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Female Film Protagonists in Top Films Dropped 28% in 2020, Report Says

“As protagonists in films, females took a step back in 2020 after two consecutive years of growth,” San Diego State University’s Martha Lauzen says

“Wonder Woman 1984,” “Promising Young Woman” and “Pieces of a Woman” may have been major film releases in 2020, but new statistics show that 2020 was hardly the year of the woman protagonist on film despite the fact that major Hollywood studio releases where men have traditionally dominated were often postponed or shifted to streaming during the pandemic.

According to “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World” — a report released Tuesday by Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University —¬† the percentage of the 100 top-grossing films featuring female protagonists dropped from 40% in 2019 to 29% in 2020 — a decline of nearly 28%.

The study reports that 49% of 2020’s top-grossing films featured male protagonists and 22% had ensembles sharing the protagonist role. The study defines protagonists as characters from whose perspective the story is told.

“As protagonists in films, females took a step back in 2020 after two consecutive years of growth,” Lauzen said in a statement. “This decline is reflected in the low number of female driven films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Only two films on this year’s slate of nominees, ‘Nomadland’ and ‘Promising Young Woman,’ feature female protagonists.”

From 2021 "It's A Man's (Celluloid) World" Report

Courtesy of San Diego State University

However, the study also reveals that the percentage of women who were major characters increased slightly, from 37% in 2019 to 38% in 2020. Major characters are defined by the study as characters that appear in more than one scene and are instrumental to the action of the story.

And 2020’s Academy Award nominees do include a record number of movies directed by women. For the first time in the Academy Awards’ nearly century-old history, more than one female director has been nominated in the Best Director category, with Chlo√© Zhao earning a nod for “Nomadland” and Emerald Fennell scoring another for “Promising Young Woman.” Zhao is also the first nonwhite woman to be nominated in the category.

A report from Lauzen’s institute released in January noted that women directed a record 16% of the top-grossing 2020 films.

oscars 2021 emerald fennell chloe zhao

Photo: Getty Images

Lauzen’s most recent study also takes a look at the ratio of male to female characters, race, ethnicity and age in top-grossing films. The new study says 78% of films featured more female than male characters, and 5% of films featured equal numbers of female and male characters. The percentage of Black females in speaking roles declined from 20% in 2019 to 17% in 2020, while the percentage of Latinas increased slightly from 5% in 2019 t0 6% in 2020, and Asian females declined from 7% to 6%.

The study also shows that female characters remain younger than their male counterparts and the number of female characters declines when they reach their 40s.

“We see a handful of mature female actresses and assume that ageism has declined in Hollywood. But unless your last name happens to be Streep or McDormand,” chances are you’re not working much in film,” Lauzen said in the statement.

Read the full report here.

Stacy Smith’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at USC disputed the findings of Lauzen’s study due to the “problematic comparisons & the atypicality of the 100 top films last year.”

In another tweet, the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative argued: “The films can not be compared to previous years without a degree of major caution. Scholars know this and need to be responsible.”

For the record: A previous version of this story gave an incorrect percentage for the decline in female protagonists in top films from 2019 to 2020.