Speaking roles for female characters in film still lag behind those for male characters, study finds

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Constance Wu, left, and Awkwafina appear in a scene from “Crazy Rich Asians.”

To Dr. Martha Lauzen, 2018 may be remembered as the year when all wasn’t quite as it seemed for female film characters.

While the number of female protagonists rebounded last year, reaching a recent historical high, the percentages of females as speaking characters and major characters remained relatively stagnant, according to Lauzen’s latest “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World” report. Lauzen is the executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

While only 35 percent of the top-grossing films featured 10 or more female characters in speaking roles in 2018, 82 percent had 10 or more male characters in speaking roles, according to the new report.

Females comprised 35 percent of speaking (major and minor) characters, up 1 percentage point from 34 percent in 2017, and 36 percent of major characters, down 1 percentage point from 2017.

Generally speaking, major characters appear in more than one scene and are instrumental to the action of the story, according to the study.

The percentage of films featuring female protagonists rose to 31 percent. This represents an increase of 7 percentage points from 24 percent in 2017, and slightly surpasses the previous high of 29 percent achieved in 2016. It is a recent historical high.

“2018 may be remembered as the year in which things were not quite as they appeared for female characters,” Lauzen said in a statement. “While female protagonists rebounded last year, slightly besting the previous high achieved in 2016, the percentages of females as speaking characters and major characters remained relatively stagnant. Protagonists are the characters from whose perspective the story is told and so seeing more females in these roles is tremendously important. However, we are not seeing similar gains in the broader populations of major characters and in all speaking roles.”

The study indicates that films continue to depict a world that is mostly male, even though that doesn’t reflect the reality of the relatively even gender split in the population.

Regarding race and ethnicity, the percentage of black females in speaking roles increased from 16 percent in 2017 to 21 percent in 2018. This is a recent historical high.

The percentage of Latina characters declined from 7 percent in 2017 to 4 percent in 2018.

The percentage of Asian females characters increased from 7 percent in 2017 to 10 percent in 2018.

However, Lauzen noted, “This increase is due largely to one film, ‘Crazy Rich Asians.’ When this film is excluded from the analysis, Asians accounted for 8 percent of females, only 1 percentage point above the 7 percent achieved in 2017.”

Female protagonists were most likely to appear in comedies (32 percent), followed by dramas (29 percent), horror films (19 percent), science fiction features (10 percent), action features (7 percent), and films in other genres (3 percent).

“Female protagonists were distributed throughout the top 100 films, appearing in comedies such as ‘Life of the Party’ and ‘The Spy Who Dumped Me,’ dramas including ‘A Simple Favor’ and ‘The Hate U Give,’ as well as in horror features such as ‘Halloween’ and ‘Hereditary.’ Their appearance in a variety of genres suggests female characters are being woven more deeply into all types of stories. If a particular genre temporarily falls out of favor, it is less likely that substantial numbers of female protagonists will disappear from the big screen,” Lauzen said in a statement.

Not surprisingly, films with at least one woman director and/or writer featured higher percentages of female protagonists, major female characters and females in speaking roles than films with exclusively male directors and/or writers.

For example, in films with at least one woman director and/or writer, females comprised 57 percent of protagonists. In films with exclusively male directors and/or writers, females accounted for 21 percent of protagonists.

This year’s study reports the findings of a content analysis of more than 2,500 characters appearing in the 100 top domestic grossing films of 2018. Overall, the study considers the representation of more than 18,500 characters appearing in approximately 800 films released between 2002 and 2018.

The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University conducts an extensive agenda of original research on women working on screen and behind the scenes. Over the last two decades, Dr. Lauzen has produced groundbreaking research reports including “The Celluloid Ceiling,” examining women’s employment as directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers (since 1998), and “Thumbs Down,” considering the gender of film critics and why it matters (since 2007), as well as other studies.

-BAM

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