100 films had more female than male characters; 9% had an equal number of female and male roles, while 80 of the films featured more male than female characters.

Read the full report here.

Black actresses in major roles fared well last year, accounting for 21.6% of all major female characters, which was up from 16.4% in 2021.  The percentage of major Latina characters, however, declined from 12.8% in 2021 to 7.0% in 2022, while the percentage of major Asian and Asian American females declined from 10% in 2021 to just 6.6% in 2022.

Dr. Martha Lauzen, the author of the report and founder and executive director of the school’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, noted that from 2020 to 2021, “The increases in the numbers of major Latina and female Asian American characters were due to films featuring higher concentrations of characters in these groups, such as In the Heights, West Side Story, and Raya and the Last Dragon.  However, the absence of similar films in 2022 caused the percentages of females in these groups to drop.”

With respect to all speaking roles, female characters of color were down in all but one racial or ethnic category last year, when 18% were Black – down from 19.3% the year before; 6.9% were Latina – down from 9.5% in 2021; 8.1% were Asian or Asian American – down from 8.4% a year earlier; 0.4% were of multiple races or ethnicities – down from 1.4% in 2021; 1.5% were of some other race or ethnicity, and none were Native American – down from 0.3% in 2021. The only group that saw any percentage gain last year was actors of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) descent – who got 0.8% of the roles compared to 0.5% in 2021. White female actors, meanwhile, got 64.2% of all female roles, which was up from 60.6% in 2021.

The report, called It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World, also found that ageism continues to hold sway in Hollywood, where female characters remain younger overall than their male counterparts, with the percentage of women in their 40s dropping from 20% in 2015 to only 14% in 2022.

“Age is not just an employment issue for actors,” Lauzen said. “When female and male characters are relatively young, they are less likely to hold positions of great personal or professional power. Viola Davis and Cate Blanchett are superb actors but they are also convincing, at least in part, because they have achieved the gravitas and life experience needed to play those roles.”

The report found that the majority of female characters portrayed in the top 100 films were in their 20s and 30s (56%), while the majority of male characters were in their 30s and 40s (59%). Male characters were more likely than females to be 40 or over – 53% males compared to 29% females.

And female characters portrayed in the top-grossing films experienced a precipitous drop from their 30s (36%) to their 40s (just 14%). The percentage of male characters in their 30s and 40s differed by only a single percentage point (30% vs. 29%). Male characters experienced a more substantial decline in numbers from their 40s (29%) to their 50s (15%), and there were slightly more male characters (9%) than female characters (7%) aged 60 and over.

According to the report, 12% of the top 100 films featured zero to four female characters in speaking roles; 51% had five to nine females, and 37% had 10 or more females. By comparison, only 4% of the films featured zero to four 4 male characters in speaking roles, 23% had five to nine males, and 74% had 10 or more males.

The report also found that female protagonists – characters from whose perspective the story is told – were most likely to appear in horror films (43%), followed by dramas (37%), action features (10%), animated features (3%), comedies (3%), and features in other genres (3%). Male protagonists were most likely to appear in action features (30%), followed by dramas (23%), comedies (19%), animated features (19%), science fiction features (4%), and horror features (4%).

Who directs and writes the movies – men or women – also plays a major role in who gets cast. According to the report, films with at least one female director and/or writer were more likely than films with no women in those roles to feature higher percentages of females as protagonists, in major roles, and as speaking characters. In films with at least one female director and/or writer, women accounted for 56% of protagonists, compared to 23% in films with exclusively male directors and/or writers; 45% of major characters compared to only 36% with exclusively male directors and/or writers, and 40% of all speaking characters, compared to 35% in films with exclusively male directors and/or writers.

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