Studio Films With Female Leading Roles Sink to 13-Year Low in ‘Catastrophic Step Back’

“This is an industry failure,” Dr. Stacy L. Smith writes in a new Hollywood diversity report from USC Annenberg

Barbie
"Barbie" (Warner Bros.)

“Barbie” may have been a cultural and box office triumph for female-driven filmmaking, but the latest report from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that 2023 was actually a woeful year for women in movies.

In a survey of the top 100 highest grossing films of last year, USC’s team, led by Dr. Stacy L. Smith, found that only 30 had a woman in a leading role, a huge drop from the count of 44 films in 2022 and the lowest seen on the top 100 since 2010.

“This is a catastrophic step back for girls and women in film,” Smith said. “In the last 14 years, we have charted progress in the industry, so to see this reversal is both startling and in direct contrast to all of the talk of 2023 as the ‘year of the woman.’”

The drastic drop in women’s representation in theatrically released films from major studios stands in contrast to USC Annenberg’s survey of Netflix films, which almost all are streaming-exclusive with more than half of those released since 2019 featuring at least one woman in a leading role.

“These numbers are more than just a metric of how often girls and women are in protagonist roles. They represent the career opportunities offered to women in the film industry. This year, we found that those opportunities have drastically constricted. Even by looking at the films that were moved to 2024 because of the strike, we cannot explain the collapse of women leads/co-leads in 2023 other than to say that this is an industry failure,” Smith said.

The decline comes as multiple states have seen their legislatures introduce bills seeking to curtail diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives at public universities. Hollywood has also seen significant backsliding on this front after investing in DEI initiatives in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite and Black Lives Matter, as executives hired to oversee such initiatives at Warner Bros., Netflix, Disney and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences resigned over the course of 10 days last summer.

“The entertainment industry can serve an important role in our democracy to champion diverse and inclusive voices both on screen and behind the camera — but that is not what we see happening this year. A change is needed, and quickly, lest entertainment become one more institution that falls to outdated, biased and exclusionary rhetoric,” Smith wrote.

However, the one bright spot in USC’s survey is that there was a small rise in leading roles for actors of color from 31 films in 2022 to 37 films in 2023; but even on that front, Smith noted an important caveat.

“Notably, the increase in underrepresented leads was not driven by content from the legacy studios,” Smith clarified. “It was films from smaller distributors and international fare that were responsible for the uptick we found in 2023. This year should have reflected the commitments major studios made in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, but these are not the places responsible for the push for greater inclusion.”

The full report can be read on the USC Annenberg website.

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