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Study: Female Protagonists Continue to Disappear From Film

Study: Female Protagonists Continue to Disappear From Film

2014’s most popular release was the female-led “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1,” a film that boasts not only a teen-girl protagonist, but also counts among its prominent characters a woman president and a female filmmaker. 

But Katniss was a rarity among last year’s top 100 grossing films, of which only 12% featured a female protagonist, according to a new study by Dr. Martha Lauzen at the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film
at San Diego State University. That figure represents a whopping drop of 3 percentage points from just 2013 and a decline of 4 percentage points from 2002. 

In other words, movies about women and girls — already hard to find at the multiplex — are becoming rarer still. 

Noteworthy female characters remain outnumbered more than 2 to 1 by their male counterparts. Only 29% of major characters and 30% of speaking characters in the top 100 films were women or girls — a statistic that marks no change from 2013. 

“The chronic under-representation
of girls and women reveals a kind of arrested development in the mainstream
film industry,” Lauzen commented. “Women
are not a niche audience and they are no more ‘risky’ as filmmakers than
men. It is unfortunate that these
beliefs continue to limit the industry’s relevance in today’s
marketplace.” 

Three-quarters (74%) of the female characters on the big screen were white, while 11% were Black, 4% were Latina, 4% were
Asian, 3% were otherworldly, and 4% were other. Dispiritingly, the study notes that “moviegoers were almost as likely to see an
otherworldly female as they were to see a Latina or Asian female character.” 

Unsurprisingly, whether a film was directed or written by a woman had a huge influence on who ended up on screen. In films with
at least one woman director and/or writer, girls/women made up 39% of protagonists, while in films with only male directors and writers, girls/women made up 4% of protagonists. 

Lauzen’s study also found what we’ve all intuited: female characters are more likely to be younger than their male counterparts, more likely to be motivated by the desire to help others (instead of pursuing their own goals), more likely to be identified primarily in relation to another character (as wife, girlfriend, daughter, etc.), and less likely to identified with a profession or seen at work. 

Here are some of Lauzen’s most salient findings: 

Only
12% of all clearly identifiable protagonists
were female in 2014. This
represents a decrease of 3 percentage points from 2013 and a decrease of 4
percentage points from 2002. In 2014,
75% of protagonists were male, and 13% were male/female ensembles. For the purposes of this study, protagonists
are the characters from whose perspective the story is told.
 
 
Females
comprised 29% of major characters. This represents no change from 2013, but is
an increase of 2 percentage points from 2002. For the purposes of this study, major characters tend to appear in more
than one scene and are instrumental to the action of the story.
      

Females
accounted for 30% of all speaking
characters (includes major and minor characters) in 2014, even with the
figure from 2013, but up 2 percentage points from 2002.
    

Female
characters remain younger than their male counterparts. The majority of female characters were in
their 20s (23%) and 30s (30%). The
majority of male characters were in their 30s (27%) and 40s (28%).   

–Males 40 and
over accounted for 53% of all male characters. Females 40 and over comprised 30% of all female characters.

–Whereas the
percentage of female characters declined dramatically from their 30s to their
40s (30% to 17%), the percentage of male characters increased slightly, from
27% in their 30s to 28% in their 40s.

–The percentage
of male characters in their 50s (18%) is twice that of female characters in
their 50s (9%).

Male
characters were more likely than females to be identified only by a
work-related role, such as doctor or business executive (61% of males vs. 34%
of females). In contrast, female
characters were more likely than males to be identified only by a personal
life-related role such as wife or mother (58% of females vs. 31% of
males). Male and female characters were
equally likely to be identified in dual work-related and personal life-related roles (8% of females and males).
 
   
Overall,
85% of speaking characters had an identifiable goal. Female characters were more likely than
males to have pro-social goals. 89% of
female characters but 77% of males had pro-social goals such as supporting or
helping other characters. Male
characters were more likely than females to have anti-social goals such as
criminal behavior or engaging in physical altercations. 23% of male characters but only 11% of
females had anti-social goals.
 
   
In films with at
least one woman director and/or writer, females comprised 37% of
all speaking characters. In films with exclusively male directors and
writers, females accounted for 28% of all speaking characters (see Figure 3).

–In films with
at least one woman director and/or writer, females comprised 33% of major characters. In films with exclusively male directors and
writers, females accounted for 28% of major characters.

–In films with
at least one woman director and/or writer, females comprised 39% of protagonists, males 35% of protagonists,
and male/female ensembles 26% of protagonists. In films with exclusively male directors and writers, females accounted
for 4% of protagonists, males 87% of protagonists, and male/female ensembles 9%
of protagonists.

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