Number of female protagonists hits record high in 2016, still half that of men

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Feb 21, 2017

The gender makeup of movie protagonists remained depressingly unbalanced in 2016. According to a recent study from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University titled It's a Man’s (Celluloid) World: Portrayals of Female Characters in the Top 100 Films of 2016, while the number of female characters increased slightly last year, we are still a far cry from gender parity ... and the numbers only get more depressing the further you break them down.

The study takes a look at more than 2,500 characters across the 100 top-grossing films (domestically) of 2016 and compares them to the same numbers from the previous five years. Out of those films, 29% had a female protagonist, a 7% increase from 2015 and a historical high. This is great news. Any step toward gender parity in the film scene is a good thing, but 29% is still less than a third of all movie protagonists and barely more than half the 54% made up by men.

When you extend to "major characters" — non-protagonists who still play a major role in the plot — female characters make up 37% (up 3% from last year, and also a historical high) compared to the 63% filled by men. Despite those record numbers, women were still less likely to be seen at work, and were less likely to be portrayed as leaders, than their male counterparts.

This is where the good news (we're being lenient with the term 'good' news) unfortunately ends, because when you break the numbers down further, there are areas beyond just gender where we are badly failing. 

Women made up only 32% of all speaking characters, down 1% since 2015. This is in addition to a recent report that said women had only 27% of the lines in the year's top films.

When you look at the number of female characters who were also POC, you'll find that Asian women made up only 6% of all female characters (though that's doubled from a year ago), Black women made up 14% (up 1%), while Latina characters decreased a full percentage point, making up only 3% of characters. All other racial groups made up just 1% of the remaining roles. Those numbers are a far cry from reflecting the make-up of the real world.

Then, of course, there's age. As you might suspect, younger women had a much better shot at headlining a film last year, with the majority of roles (32%) going to women in their 30s and another 23% to women in their 20s. Those numbers decline sharply when women hit their 40s. Only 20% of female characters are over the age of 40, compared to 30% of male roles.

So what types of films would you need to see if you wanted to enjoy a female protagonist? Comedies actually topped the list. More than a quarter of all female characters (28%) appeared in comedies, while 24% took on dramatic roles. Surprisingly, a larger percentage of female characters (14%) appeared in science fiction films, compared to 10% of all male characters. That doesn't meant science fiction films starred more female characters than men, just that science fiction seems to be catching up faster than other genres, like action movies, which contained a mere 3% of all female roles.

But what can all these numbers teach us? Well, for one thing, they prove we have a long way to go when it comes to giving women equal space in popular culture, especially in male-dominated genres like action or science fiction. More than that, though, it proves that despite our gains year-to-year, we are doing a gross disservice to non-white women, who are forced to fight tooth and nail for any ground gained in an already narrow field.

So, Hollywood? Do better.