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From ‘Captain Marvel’ to ‘Little Women,’ Record Number of Female Protagonists in 2019 (Study)

Change has come to the multiplex.

In 2019, “Captain Marvel,” “Little Women,” “Us,” and “Frozen 2” helped usher in a banner year for female protagonists. Women made unprecedented gains as the stars in the top grossing films with the percentage of female leads rising from 31% to 40%, 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 historic high. Forty three percent of films featured male protagonists, and 17% had ensembles. The study defines protagonists as the character whose perspective shapes the story.

Moreover, 45% of female protagonists appeared in studio features and 55% were in independent features. That’s marks a dramatic shift from 2018 when females were more than twice as likely to appear in independent features as studio features. It’s also a sign that the major studios may be responding to public pressure to tell a wider range of stories. There’s been a fierce debate in the industry about the reasons that movies have historically failed to tell stories about people of color, women, or members of the LGBTQ community, as well as spirited discussions about how to change things. Despite those gains, it’s worth noting that audiences are still twice as likely to see men on screen as women.

“We have now seen two consecutive years of substantial gains for female protagonists, indicating the beginning of a positive shift in representation,” said Dr. Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University and the study’s author.

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Women took more lead roles, but very little changed farther down the call sheet. In 2019, the percentage of females appearing as major characters and speaking characters remained stable. Women played 37% of major characters, a percentage point increase from the previous year, and 34% of all speaking characters, down a percentage point from 2018.

The picture wasn’t bright when it came to telling stories centered on women from underrepresented groups. The percentage of black females in speaking roles declined slightly from 21% in 2018 to 20% in 2019, while the percentage of Asian female characters reverted to 2017 levels at 7%. That figure had increased dramatically to 10% with the 2018 release of “Crazy Rich Asians.” The percentage of Latinas increased slightly from 4% in 2018 to 5% in 2019. Put another way, in 2019, 70% of major female characters were white, 18% were black, 6% were Latina, and 5% were Asian.

When it comes to genres, female protagonists were most likely to appear in horror features (26%), followed by dramas (24%), comedies (21%), action features (16%), science fiction features (8%), and animated features (5%). Male protagonists were most likely to appear in action features (26%), followed by dramas (24%), animated features (21%), comedies (14%), horror features (12%), and science fiction features (2%).

Movies with women still contend with many gender stereotypes. Female characters are more likely than male characters to reveal their marital status (46% vs. 34%), and men are more likely than women to have an identifiable occupation (73% vs. 61%). That also meant that male characters were more frequently depicted in their work setting than female characters (59% vs. 43%).

To get its results, the study analyzed over 2,300 characters appearing in the 100 top grossing domestic releases of 2019.

Last week, Lauzen released another study that found that women were also getting more opportunities to work behind the camera. It found that 20% directors, writers, producers, editors and cinematographers across the top 100 films of the year were women. That’s up 4% from 2018.

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