Women made “unprecedented gains” as protagonists in the top-grossing films of 2019, according to the latest installment of It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World, an annual report out of San Diego State University and The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, led by Dr. Martha M. Lauzen, which found that women achieved “recent historic highs” as lead characters in last year’s biggest hits.
In 2019, women accounted for 37% of major characters. This represents an increase of 1 percentage point from 36% in 2018. Men comprised 63% of major characters (see Figure 2).
Women made unprecedented gains as protagonists in 2019. The percentage of films featuring female protagonists jumped from 31% in 2018 to 40% in 2019, reaching a recent historic high. 43% of films featured male protagonists, and 17% had ensembles. Last year, 45% of female protagonists appeared in studio features and 55% appeared in independent features. This marks a shift from 2018 when females were more than twice as likely to appear in independent features as studio features (68% vs. 32%).
However, the percentages of females appearing as major characters and speaking characters (major and minor) remained relatively stable. Females comprised 37% of major characters, up just 1 percentage point from 36% in 2018, and 34% of all speaking characters, down 1 percentage point from 35% in 2018.
“2018 may be remembered as the year in which things were not quite as they appeared for female characters,” Lauzen explained. “While female protagonists rebounded last year, slightly besting the previous high achieved in 2016, the percentages of females as speaking characters and major characters remained relatively stagnant. Protagonists are the characters from whose perspective the story is told and so seeing more females in these roles is tremendously important. However, we are not seeing similar gains in the broader populations of major characters and in all speaking roles,” she said.
The findings are divided into four major sections. The first section reports the percentages of female and male characters in top grossing films. The second section details various demographic traits of characters, including age, race/ethnicity, marital status, and occupational status. The third section reports the roles and leadership positions held by characters. The fourth section discusses important relationships between on-screen representations of female characters and behind-the-scenes employment of women as directors and writers.
We have now seen two consecutive years of substantial gains for female protagonists, indicating the beginning of a positive shift in representation. That said, it’s 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 also includes numbers on race and ethnicity, marital status, occupational status, and portrayals as leaders.