Study Finds Fewer Lead Roles for Women in Hollywood

Women in Hollywood: Study Finds Fewer
Image courtesy of Lionsgate

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I,” “Gone Girl” and “Maleficent” are powered by indelible female protagonists and rank among the biggest films of last year, but women are still treated like second-class citizens when it comes to most Hollywood movies, according to a new study.

They’re the girlfriend, the mother or the wife. Their value is determined in relation to the people they bed, marry or birth.

The gender gap is documented in new research by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University that found that females comprised a paltry 12% of protagonists in the top-grossing films of 2014. Over the past decade, the situation has gotten worse, not better. The latest figures represent a drop of three percentage points from 2013 and a fall of four percentage points from 2002.

The success that actresses such as Shailene Woodley and Melissa McCarthy had with films such as “Divergent” and “Tammy” in 2014 threatens to minimize this particular glass ceiling.

“There is a growing disconnect or gap between what we might perceive as being the current status of women in film and their actual status,” said Dr. Martha Lauzen, the center’s executive director and the study’s author. “A few high-profile cases can skew our thinking.”

It’s not just a matter of having their names above the title. In secondary roles, females are underrepresented, comprising 29% of major characters and 30% of all speaking characters. That’s the same percentages as in 2013, but does represent a two percentage point increase over 2002’s figures.

Male dominance in this arena is out of touch with the demographics of the moviegoing population, given that women buy half of the tickets sold each year. What they’re seeing on screen are women who are less defined than their male counterparts.

A larger percentage of male characters were shown in the workplace — 59% to 41% — while 85% of men had identifiable jobs, compared to 75% of women. Sixty one percent of male characters were identified only by their professional roles, whereas only 34% of females have that kind of designation. In contrast, 58% of females were identified by the roles they assume in their personal lives such as wives or mothers. That’s the case for only 31% of male characters.

Women are also younger than men on screen; the majority are in their 20s (23%) and 30s (30%). Men over 40 accounted for 53% of characters whereas women that age represented 30%. That has implications for the number of female authority figures onscreen.

“As we grow older, we gain personal as well as professional power,” said Lauzen. “When we keep them young, we keep them relatively powerless.”

The center’s report comes on the heels of a recent study that examined the dearth of female directors, screenwriters and other behind-the-camera talent. That examination into employment found that over the past 17 years, the number of women directing the 250 top-grossing films declined by 2%.

That may explain, at least in part, the problems with the way women are presented onscreen. In films with at least one female director or writer, women comprised 37% of all speaking characters, but in films written and directed by men, they represented 28% of speaking characters. Moreover, 39% of protagonists in films from female writers and directors were women, whereas women were 4% of the lead characters in films from male filmmakers.

“People tend to create what they know and having lived their lives as females, women tend to be drawn to female characters,” said Lauzen. “We need to have greater diversity behind the scenes if this is going to change.”

Filed Under:

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 34

Leave a Reply


Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

  1. joannazforbes says:

    Nice article, Thank you! I feel women roles are more memorable to than men to be honest. I remember movies such as Pippi Longstocking, Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, Kill Bill, Electra and even Nikita. It is hard to wrap my head that there has not been much since and not having women falling into tropes. Gone Girl was intense and the ending was just crazy to the point it ruined it a little. Some women fall into classic movie tropes and that is an unfortunate pattern. People get stuck in that past and that may be part the problem.

  2. Thank you for writing this. It was a great source for my article on rape culture. Keep writing! :)

  3. Ultima Thule says:

    And what is wrong with the fact, that women have womanish roles and men have mannish roles?

    I don’t get the point …

  4. Of course this study is all about Hollywood and all about recent years. But please lest forget the history of cinema, which is full of movies with strong female leads, both in English language productions (Gone with the Wind, What ever happened to Baby Jane?, Breakfast at Tiffany, All about Eve, Who is afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Rebecca, The Innocents, Marnie, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Terminator, The Hours, The Piano, Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion, Kill Bill, Juno, Lara Croft, Bridesmaid, Black Swan, Girl interrupted, An angel at my table, Gravity, Alice in wonderland, Orlando, The man who cried, etc.) and in non-English language productions (Two Women, Cabiria’s Nights, Juliet of the Spirits, Belle de Jour, the Piano Teacher, Les Diaboliques, Amelie, All about my mother, Volver, Women on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Dogville, Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the dark, Persona, Whispers and Cries, Girlhood, Tomboy, Blue is the warmest colour, etc.). Some of these movies are quite old, but they have the undeniable status of ‘classics’. Other, more recent movies, are not box office success because they are meant for a restricted audience with finer tastes in cinema: these movies are not crowd-pleaser, but they are very intelligent movies anyway. And to be honest, I think that quality is far better than quantity or box-office success. ‘Successful movies’ often are very dumb action-packed plotless blockbuster. I prefer watching movies with more real, three-dimensional characters (both female and male characters). Also, I do not focus only on Hollywood, that’s just insulting for the good cinema of all the rest of the world!

  5. Mrs. JQP says:

    I know this is shocking news for feminists, but the rest of us gladly find our fulfillment in relation to being married and being mothers. And most of us neither are nor aspire to be high-powered executives with 70-hour workweeks, or sociopathic murderers, or death-defying spies, or monster-battling heroes, so the lack of women represented on those roles is more a reflection of reality.

    Sorry, but we really don’t want to see Jamie Bond, Annabel Lecter, Mary Potter, Frederica Krueger, Greta Gekko, Martha Vader, Jilly Wonka, or the Terminatrix.

    • Wren Lov says:

      Feminists don’t care about what you choose to do with your life, hon. Mainly that it’s YOUR decision out of the growing opportunities at your fingertips.

      As for those fem takes on classic characters, I would expect some more original concepts for ladies, just like those were for men. No body want’s to see them either, rest assured.

  6. David says:

    Every single movie today has strong females. Its getting tiresome cause its all fantasy roles.

  7. Lin Brennan says:

    But I do agree with the behind the cameras stats. Still mainly males. And that should also change as more women hopefully will be given opportunities. But this is a national problem, not just Hollywood.

  8. Lin Brennan says:

    Oh, come one. Much better roles for women now than in the 1950’s. How many women truly carry a film. Only a handful. This is really getting old, much better to address the entire widespread salary differentials in all industries than Hollywood. And if it is an ensemble cast, then Friends proved that as a bargaining unit, you can address the disparities. Really tired of the Hollywood fixation when this has been an issue across the board since World War II when more women entered the workplace to begin with.

  9. Dan4433 says:

    It’s really hard to say what those statistics really mean, if anything…. “females comprised a paltry 12% of protagonists in the top-grossing films of 2014″… only counting the top grossing films is probably misleading to begin with. And I suspect they only counted the top grossing films (which tend to be action films) because it makes the numbers come out “better”. What if you included romances instead of limiting your study to action films?… And exactly how do you count someone as a “main protagonist”? For instance, the superhero movies always do well, but if you’re counting Thor as a main protagonist, but not counting the female superhero even though she has equal camera time and is just as central to the plot, then you’re not counting or assessing things honestly or fairly.

    I could also point out that women dominate TV now. Flip through the channels any night and take casual notice of how many shows on network TV revolve around female central characters. But no one cares about that, do they?…. It’s funny how we suddenly don’t need “equality” anymore when women are coming out ahead.

    I think studies like these are inherently biased. When you’ve already determined what your answer is before you ever even start doing any research, then your research and conclusions are not reliable or honest (and come on, let’s not be naive about the motivation and agenda surrounding studies like this… I’ll sure everyone already knew what the conclusion was before they even started reading the article ) If you can pick and choose your statistics, and choose what to count and what not to count, then of course you can massage the numbers and make them say pretty much anything you want. But that’s not good research.

  10. Chris says:

    With movies in general this isn’t such a bad problem. But movies directed at children as well as popular content from Japan (a country that is struggling with worse issues of sexism than the Western World) like anime/manga, the problem is severe.

    With movies or television series for children you could look at almost any example. Male protagonists have various roles in series of varying genres, but it’s so often where you get the role of “woman” designated to a character. You can see her being beautiful and fashion-conscious while also being the voice of reason and the chick who says “oh boy” while rolling her eyes at the other male characters. It’s pathetic and makes me cringe to see her, I actually hate her. Alvin and the Chipmunks had a love interest for the main human as the primary female character. Later the Chipettes showed up as exact copies of the Chipmunks, perfect love interests. At least the fat female copy was also fat, and I suppose the fact they had head-hair long enough for pony-tails to help translate their roles as women isn’t a sin for this point either.

    Spongebob Squarepants has much more male characters than females (like most cartoons), but I’m not going to bag it out cause it’s a good show. Sandy Cheeks would have to be the most main of the females and as a way to tip their hat to feminism the writers made her not only a brilliant scientific inventor but a physically tough karate-expert. But sometimes I feel that instead of making balanced realistic female characters we go to the extreme to make them not authentic women but super-women. Showing more and more secret agent women hijack vehicles and beat up men all the time just feels like women are still being fetishized and sexualized to me – just in a different way. Issues of shows directed at children might not interest you readers so much but unless a show is specifically directed at girls (meaning very little boys will watch it), female characters are extremely underrepresented in mainstream shows (a lot more girls would watch shows with mostly males than boys would with shows with mostly females). This affects children who grow up learning of male/female roles in popular media.

    ‘Shonen’ anime – that being Japanese cartoons targeted at boys and young men that is very popular in the Western World too – are terrible with their lead females. They are oversexualized and underpowered in the extreme. I can’t believe how many times I see enormous breasts being a defining point in what makes a female character. Sickening. In the manga (Japanese comic) for ‘One Piece’ the main female has quite small breasts, as the series progresses they grow to become huge. And this is a grown woman. In the anime ‘Naruto’ I feel that the writer Kishimoto attempts to create strong female characters but is limited by his own sexist culture and understanding. All of the strong female characters I see are almost always overshadowed by men in some way. And I feel it’s like making situations where they become vulnerable is what allows readers to accept and identify them as women.

    What I want to see is more women characters – not relatives/love interests, or sexualised/sexless objects, or superwomen, but real live women characters. I really get the feeling that men just don’t know what to do with women in their movies/programs, and since women get more exposure to men in movies/programs that is why they can relate so much more to them (as we saw over half of the protagonists in movies written by women are still male). As a man myself who has close women friends I would recommend both males and females make friends of the opposite gender (and try to keep yourself as just friends) and allow the horizons of your understanding to broaden.

  11. RBBrittain says:

    I know there’s always been a shortage of good female roles, but the picture on this article suggests the problem is JLaw taking all the good ones. :p

  12. They just noticed this now. Mismatching due to popularity has been going on for the longest time.

    Jake Gyllenhaal, a caucasian, was Prince of Persia. Scarlett Johansson because of her Black Widow role is now a sudden bad-ass. Then there is a lot of political correctness going into some of these films like changing genders and races of characters that go against what comic enthusiasts enjoy and are use to such as the Human Torch suddenly an African American or making Dr. Doom a female after one speculation. There are certain constants that must not change in order to keep a medium consistent to what it truly is. Hollywood underestimates the devotion we have to our art and often try to sway us to like what they like. Instead of producing what we like, they’re producing and telling us what we should like. Often time a money gimmick. They can’t be faulted for that. Ethics, morals, and principles are often called into question though.

    It also gets annoying to see the same actors over and over again. I don’t even want to see another Brad Pitt movie because I think he is in waaaaay too many movies as it is and feel as if he is an automatic go to guy. Good for him he keeps working though. I respect him as an actor. But I want variety.

  13. Well, there it is….we finally found the elusive “war on women” and what do you know – it’s Hollywood that’s the instigator.

  14. Mike says:

    Seriously? Someone needed to commission a “study” to identify this issue? Hollywood has been, is, and will be out of touch for the foreseeable future until such time as it learns how to make, market and distribute quality movies at a reasonable price point that appeal to EVERYONE.

  15. Mallory K says:

    ‘Sixty one percent of male characters were identified only by their professional roles,…’

    Call me crazy, but that doesn’t sound like a plus point for male characters…

  16. Daryle says:

    As a consumer, all I can say is Amen. Jupiter Ascending excellent example….there you have a female TITLE character….yet Mila Kunis is given SO LITTLE to do. And there are some male directors, some very famous ones, who can’t seem to figure out what to do with a woman in a movie (unless she can play an action hero). They produce flick after flick that just doesn’t appeal to a female audience. And it seems like whenever someone does do a movie that prominently displays female talent, it’s automatically dubbed a “chick flick,” whether it is or not. The fault doesn’t lie with any one person or group…but to say that women just have to get out there and do it simply ignores the power structure that exists and prevents. There are some respected women directors, but few are ever honored even when they manage to get something good out there. And if The Hurt Locker hadn’t hadn’t been a very testosterone-friendly movie, I don’t THAT female director would have been recognized either.

  17. Atomic Fury says:

    You can’t expect much imagination from Hollywood. The “same” movies are issued each year with different titles and a different cast. Every film I’ve seen since the 1980’s is predictable. The insane ticket prices and lack of depth has kept me away since “Road To Perdition”.

  18. david sauers says:

    There are roles out there like in – The Legacy of Avril Kyte. The problem is most talent’s reps make it next to impossible to get them the script to for review. In turn their client works less. There are a lot of great actresses out there. It’s a vicious cycle.

  19. Guest says:

    Atrocious and ridiculous. All the old white males who greenlight films and commission scripts are to blame, all the Industry people who don’t do enough to care about and foster female writers and directors are to blame, and putting Jennifer Lawrence in everything isn’t the solution. Foster more female stars of all age. Switch roles from men to women. It’s not hard to fix this – but everyone has to do their part. So fix it. Women are not a niche market.

    • Ultima Thule says:

      And what about the spectators? Do they have something to say ? Maybe poeple do not want to watch female heroines and they want to watch heros instead?

    • Chris says:

      Well said, women are not a niche market. I think if more focus is put on diversifying and strengthening females characters then that in itself will help foster more female writers and directors – they will be drawn more to the business.

  20. Brian Wiley says:

    Instead of complaining and doing studies. It’s time to make a film, ladies. People respect do’ers not complainers. There is no such thing as people waiting to step down or aside so another person can succeed. not in this industry especially, where tomorrow is never promised. I love my strong female leads who use brains over sexuality. it’s time to get out there and compete. The numbers will get better.

    • Atomic Fury says:

      Agreed. In today’s society too many think that the price of advancement should be a cost paid by (and an effort undertaken by) someone else. One of your responders suggested that (I paraphrase here) there is some impenetrable wall that women cannot get through. I find it hard to believe that with the money paid out to female stars some of them can’t find a way to form a conglomerate with the sole purpose of establishing a new studio – not unlike Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and others did back in the day. To gain respect in the world, one must earn it.

    • Guest says:

      wow brian you’re an idiot

    • Josh says:

      Umm, the studios are in charge of what goes out. Don’t come out and blame the “ladies” for not doing it. There is only so much they can do.

      So yeah, your patronizing comments make zero sense.

      • lith says:

        @Atomic Fury:
        When someone’s refusing to hire you and you lack the resources to do it yourself (hint, women have a much smaller portion of the wealth than men and have a lot less money to throw at making a film) and people ignore you when you say that, hey, this isn’t exactly fair, what do you suggest women do?

        What guys are doing is, “Here, let me help you be heard by that idiot over there that won’t listen to women”.
        What you’re seeing is, “Step back there little lady, I’ll handle this for you”.

        The second is patronising, the first isn’t.

      • Atomic Fury says:

        Actually, you’re the one who patronizes women. You make them seem to be helpless lambs who can’t get it done.

      • Ben says:

        Thanks Josh agreed. Women are fighting and clawing trying to get scripts made, to direct scripts, to be “do-ers” but they’re blocked every step of the way. You’re part of the problem Brian YOU step up

  21. Gary says:

    You needed a study? Really?

More Film News from Variety