With the birth of the #MeToo movement and success of movies like “Wonder Woman,” 2017 was an empowering year for women in Hollywood. But the year’s top films may not have reflected as much.
The number of female protagonists in the 100 highest-grossing films fell five percentage points last year, according to a new report from San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. Women made up 24 percent of featured protagonists, defined for the study’s purposes as characters from whose perspective the story is told. It’s an odd occurrence, given that the three most popular films of last year’s domestic box office list each featured a woman in a lead role: Rey in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Belle in “Beauty and the Beast” and Diana Prince of “Wonder Woman.”
The study analyzed more than 2,300 characters in those 100 films. Even when considering those billed lower than the leads, female representation did not improve much in 2017. About 37 percent of all major characters were women, the same number as in 2016, while the percentage of speaking characters increased two points to 34 percent.
Despite a roughly 50-50 gender balance in the world’s population, moviegoers were almost twice as likely to see male characters on screen.
Female characters also remained younger than their male equivalents. Most women on screen were in their 20s (32 percent) or 30s (25 percent), whereas men tended to be in their 30s (31 percent) or 40s (27 percent). Women 40 and older accounted for 29 percent of all female characters, while the same age for men reached 46 percent.
It seems bleak, but the data shows that female characters have thrived in certain environments. Among those top 100 movies, indie films accounted for 65 percent of sole female protagonists, vs. studio features’ 35 percent. Their male counterparts were more likely to appear in studio projects (54 percent) than indies (46 percent). This year’s Oscar nominations highlight several of the female indie film characters, such as Lady Bird McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) of “Lady Bird,” Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) of “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” and more.
Thirty percent of female protagonists were in comedies (think Regina Hall’s Ryan Pierce of “Girls Trip”) and that same figure applies to drama (Dakota Johnson’s Anastasia Steele of “Fifty Shades Darker”), while the figures for men were 20 percent and 13 percent, respectively. Action heroes like Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) of “Atomic Blonde” made up 17 percent of the female protagonists, contrasting with 38 percent for men. Thirteen percent of female leads came from horror films, while animated and science fiction features represented 4 percent each.
Racial diversity improved among on-screen women in 2017. The percentage of white characters dropped eight percentage points from 2016, coming in at 68 percent. The percentage of black women jumped up two percentage points, reaching 16 percent. Latina and Asian women each represented 7 percent of all characters, a four percentage-point increase for the former and a one-point increase for the latter.
The data found that representation among directors and writers often corresponded with higher numbers for their actors. In movies with at least one female director or writer, women made up 45 percent of protagonists and 48 percent of major characters. In films directed or written entirely by men, women made up 20 percent of protagonists and 33 percent of major characters.
Correlation does not imply causation, of course. And as Natalie Portman called out at the Golden Globes, Hollywood still has work to do when it comes to providing opportunities for female directors. A study published last month by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that eight out of the 109 people who directed 2017’s 100 highest-grossing movies were women. One of them, Greta Gerwig, is nominated for an Academy Award.