Study Shows Upswing of (Mostly White) Female Protagonists in Film


Sometimes progress comes in moon-leaps, and sometimes progress comes in baby steps. This falls maybe somewhere in the middle: a new study finds that there was a heartening increase in the amount of female protagonists in 2015’s top-grossing films. But, of course, there’s a catch. Well, a few.

The first catch is that roles for women are still relatively few compared to roles for men. The exact numbers, from Variety: “women comprised 22% of leads in the top 110 grossing films, 34% of major characters, and 33% of all speaking characters, according to research by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.” This is, to quote, a “recent historical high.” Male characters were also more likely to be seen in a workplace setting (64%) than female characters (44%), and 78% of men had jobs, while only 61% of women characters did.

The second catch is that most of the female characters were played by white women, a hard reminder that the recent #OscarsSoWhite campaigns are not in reaction to only the homogenous Oscar nominations, but also to the overall whitewashed nature of Hollywood as an industry. For instance, only 13% of female characters are black, only 4% are Latina, and only 3% are Asian.

Other takeaways: 38% of roles played by white women were considered “major,” whereas only 27% of any roles filled by women of color, collectively, are considered “major.” Unsurprisingly, having a woman director or writer meant higher numbers, with 40% of speaking roles in those films going to women.

That doesn’t mean much, though, when you learn that the number of films by female directors has fallen consistently over the past few decades. In fact, there’s a whole pledge to watch films created by women, complete with hashtag: #52FilmsByWomen. You can get started here. Progress is progress, but sometimes it hardly feels like it.