Despite more female leads in 2019, men still get two-thirds of cinematic speaking roles

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Brie Larson in a scene from “Captain Marvel.”

Women made “unprecedented gains” as protagonists in the top-grossing films of 2019, but “moviegoers are still almost twice as likely to see a male character as a female character in a speaking role,” according to a new report from San Diego State University.

The latest installment of the annual “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World” report found that women achieved “recent historic highs” as lead characters in last year’s biggest hits, according to Deadline.

The report specifies that “For the purposes of the study, protagonists are the characters from whose perspective the story is told. Major characters appear in more than one scene and are instrumental to the narrative of the story.”

In examining the 100 top-grossing feature films at the domestic box-office, the report reveals that the percentage of female protagonists rose from 31% in 2018 to 40% in 2019, “reaching a recent historic high.”

Females also accounted for 37% of major characters in last year’s top films – an increase of 1 percentage point from 36% in 2018.

Progress is good, but it’s important to note that males comprised 63% of major characters, and 66% of all speaking roles.

Females made up 34% of all speaking roles, a decrease of 1 percentage point from 35% in 2018. In speaking roles, men outnumbered women 2-to-1, Deadline reports, citing the study.

“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 M. Lauzen, the report’s author and the executive director of San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.

“That said, it is important to note that moviegoers are still almost twice as likely to see a male character as a female character in a speaking role.”

The report looked at more than 2,300 cinematic characters. Lauzen and her team found that women actors made significant gains last year on “studio features,” with 45% of sole female protagonists appearing in studio features, compared to 55% in indie films.

In 2018, females were more than twice as likely to appear in independent features than in studio features, 68% to 32%.

In 2019, the female roles were also slightly more diverse. Although it did not include data on Native Americans (which is telling), the report found that 68% of all female characters with speaking roles were White, 20% were Black, 5% were Latina, 7% were Asian, and 1% were of some other race or ethnicity.

The report found that 71% of all male characters were White, 15% were Black, 5% were Latino, 6% were Asian, and 3% were of some other race or ethnicity.

It comes as little surprise that the report also revealed that female characters tend to be significantly younger than their male co-stars. The majority of female characters were in their 20s (22%) and 30s (31%), while the majority of male characters were in their 30s (32%) and 40s (26%).

Actresses over 60 got only 6% of the female roles, compared to 9% for men of the same age. “Female characters experience a precipitous drop from their 30s to their 40s, and few women age into their 60s,” the report noted.

Other not particularly surprising findings in contrasting female vs. male movie characters: Male characters were more likely than female to be portrayed in primarily work-related roles (60% vs. 40%).

Female characters were more likely than male to be depicted in personal life-related roles (52% vs. 34%).

A larger proportion of male than female characters were seen actually working in their work setting, actually working (59% vs. 43%).

Female characters were more likely than male characters to have a known marital status: 46% of female characters vs. 34% of male characters had a known marital status.

Female characters accounted for just 26% of leaders in films, while males made up 74% of leaders. Characters classified as leaders were those individuals “who occupy a leadership position in an organization, government or group and whose instructions and/or behaviors are followed by two or more other characters,” according to the study.

Females were least likely to be portrayed as political leaders or leaders of criminal groups. Females were most likely to be leaders in professional jobs (67% vs. males 33%)

Female protagonists were most likely to appear in horror films (26%), followed by dramas (24%), comedies (21%), action features (16%), science fiction (8%), and animated features (5%). So, if you’re not a horror fan, maybe it’s time to become one.

Lauzen and her team once again showed that hiring more women as directors resulted in more women working in other key roles on films. According to the “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World” report, women accounted for 58% of protagonists in films with at least one female director and/or writer, but only 30% with exclusive male writers and directors.

As previously reported, Lauzen found in her latest “Celluloid Ceiling” report, which looks at behind-the-scenes employment of women in film, that of the 500 top grossing movies last year, 59% of those directed by women employed female writers, while on films with exclusively male directors, women were only 13% of their writers.

Women made up 43% of editors on films with at least one female director, but on movies with only male directors, women accounted for only 19% of editors. On films with at least one female director, women accounted for 21% of cinematographers, while on those with exclusively male directors, women were only 2% of cinematographers.

On movies with at least one female director, women made up 16% of composers, but only 6% on films with just male directors.

The conclusion once again seems clear: If you want more women working in film, having more women in the director’s chair is imperative.

To read the full “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World,” click here.



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