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Representation for white women increased in 2019 movies, but intersectional inclusion remains elusive

Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie
From left, Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie in “Bombshell.”
(Hilary B Gayle / Lionsgate)

Despite continued calls for representation and gender parity in recent years, moviegoers are still nearly twice as likely to see a male character in a speaking role than a female character among the most popular films. But representation for some female characters is finally moving in a positive direction.

Those are some of the findings in the annual report from San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film titled “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World,” produced by executive director Martha Lauzen. According to the study of the top 100 grossing domestic films of 2019, the percentage of films featuring a female protagonist increased to a recent historic high of 40%, up from 31% the previous year. The change was felt most significantly across studio releases, with 45% fronted by a female character, up from 32% in 2018. Comparatively, female protagonists in the independent space decreased from 68% in 2018 to 55% last year.

When it comes to supporting roles, the numbers have barely budged. In 2019, women comprised just 37% of major characters, an increase of one percentage point from the previous year. They also made up just 34% of all speaking characters, down one percentage point from the previous year.

And not all women are enjoying equal representation onscreen. The study found that while white women saw an increase in representation in lead, major and speaking roles, onscreen depictions of most women of color actually decreased.

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Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu star in “Hustlers.”
Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu in Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers.”
(STXfilms)

In 2019, 68% of all female characters were white, an increase of three percentage points from the previous year. By contrast, 20% of female characters were black, a decline of one percentage point from 2018. And while Latina representation increased by one percentage point to 5%, Asian female representation decreased by 3 percentage points from 10% to 7%, on par with the results from 2017. The study authors noted that the increase of Asian female representation in 2018 was largely due to just one film, “Crazy Rich Asians.”

Male characters are equally divided across racial lines: 71% of all male characters in the top 100 grossing domestic films were white, 15% were black, 6% Asian, 5% Latino and 3% identified as some other race or ethnicity.

“Social change is very difficult, occurs slowly and almost never happens in a linear way,” Lauzen said. “Progress is stubborn and it can take years — decades even — of sustained dialogue, activism and action to achieve change.”

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The study also found that age factors heavily in the type of women that are represented. Female characters remain far younger than their male counterparts with the majority in their twenties (22%) and thirties (31%). By contrast, the majority of male characters were in their thirties (32%) and forties (26%). In fact, men in their forties or older accounted for 47% of all characters while women in the same age groups comprised just 30% of all female characters.

It comes as no surprise that the gender of the people behind the camera often dictates who will be reflected onscreen. Films with at least one woman in a directing or writing role were more likely to feature women as protagonists and in major and speaking roles — 58% of films featuring a female director or screenwriter included a female protagonist compared with 30% of films written or directed by men.

Genre films remain the most likely to feature female protagonists. 26% of horror leads were women, while females fronted 24% of dramas, 21% of comedies, 16% of action movies, 8% of sci-fi films and just 5% of animated movies.

The research has consistently found that diversity onscreen begins with diversity behind the scenes.
Martha Lauzen

An increase in women behind the camera would likely also improve the way women are portrayed, which remains largely stereotypical. In 2019, 46% of female characters had a known marital status compared to 34% of their male counterparts. And 61% of women had an identifiable job or occupation compared to 73% of their male counterparts. A larger proportion of male characters than females were actually seen at work, 59% compared to 43%.

“Women of all ages, races and ethnicities will need to work behind the scenes in greater numbers to tell their own stories,” Lauzen said. “The research has consistently found that diversity onscreen begins with diversity behind the scenes.”

Perhaps the numbers will begin to shift in 2020 as a bevy of films from female filmmakers of color are set to be released. This year also could be a banner year for female-directed blockbuster films with Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” sequel set for summer, Chloé Zhao helming Marvel’s hotly anticipated “The Eternals,” Cate Shortland directing Marvel’s “Black Widow,” Niki Caro at the helm of Disney’s live action “Mulan” and Cathy Yan behind DC’s Harley Quinn spinoff “Birds of Prey.”

“In the absence of some kind of significant intervention by an external source such as the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission], change will most likely be slow,” Lauzen said. “While some motivated individuals have achieved rapid change within their sphere of influence [like] Ryan Murphy and Ava DuVernay, change on an industry-wide level is dependent on a widespread will to change. This will to change is necessary for any voluntary program to work.”


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