Number of female film protagonists drops in 2017, despite the blockbuster success of ‘Wonder Woman’ and other femme-led films

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Gal Gadot stars in "Wonder Woman." Warner Bros. photo

Gal Gadot stars in “Wonder Woman.” Warner Bros. photo

Who knew I’d get the answer to my question so quickly?

Last week, I wondered if the record-breaking, critical acclaim-nabbing and audience-thrilling success of Black Panther” – starring a black superhero and boasting a largely black cast — coupled with last year’s record-breaking, critical acclaim-nabbing and audience-thrilling success of last year’s “Wonder Woman” – which finally gave female filmgoers a superhero in their own image – would be enough to move the needle in Hollywood, proving once and for all that inclusion sells and that movies should become more diverse, if for the sake of profit than nothing else.

Apparently, the answer is no, it’s not enough, at least not yet.

The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University released its annual “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World” on Thursday, and according to the Associated Press, the number of female protagonists was down 5 percent in 2017’s 100 top-grossing films.

This year’s study found that females comprised 24 percent of protagonists last year, down from 29 percent in 2016. As previously reported, not only was the highest grossing movie of the year fronted by a female character – again – the top three films of 2017 were all women-led stories.

Disney/Lucasfilm’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” and Warner Bros.’ “Wonder Woman” were the three high-grossing movies of last year, and as the Los Angeles Times reports, these femme-led films combined produced more than $1.5 billion in domestic ticket sales.

Dan Stevens plays The Beast, left, and Emma Watson plays Belle in the live-action adaptation of the animated classic "Beauty and the Beast." Disney photo

Dan Stevens plays The Beast, left, and Emma Watson plays Belle in the live-action adaptation of the animated classic “Beauty and the Beast.” Disney photo

Apparently, it was not enough to make Hollywood make more movies with women as the main character.

“In an awards season when talk about women and gender has been top of mind, we need to separate hyperbole from reality,” said Martha Lauzen, executive director of the San Diego State center.

Professor Lauzen’s study, conducted annually since 2002, covered 2,361 characters portrayed in the top-100 grossing films domestically. Audiences last year were almost twice as likely to see male characters on screen as female characters, according to the LA Times.

Keep in mind that having the year’s top-grossing movie led by a female character has become downright commonplace over the past few years: As previously reported, The “Star Wars” prequel spin-off “Rogue One,” with Felicity Jones in the lead, was the highest grossing film of 2016. In 2015, the top-grossing movie was the “The Last Jedi’s” predecessor, “The Force Awakens,” also starring Daisey Ridley as the lead character of Rey.

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1,” starring Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, finished 2014 as the highest grossing film. It held on to the title until March 2015, when Clint Eastwood’s Christmas Day 2014 release “American Sniper” finally overtook it. But the previous installment of “The Hunger Games,” held on to the highest grossing spot for the previous year, 2013.

Still, Lauzen’s 2017 study determined that while 32 percent of films featured 10 or more female characters in speaking roles, 79 percent had 10 or more male characters, according to the AP.

Women made up 37 percent of major characters — a broader category that includes actors who were not primary protagonists — in those top-grossing films in the U.S. and Canada, according to the LA Times.

Major characters were defined as those that appeared in more than one scene and were important to the film’s plot. Male characters accounted for nearly two-thirds of the major roles.

Men also were more likely to be portrayed in movies in work settings and as leaders than women.

“Despite the visibility of female leads in the top three grossing films of 2017, the overall percentage of female protagonists declined,” Lauzen said in a statement. “The numbers do not yet reflect claims of a tectonic or massive shift in the film industry.”

The LA Times’ Meg James noted that statistical improvements in the number of women depicted in cinema may not be evident for years because it usually takes two or more years for a film to get made. But Lauzen’s studies have been going on for more than a decade and a half, and the stats remain just dreadful.

The study chronicles modest progress made among women of color. Among characters with speaking roles, the percentage of black females increased to 16 percent in 2017 from 14 percent in the year before. Latinas in the top-grossing films more than doubled to 7 percent, up from 3 percent. And the percentage of Asian females increased to 7 percent, up from 6 percent.

Nonetheless, about 70 percent of all speaking roles went to white female and male actors.

It’s the reason why Ava DuVernay has cautioned against thinking that Hollywood has finally solved its diversity problems, despite some high-profile victories.

Yes, three movies led by female protagonists topped the box-office in 2017. Yes, “Moonlight,” a film helmed by a black director and featuring a mostly black cast, won best picture last year. Yes, “Black Panther,” also directed by a black helmer and consisting of a largely black cast, just scored one of the best second weekends ever with an estimated $108 million in ticket sales, putting it on track to rank among the highest-grossing blockbusters ever, according to the AP.

But these are exceptions to the general rule in Hollywood.

Storm Reid stars in "A Wrinkle in Time." Disney photo

Storm Reid stars in “A Wrinkle in Time.” Disney photo

DuVernay is preparing to release March 9 Disney’s eagerly anticipated adaptation of the girl-led sci-fi youth novel “A Wrinkle in Time,” which as previously reported, has put her in the history books as the first woman of color to direct a film with a $100 million-plus budget.

“I’m an anomaly,” she told a mostly female gathering at W Hollywood on Friday night, kicking off the 2018 season of W Hotels’ What She Said speaker series, according to The Hollywood Reporter. “(‘Black Panther’s’) Ryan Coogler is an anomaly, (‘Moonlight’s’) Barry Jenkins is an anomaly, (‘Mudbound’s’) Dee Rees is an anomaly. When you can name us all on two hands, that’s not change.”

There’s been some progress, DuVernay said, but the system is broken.

“There was a time when Hollywood said, ‘We will tell your story,’” said DuVernay, pointing to films like “Glory” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which featured black characters but were made by white filmmakers. “That didn’t feel like what I knew as a black girl, but it’s an interpretation, not a reflection, and that’s valid. But we’re in a dynamic time right now, telling our own stories.”

But she said to be truly effective, just having a woman in the director’s chair if the rest of the crew is male is not enough.

“These are moments that are not sustainable unless there’s systemic change,” DuVernay said. “We sit on top of a broken system. Unless there is systemic change, we’re just the sparkly stuff on top that makes people feel good.”

According to The Hollywood Reporter, DuVernay praised “Wrinkle in Time” author Madeleine L’Engle as a “radical, interesting white woman” whose 1962 classic blended “social commentary, spirituality and spectacle.” At a recent dinner party, the director said she met someone who personally knew L’Engle, who died in 2007. DuVernay asked him, “What do you think she’d think of me directing this movie? With a black Meg (the book’s young female heroine, portrayed by Storm Reid)?” When he told her that L’Engle would have loved it, she said she burst into happy, relieved tears.

In addition to making her own films with capable, diverse women in front of and behind the camera, DuVernay is championing films made by other women and people of color through her six-year-old distribution platform Array, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

From left, Lupita Nyong'o, Chadwick Boseman and Letitia Wright star in "Black Panther." Marvel Studios photo

From left, Lupita Nyong’o, Chadwick Boseman and Letitia Wright star in “Black Panther.” Marvel Studios photo

“The only thing that instigates change is audiences saying, ‘We don’t want that anymore. ‘Black Panther,’ we want this,’” DuVernay said, adding that a good indication of progress beyond the surface will be, “Is this gonna do anything more than ‘Panther 2?’”

According to the AP, “Black Panther” is only the fourth film to earn $100 million in its second weekend, along with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” ($149.2 million), “Jurassic World” ($106.6 million) and “The Avengers” ($103.1 million). Only “The Force Awakens” had a better second weekend than “Black Panther,” which dropped 47 percent after its opening weekend of $201.8 million.

“Black Panther” has grossed $400 million domestically and $704 million worldwide in two weeks.

“Whatever your projections for ‘Black Panther’ might be, just increase them by 20 percent and you might be on point,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for comScore, told the AP. “Now the question isn’t so much if it gets to $1 billion, but how far beyond that number does it go.”

“Black Panther” has achieved its superheroic success by drawing a diverse audience: This weekend’s audience was 33 percent African-American, 37 percent Caucasian, 18 percent Hispanic and 7 percent Asian, according to comScore. The AP reports that “Black Panther” is even spurring a surge for the entire movie industry, with the overall box office up 12.5 percent from last year.

But will it ever be enough to actually cause real change in Hollywood?


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