In good times and pandemic times, male characters rule in film, 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 In 2021, male characters outnumbered females by almost 2 to 1. Even the pandemic didn’t disrupt entrenched gender ratios in film that heavily favor male characters to females. The percentages of females in speaking roles and as major characters declined slightly, while the percentage of films with female protagonists increased slightly. An astounding 85% of films featured more male than female characters, but only 7% of films had more female than male characters.
The percentage of U.S. top grossing films featuring female protagonists increased slightly from 29% in 2020 to 31% in 2021. 57% of films featured male protagonists, and 12% had ensembles or a combination of male and female protagonists (see Figure 1). For the purposes of this study, protagonists are the characters from whose perspective the story is told.
In 2021, females accounted for 35% of major characters (see Figure 3). This represents a decline of 3 percentage points from 38% in 2020. Males comprised 65% of major characters. For the purposes of this study, major characters appear in more than one scene and are instrumental to the action of the story.
The percentage of female characters remains below the 38% achieved in 2020. The percentage of females as major characters has been relatively stable since 2015, increasing or decreasing by 1 to 3 percentage points from year to year.
In terms of demographic characteristics in 2021, female characters were younger than their male counterparts (see Figure 7). A higher percentage of female characters than male characters were in their 20s (18% females, 10% males). Male characters were more likely than females to be 40 or over (50% males, 30% females). Female characters experienced a precipitous drop from their 30s to their 40s (34% to 18%).
Male characters also experienced a decline but it was not as dramatic (30% to 26%). Male characters experienced a more substantial decline in numbers from their 40s (26%) to their 50s (15%). There were almost twice as many male characters as female characters aged 60 and over. 5% of female and 9% of male characters were in their 60s or older.
Representation of female protagonists and BIPOC women in 2021’s top-grossing films have increased slightly from the previous year. It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World report highlighted the representation among BIPOC women:
- Black females comprised 16.4% of all major female characters in 2021, up from 13.2% in 2020
- The percentage of major Latina characters doubled, rising from 5.7% in 2020 to 12.8% in 2021
- The percentage of major Asian and Asian American females increased from 5.7% in 2020 to 10.0% in 2021
When it comes to increases for Latina and Asian and Asian American women, the report attributes the rise of on-screen representation to titles like Encanto, In The Heights, West Side Story, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Minari and Mortal Kombat. Without such culturally-specific titles, both demographics fell slightly below their 2020 levels.
“These findings suggest that the increases in Latinas and Asian and Asian American females in major roles are largely due to their presence in a handful of films, rather than their integration in a wide variety of films,” Lauzen concluded.
In the second box office year impacted by the pandemic, females comprised 34% of all speaking characters, down 2 percentage points from 36% in 2020 but even with the percentage in 2019. In 2021, the most foundational gender stereotypes persisted. Female characters were younger and more likely to have a known marital status than males. Male characters were more likely than females to have an identifiable occupation. Girls and women were more likely to have personal-life related goals, whereas boys and men were more likely to have work-related goals, as well as anti-social goals such as violence and crime.
The report also includes numbers on race and ethnicity, marital status, occupational status, and portrayals as leaders.
More on Dr. Lauzen and The SDSU Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.