Record Number of Top Films Had Female Protagonists in 2019, Study Finds

Women were the main characters in 40% of 2019 films

Last Updated: January 8, 2020 @ 5:20 AM

Women made unprecedented gains as protagonists in top grossing films in 2019, according to the latest “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World” report released Wednesday by Dr. Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

The percentage of films featuring female protagonists rose from 31% in 2018 to 40% in 2019, reaching a recent historic high. 43% of films featured male protagonists, and 17% had ensembles. The study defines protagonists as characters from whose perspective the story is told.

In 2019, 45% of female protagonists appeared in studio features and 55% were 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%). The percentages of females appearing as major characters and speaking characters 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. Major characters appear in more than one scene and are instrumental to the action of the story.

“We have now seen two consecutive years of substantial gains for female protagonists, indicating the beginning of a positive shift in representation,” said Lauzen in a statement. “That said, it is important to note that moviegoers are still almost twice as likely to see a male character as a female character in a speaking role.”

Regarding race and ethnicity, the percentage of Black females in speaking roles declined slightly from 21% in 2018 to 20% in 2019. The percentage of Latinas increased slightly from 4% in 2018 to 5% in 2019. Without the boost provided by a film like “Crazy Rich Asians” in 2018, the percentage of Asian female characters reverted to 2017 levels at 7%.

Female protagonists were most likely to appear in horror features (26%), followed by dramas (24%), comedies (21%), action features (16%), science fiction features (8%), and animated features (5%). “In 2019 we saw female protagonists across genres, including in horror films such as ‘Us’ and ‘The Curse of La Llorona,’ dramas including ‘Little Women’ and “Harriet,” and action features like ‘Captain Marvel.” We’re seeing a wider variety of stories being told from a female perspective,” added Lauzen.

However, many stubborn gender stereotypes remain. Female characters were more likely than male characters to have a known marital status (46% vs. 34%). A larger proportion of male than female characters had an identifiable occupation (73% vs. 61%), and male characters were more likely than female characters to be seen in their work setting, actually working (59% vs. 43%).

Lauzen’s “Celluloid Ceiling” study has tracked female employment on films for over two decades, reviewing over 70,000 film credits in that time.