Onscreen representation for women in film took a sharp dive in 2020, according to the latest “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World” report.
The analysis of the top 100 grossing films of 2020, released today by Dr. Martha Lauzen, reveal that only 29% of 2020’s top grossing films had female protagonists.
The percentage of female protagonists has dropped from 40% in 2019 to just 29% in 2020. The new data shows the lowest marks for films since 2017, when only 24% of top grossing films had female protagonists.
“As protagonists in films, females took a step back in 2020, after two consecutive years of growth,” said Lauzen, founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, revealing the team’s findings.
For the purposes of the study, the term “protagonist” refers to characters from whose perspective the story is told. This year’s study analyzed over 1,700 characters from the top 100 domestic grossing films of 2020; over all the study has looked at approximately 1,000 films released between 2002 and 2020.
In 2020, the movie business was dramatically affected by the pandemic and many women-led films that would’ve been expected to dominate the box office (like “Black Widow,” “Wonder Woman 1984,” and “Mulan”) were pushed from their original release dates, moved to a dual theatrical and streaming release or only made available via streaming services. The box office figures as measured in Lauzen’s study measure are based on top grossing films according to Box Office Mojo, as of Jan. 1, 2021.
“This decline is reflected in the low number of female-driven films nominated for a best picture Oscar,” Lauzen noted. “Only two films on this year’s slate of nominees, ‘Nomadland’ and ‘Promising Young Woman,’ feature female protagonists.”
Both “Nomadland” and “Promising Young Woman” were written and directed by women (Chloe Zhao and Emerald Fennell) respectively, a factor which Lauzen’s team has also considered. According to their findings, in films with at least one woman director and/or writer, female characters comprised 60% of protagonists. Female characters made up only 17% of protagonists in films with exclusively male filmmakers (directors or writers).
The study also evaluated the demographics of the female characters, measuring factors including age, race/ethnicity, marital and occupational status.
Women of color remain largely underrepresented on screen, where 71% of female characters in 2020 were white (up 3% from 2019), 17% of female characters were Black, 6% were Latina characters and 6% were Asian women.
Age played a major factor, too, with Lauzen affirming that “ageism remains an issue for women in film.”
Female characters were represented younger than their male counterparts, with the majority of female characters in their 20s (24%) and 30s (29%), while the majority of male characters were presented in their 30s (31%) and 40s (28%).
“We see a handful of mature female actresses and assume that ageism has declined in Hollywood. But unless your last name happens to be Streep or McDormand, chances are you’re not working much in film,” Lauzen stated. “The tendency to feature younger female characters in films emphasizes the value of their youth and appearance at the expense of allowing females to age into positions of personal and professional power.”
According to the study, male characters aged 40 and over accounted for 52% of all male characters, while only 32% of all female characters were 40 or older.
While the age comparison was drastically different, the comparison of race/ethnicity between male and female characters was largely even, where 71% and 73% of female and male characters were white (respectively) and 17% and 16% were Black. An even 6% of female and male characters were Latina/Latino, 6% and 4% were Asian and 1% were of another race or ethnicity.
For more information about the findings of this study or the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, visit http://womenintvfilm.sdsu.edu. Read the full report here.