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

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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