Study: Female Protagonists on the Rise in Hollywood — but the Majority Are White

Stars Wars Rey Identity
Courtesy of Disney

Maybe it’s the post-“Hunger Games” effect, but the likes of Katniss Everdeen, Rey and the Black Widow are making some dents in Hollywood’s glass ceiling. But it’s not good news for everyone.

Though the number of female protagonists in major films trails that of men, women comprised 22% of leads in the top 110 grossing films, 34% of major characters, and 33% of all speaking characters, according to research by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. The number of protagonists increased 6% from last year and represented a recent high. The number of major characters and speaking parts saw increases of 5 and 3 percentage points, respectively.

The study’s results were calculated as a number of female-driven films such as Amy Schumer’s “Trainwreck,” the erotic drama “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and Disney’s live-action “Cinderella” enjoyed strong box office results. They weren’t alone. Many recent action-oriented films, a genre traditionally dominated by men, also feature female leads, among them “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and, of course, “The Hunger Games” franchise.

But women didn’t just play heroes. They were villains too, with actresses comprising 18% of antagonists — the first time the center has ever tracked villain roles.

“The numbers were definitely moving in the right direction,” said Martha Lauzen, the study’s author and the center’s executive director. “What is not clear is whether or not 2015 was a bit of an anomaly or whether this is the beginning of a longer-term trend.”

It wasn’t progress across the board. Many top-grossing films were awash in gender stereotypes. Moviegoers were more likely to know what male characters did for a living than female characters, and were more likely to be told a female character’s marital status. A larger portion of men (64% to 44%) were depicted in a work setting than women; 78% of male characters had identifiable jobs compared to 61% of females.

At a time when the monochromatic nature of Oscar nominees is creating controversy and boycott threats, the center’s study reveals that most of the major female characters are played by Caucasians. In a sign of the lack of racial diversity, the percentages of female characters of color were largely unchanged, with a slight increase in black female characters (from 11% in 2014 to 13% in 2015), no change in the percentage of Latina characters (flat at 4%), and a drop in the percentage of Asian female characters (from 4% to 3%).

The roles that actresses of color landed were less prominent. Twenty-seven percent of characters portrayed by black, Latina or Asian actresses were considered major roles, whereas 38% of those played by white actresses were significant parts.

Having women behind the camera made a big difference in how females were represented on screen. Females comprised 40% of all speaking roles in films with at least one female director and/or writer. They made up 30% of speaking parts in films from male directors and writers. Women were the protagonists in 50% of films from female directors and/or writers, but only 13% of the protagonists in films from male directors.

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  1. Jeff says:

    Do we *really* need to explain how probability works again?

  2. Bryan says:

    This Variety article really bothers me. It fails to put in context what the racial breakdown in the USA is.
    13.2% of the country is African American, so while there may be a problem with the size of the roles, black women do have a proporitionate share of roles. However the Latino and Asian communities are far more underepresented. They also do not factor in age discrimination (far more prevalent against women in hollywood) or not heteronormative identities

  3. Fangirl says:

    Okay, and what is wrong with that? Nothing. Especially since we’re talking book adaptations and Disney remakes. The original characters are white, of course the movie/new version’s characters are going to be white, too. Let’s not create issues where there aren’t any.

  4. Spike says:


    • Movie Lover says:

      And why were they white in the originals anyway? Because of racism! Black women, then and now have hardly been represented as leads and its a fact! White women get all the benefits, black women get nothing but a few comedy roles, even that is rare! In the 1930s the only role black women had was that of house maid while there were many white women lead roles even then, and even after all this years we have black women lead roles! The reason is because most producers/directors are white and think people will find blacks ugly. Beauty is subjective, and thats racist and anyone who disagree is a racist because it is a century old fact!

  5. Nanny Mo says:

    it the shows make money, then hurray! If they don’t, then all the industry suffers and then there is less money to go around and then women, grind houses, art houses and token actors suffer and then we blame racism and white America. Let’s see if it works this time around.

  6. Daniel says:

    Instead of actually creating a role for a woman just study statistics and highlight your incompetence. That will progress women further.

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