According to the U.S. Census, women represent over half of the U.S. population. But a new study of top-grossing films from last year reveals that our films don’t reflect our gender-balanced world. In films, only a third of the speaking characters are female.
The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University has examined gender disparities in the top 100 grossing films since 2002. This year, they examined the 3,100 characters appearing in the top-grossing films in 2021. They found male characters far outnumber female characters, and women on the screen still adhere to outdated stereotypes. Some of the disappointing statistics from the study include:
- Eighty-five percent of films featured more male than female characters, but only 7% of films had more female than male characters.
- Females made up only 34% of all speaking characters, declining from 36% in 2020.
- Women comprised only 35% of major characters. For purposes of the study, major characters were those who appeared in more than one scene and were considered instrumental to the story.
- Major female characters were younger than major male characters. Almost twice as many major male characters (11%) as female characters (6%) were aged 60 and above.
- In the top-grossing films, 31% featured female protagonists, 57% featured male protagonists and 12% had a combination of male and female protagonists. Protagonists are the characters from whose perspective the story is told. The percentage of films with female protagonists increased slightly from 2020, when only 29% of films had a female protagonist.
Having fewer female characters and fewer meaningful female characters isn’t just a problem for female actors. It has an impact on the viewer. Over 500 million tickets were sold at movie theaters in the U.S. in 2021, and many times more films were streamed at home. Films reach a lot of people have a substantial influence on their beliefs and opinions, stereotypes and attitudes.
“When viewers see substantially more stories about male characters than female characters, the message is that the contributions of boys and men are more meaningful, interesting, and ultimately more valuable than those of girls and women. Females comprise approximately half the population; they should serve as protagonists in approximately half of our films,” says Martha Lauzen, the report’s author, a professor at San Diego State and the founder and director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.
The small numbers of women on the screen may be partially attributed to the small numbers of female writers and directors. Films with at least one woman director or writer were more likely than films with no women in these roles to feature higher percentages of females as protagonists, in major roles, and as speaking characters.
Due to the pandemic, fewer viewers went to the box office and many films were streamed at home last year. So, Lauzen also examined the films that appeared on the Digital Entertainment Group’s weekly Watched at Home Top 20 list in 2021. The results were not substantially different.
Gender Stereotypes Perpetuated In Film
Not only did fewer female characters make it onto the big screen in 2021, but those that did were often portrayed adhering to outdated gender stereotypes. For example, male characters were more likely than females to have an identifiable occupation. Girls and women were more likely to have goals related to their personal life, whereas boys and men were more likely to have work-related goals and goals like violence and crime. More male than female characters in speaking roles were shown at their place of work, actually doing work (65% of males vs. 47% of females). And viewers were also more likely to learn the marital status of female characters compared to male characters.
Lauzen sees this as a problem for both men and women. “For female characters, personal-life-related goals tend to be about getting or keeping a man or caring for a family. These goals reinforce traditional romantic and domestic concerns for women. They tend not to be about achieving in the public domain. It’s so limiting,” Lauzen says.
The stereotypes in film are also problematic for men. “When films equate masculinity with violence, crime or work, it perpetuates a very narrow, and frankly outdated, notion of what it means to be a man,” Lauzen says.
“Filmic and ultimately cultural gender equity should be the goal,” says Lauzen. But this year’s study indicates that gender equity is still a long way off. One bright spot is that the trend toward having more meaningful female participation in film in the last twenty years has been an upward one. The number of female protagonists seems to be on an upward trend since 2002. Nonetheless, the percentage of speaking roles for women and the percentage of major characters remain stubbornly low and relatively unchanged over the last decade.
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