More Women in 2011’s Top Movies, But Roles for Actresses are Lackluster

Study from San Diego State University finds that women are less likely to be protagonists in movies and are less likely to be portrayed as leaders on screen

Thanks to "Twilight"s' Bella Swan and the women from "The Help," it looks like Hollywood's glass ceiling for actresses is starting to show some cracks. 

There were more females in the top 100 domestic grossing films of 2011 than there were a decade ago, according to a new report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

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But before women in the movie business start popping the champagne, they should know that the roles that actresses get a chance to play are not of the same caliber as their male counterparts. Moreover, the representation of women among the biggest grossing films in the United States only improved by a modest five percent since 2002. Females still represent just one third of all characters in last year's top grossing films. 

"The findings are a mixed bag," Martha Lauzen, the center's executive director and the report's author, told TheWrap.  "I was really heartened to see the percentage of female characters overall increase.  People may say, 'Gosh, it's just 5 percentage points,' but when I see a jump that's very encouraging to me, because I know how absolutely resistant to change the film industry is." 

Lauzen said that the numbers of female characters in movies have remained roughly the same from the 1940s to the early aughts, which makes the slight uptick in roles for actresses somewhat remarkable. 

Not that all these parts were memorable. In the roles actresses did get last year, they were more likely to be stuck darning socks than they were to be seen commanding armies — or to put it in "Twi-hard" terms, Bella was left to moon about while vampires and werewolves did the fighting. 

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Entitled “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World,” the report found that female characters were much less likely of to be portrayed as leaders. Overall, male characters accounted for 86 percent of cinematic leaders and females represented a meager 14 percent of the take charge crowd last year.  

Moreover, most of the films that did hit screens were told from a male perspective, and that trend is actually getting more pronounced. Females accounted for 11 percent of protagonists in 2011, down from 16 percent in 2002. 

The study also found that female characters remain younger than their male counterparts and are more likely than males to have an identifiable marital status.

In welcome news for Clint Eastwood, males 40 and over account for 50 percent of all male characters. Yet females 40 and over comprise 25 percent of all female characters.

Lauzen says that the preponderance of youthful females is impacting their onscreen depictions as followers, not leaders. 

"One of the consequences of keeping female characters young is that filmmakers tend to keep them relatively powerless," Lauzen said. "When do we come into our power? It tends to happen for most people in their forties. All these females in their twenties and thirties are too young to have vast power."

The situation could improve this year. After all, "The Hunger Games" featured a bow-and-arrow-wielding female protagonist en route to a $624 million worldwide gross, and this summer brings two new warrior princesses in "Snow White and the Huntsman" and "Brave." 

But Lauzen said she won't believe that things are fundamentally changing until she crunches the numbers. 

"Every year, and I've been doing this study for over a decade, there are some high-profile roles for women and girls in films that can lead us to believe that things are a lot better," Lauzen said. "Until you actually count the number of characters, it's easy to have your perceptions distorted."