Women are finally moving to the center of the frame. From Amy Adams’ steely, alien-decipherer in “Arrival” to Felicity Jones’ rebellious warrior in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” actresses are driving the action in more Hollywood films. Though audiences are still more than twice as likely to see male characters than female ones on screen, change is coming, and quickly too.
Females made up 29% of protagonists in the 100 highest-grossing films of 2016, according to a new study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. That’s a 7% rise from 2015 levels in the number of star turns by women and represents a recent historical high.
Women also found themselves better represented in ensembles, with actresses making up 37% of major characters in the most popular films, a 3 percentage points jump from the previous year, and another historical high. The percentage of female characters in speaking roles was essentially flat at 32%, down one percentage point from 2015.
The findings were released in the wake of a larger debate about inclusion and gender equity that has engulfed the media business in recent years. Actresses like Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence have spoken out about the pay discrepancy between top female talent and their male counterparts, while social media campaigns have been launched to protest red carpet coverage for sexist questions about fashion choices.
The change isn’t just about quelling the Twitter furor. Studios have also found that female-driven projects are connecting with audiences. “Moana,” “Hidden Figures,” “Bad Moms,” and “The Girl on the Train” are just a few of the recent commercial successes that have featured strong roles for women. Major film franchises such as Star Wars have benefitted from featuring female protagonists, while the coming years will see comic book movies like “Wonder Woman” and “Captain Marvel” that boast women heroes.
“We have now seen over and over and over that female characters, when done well, they’re good box office,” said Martha Lauzen, the center’s director and the author of the study.
Gone are the days when women were only featured figuring out ways to land Mr. Right, she noted.
“They’re not being relegated to a single genre like romantic comedies,” said Lauzen. “Their fate is not tied to the fortunes of a single genre, and that suggests a more stable pattern.”
Female protagonists were most likely to appear in comedies (28%), dramas (24%), horror films (17%), animated features (14%), and science fiction films (14%). They were least likely to be in action films, with only 3% of those movies having female leads.
However, these changes do not appear to be leading to more opportunities for female filmmakers. Behind the camera, things actually got worse. Women comprised just 7% of all directors working on the 250 highest-grossing domestic releases in 2016, a decline of two percentage points from the level achieved in 2015 and in 1998, according to an earlier study by the center.
“It is possible that this is something of a quirk that we will not see repeated in the future,” said Lauzen. “It is also possible that introducing female protagonists is somehow an easier, less threatening fix than hiring women directors and writers.”
That could be a problem when it comes to offering up meaty roles for women. Films with at least one female director featured higher percentages of female protagonists, characters, and speaking roles. Women played the lead in 57% of films from women directors, but when men were calling the shots, they only accounted for 18% of protagonists.
The advances in roles for women didn’t necessarily translate into more racial diversity. The number of Asian female characters doubled to 6% in 2016, while the number of Black female characters role a percentage point to 14%. Yet the number of Latina characters fell from 4% to 3%.
The movie business may be providing more opportunities for actresses, but the roles they are offered do confirm to certain gender stereotypes. On film, female characters are less likely than men to be shown working, and aren’t often portrayed as leaders. They also tend to be younger than the men they share the screen with.
“We’re more likely to know the occupational status of men in film and we’re more likely to know the marital status of women,” said Lauzen.