Rey, Diana Prince, and Belle may have anchored some of the biggest box office hits of 2017, but they were the exception to the rule. Hollywood’s glass ceiling remained firmly in place as studios failed to back female-dominated movies last year, according to a new study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.
In 2017, just 24% of protagonists in the 100 highest grossing films were women. That was a drop of five percentage points from 29% in 2016. The decline comes as a surprise given that the three most popular films last year, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Wonder Woman,” all had female lead characters. “Wonder Woman” also happened to be the first major studio comic book movie about a female superhero and boasted a female director in Patty Jenkins. Other hit movies such as “Girls Trip,” “Fifty Shades Darker,” and “The Post” also offered meaty roles for women, and Oscar pundits noted that the best actress category in 2017 was filled with more worthy candidates than the lead actor race, a sign that things were improving.
And yet, male characters continue to dominate the films in theaters. Indeed, the study found that moviegoers were more than twice as likely to see male characters on the big screen than female ones. There’s even a gender gap when it comes to who gets to open their mouth at the multiplexes. Seventy-nine percent of the top 100-grossing films had 10 or more male characters with speaking roles. In contrast, only 32% of the most popular films featured 10 or more female characters with lines to say.
There was some good news when it comes to diversity. The percentages of female characters of color reached record levels in 2017 — the number of black women increased from 14% in 2016 to 16% in 2017; the number of Latinas more than doubled from 3% in 2016 to 7% in 2017, and the percentage of Asian women increased a percentage point to 7% in 2017.
It definitely seemed to be a big studio problem. Indie films were much more likely to provide actresses with starring roles, a sign that companies are reticent to back big-budget films with female leads despite the historic popularity of “The Hunger Games,” “Twilight,” and other women-centric franchises. Sole female protagonists were more likely to appear in independent features (65%) than studio features (35%), while male protagonists were more likely to pop up in studio features (54%) than in art house fare (46%).
Genre also played a role, with studios backing more comedies and dramas with female protagonists than action films, horror films, animated features, and other types of movies.
Women also weren’t granted the same opportunity to age gracefully on screen as men. The bulk of female characters were in their twenties. At the same time, 46% of all male characters were over the age of 40, while 29% of all female characters were more than forty years old.