How are women portrayed in top-grossing movies?

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July 19, 2019

How are women portrayed in top-grossing movies?

Hollywood has come under scrutiny in recent years for its lack of representation and diversity. Movements like #OscarsSoWhite (which originated with the 2016 Oscars when, for the second year in a row, all 20 actors nominated for the lead and supporting categories where white) and #MeToo have sparked serious conversations about the need for more women and minorities to be involved in the film industry both on-screen and off. Hollywood, however, is notoriously slow for making any kind of change.

Not everyone is content to just sit by and wait for Hollywood to change. Dr. Martha M. Lauzen brought awareness to Hollywood's representation problem with her 2019 report "It's a Man's (Celluloid) World: Portrayals of Female Characters in the Top-Grossing Films of 2018." In her report, Dr. Lauzen looked at the percentages of female and male characters in top-grossing films, the demographic traits (including race/ethnicity, age, marital, and occupational status) of characters, the leadership positions of characters, and the important link between the on-screen representation of female characters and the behind-the-scenes employment of female writers and directors.

To date, there has been little scholarly research on the topic of female representation in Hollywood films. Dr. Lauzen is one of the first to do so. To collect data, Dr. Lauzen and her team watched the 100 top-grossing films of 2018 as ranked by Box Office Mojo. After at least one complete viewing of each film, they noted any character that spoke at least one line of dialogue, leaving them with more than 2,500 characters to analyze. To provide historical context they watched films and included figures that date back to 2002, for a total of 800 films and 18,500 characters.

Intrigued by Dr. Lauzen's report, and the insights it provided into Hollywood, Stacker has rounded up 15 of the most shocking and significant statistics from her findings. Put together, these numbers provide an eye-opening and enlightening look at how women are portrayed in top-grossing movies. From how few women have speaking roles, to how many films don't have a single female character, these facts are sure to make a few jaws drop along the way.

You may also like: Exploring minority representation in the biggest box office winners ever

Women's voices aren't being heard

- Percentage of females as speaking characters: 35%
- Percentage of males as speaking characters: 65%

While the percentage of women with speaking lines in 2018 films showed an increase from 2017 (when 34% of speaking characters were women), audiences are still twice as likely to hear a man's voice in the top-grossing films of the year. This means that not only are women's stories not being told, their voices, quite literally, aren't even being heard. The 2018 movie "The Favourite" was an exception to this rule: The film featured three female leads, each of whom was complicated with villainous and heroic tendencies—as well as plenty of speaking lines.

More women-led stories are being told

- Percentage of female protagonists: 31%
- Percentage of male protagonists: 52%
- Percentage of ensemble protagonists: 17%

More feature films presented a solo female protagonist in 2018 than any other year in recent history. For the purpose of this study, a protagonist was defined as a character from whose point of view the story is being told. The majority of these solo female protagonists appeared in independent features (68%)—think “The Wife”—while far fewer (32%) appeared in studio-led films such as “A Star is Born.”

But there are fewer female characters in general

- Percentage of major female characters: 36%
- Percentage of major male characters: 64%

While the number of female protagonists (from whose point of view the story is being told) has gone up in the last year, the overall number of major female characters (those who appear in more than one scene and are instrumental to the story) has gone down. A prime example of this is “The Avengers.” While there are a handful of women castmembers in major roles that drive the plot forward, they are vastly outnumbered by men.

Women in film are deeply impacted by ageism

- Percentage of female characters in their 20s: 20%
- Percentage of male characters in their 20s: 11%
- Percentage of female characters in their 40s: 16%
- Percentage of male characters in their 40s: 25%

Top-grossing films may be telling more stories from a woman's perspective, however, the women in question are substantially younger than their male counterparts. The majority of female characters in movies were in their 20s and 30s (29% and 28%, respectively), while most male characters were either in their 30s or 40s (35% and 25%, respectively). Only 31% of all female characters in 2018's top-grossing films were 40 or older. In fact, one of 2018's only major films to feature an older woman was “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”—forger Lee Israel, a character in her 50s.

Hollywood mostly focuses on white womanhood

- Percentage of white female characters: 65%
- Percentage of minority female characters: 35%

The vast majority of 2018's female characters were white. However, the inclusion of minority characters was up 3% from 2017. The report pointed out that most often it was a single film, like "Crazy Rich Asians," that boosted minority representation, not a concerted effort across the film industry as a whole.

Major female characters in top-grossing films are mostly white

- Percentage of white female major characters: 70%
- Percentage of minority female major characters: 30%

Dr. Lauzen's study defines a major character as one that appears in more than one scene and also plays an instrumental role in the story's narrative. Films like “Black Panther” drew in huge amounts of press and attention simply because a bulk of their major characters were minorities, something that is hardly seen.

Black female representation is at an all-time high

- Black female representation in 2018: 21%
- Black female representation in 2017: 16%

Black female representation is at an all-time high, seeing a 5% increase from 2017 to 2018. Blockbuster “Ocean's 8” featured an almost entirely female cast, including several minorities, and broke box office records.

Women on-screen have fewer work goals than men

- Percentage of women in top-grossing films with an identifiable job: 62%
- Percentage of men in top-grossing films with an identifiable job: 76%

- Percentage of on-screen female characters shown working: 46%
- Percentage of on-screen male characters shown working: 62%

In 2018 women made up 46.9% of the U.S. labor force, according to census data crunched by Catalyst, which also showed that 57.1% of all women in the U.S. work. The percentage of on-screen female characters shown working in 2018's top-grossing film matches the actual percentage of women in the 2018 U.S. labor force. However, male characters were 40% more likely than female characters to have work-related goals in the films. 

A woman's personal life is frequently fair game

- Percentage of female characters with a known marital status: 47%
- Percentage of male characters with a known marital status: 36%

The storyline of female characters in 2018's top-grossing films frequently focused on their personal lives. Female characters were more likely to have a known marital status than male characters and more than half (54%) of female characters' goals in top-grossing flicks were related to their personal lives.

There aren't enough women in charge

- Percentage of female leaders in top-grossing films: 26%
- Percentage of male leaders in top-grossing films: 76%

According to Dr. Lauzen's study, 7% of characters in the top-grossing films of 2018 were leaders, and only a tiny portion of these leaders were women. The study defined a leader as one who occupied a leadership position in an organization, government, or group and whose instructions are followed by two or more characters. A film that centered on a woman in power was "Mary, Queen of Scots," which focused on the rivalry between Queen Elizabeth I and her cousin Mary Stuart.

Female leadership falls into distinct categories

- Percentage of female social leaders: 44%
- Percentage of female criminal leaders: 17%

When leadership was broken down into different categories, Dr. Lauzen found that women were most likely to be social leaders and were least likely to be criminal leaders. Both “Oceans 8” and “Proud Mary” broke this mold, featuring women heading up some seriously delinquent gangs.

Women promote women

- Percentage of female protagonists in female-led films: 57%
- Percentage of female protagonists in male-led films: 21%

Dr. Lauzen also found that women were more likely than men to cast and create roles for other women. Films that had a female director and/or at least one female writer, like Ava DuVernay's “A Wrinkle in Time,” had more female protagonists (or, in this case, four female protagonists) than those with all-male writer/director teams.

Women-led films lead to increased on-screen representation

- Percentage of female major characters in female-led films: 47%
- Percentage of female major characters in male-led films: 32%

Overall, women writers and directors create far more opportunities for female characters than all-male writing and directing teams. An exception to this rule was Alex Garland's “Annihilation” which starred a host of fierce females like Natalie Portman, Gina Rodriguez, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Female protagonists largely fall into specific genres

- Top genre for female protagonists: comedy (32%)
- Bottom genre for female protagonists: action (7%)

Dr. Lauzen found that female protagonists are more likely to be found in certain genres, like comedies and dramas, than in others, like science fiction features and action movies. A few top-grossing films, like “Annihilation,” “A Wrinkle in Time,” and “Black Panther” were exceptions to these findings.

Hollywood casts more men than women in speaking roles

- Percentage of films with 10 or more women in speaking roles: 35%
- Percentage of films with 10 or more men in speaking roles: 82%

Finally, Dr. Lauzen and her team found that, on average, men were cast far more frequently than women in speaking roles. This statistic not only reinforces how much of Hollywood has been owned and claimed by white men, but also reminds viewers how grossly underrepresented the female voice is as a whole.

In order to encourage change in the industry, and to see different results in next year's report, movie fans can make an effort to seek out women-heavy films in 2019, such as "Wine Country," "Little Women," and "Charlie's Angels."

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