Study finds number of women in leading roles in film dropped in 2017

Tara McCamley examines the landscape of film in regards to its portrayal of woman in light of findings in a new report.

Overall, 2017 has been been deemed a successful year for film and, to many underrepresented demographics, it has served as a beacon of hope for the future of the industry at large. However,  a recent study by The Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film proved that Hollywood still has a long way to go when it comes to representation on screen.

The report found that the number of films featuring a female protagonist dropped from 29% in 2016 to 24% in 2017 while men made up 58% of all leads. It also showed the large disproportion between men and women onscreen as films featuring more than ten female characters – with speaking roles – made up 32% of films whereas for men that number was a staggering 79%.

Of this 32% of films it’s doubtful any of them passed the bechdel test, a test formulated to see if women in  films were capable of interacting with each other without the topic of conversation revolving around men, a bar set as low as possible and yet still never manages to be reached.

What’s interesting about these numbers is that last year was a year which heavily featured many strong performances by women and the top three highest grossing films of the year were all ones that had female protagonists.

Audiences flocked to see the smash hit Beauty and the Beast – a film which by all accounts should mostly appeal to female demographic – proved its power and appeal making it the highest grossing film of the year. Audiences and critics alike praised and adored Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman which not only became the highest grossing film ever by a female director but also the first majorly successful female led superhero film. It also added a much needed and strong new perspective to an ever inflated and unchanging landscape of the male dominated superhero and comic book film genre. Star Wars the Force Awakens rounds out this trio as the most serious, sophisticated and diverse instalment of the Star Wars universe thus far which nearly tripled its female characters in comparison to previous installments.

“The success of these films clearly disspells the misconception that hollywood has had that audiences have zero interest in seeing the plights and struggles of women being portrayed onscreen and that they don’t carry enough mainstream appeal to be commercially viable”

The success of these films clearly disspells Hollywood’s misconception that audiences have a lack of interest in seeing the struggles of women being portrayed onscreen and that they don’t carry enough mainstream appeal to be commercially viable. However, the problem of stories being skewed through a male-centric lense is a longstanding problem deeply ingrained into the very nature of Hollywood itself.

Studios are less likely to put female characters at the center of their biggest tent poles and the study found that 54% of big budget films had a male lead while women helmed only 35%.

One clear example of this bias can be seen looking at the Marvel Cinematic Universe the biggest and most lucrative franchise onscreen in this modern film era. This universe turns ten years old this year and yet in those ten years not once has a female character appeared as a lead, despite the presence of an able candidate in Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow who has existed in the universe since 2010’s Iron Man 2.

Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel will bring another female led superhero movie in 2019, but the questions still stand: For every Ant Man and Doctor Strange movie that took precedence, were they really a necessary part of the universe? Was a third reboot of Spiderman in less than 15 years really more important than finally giving the world a female superhero?

Women onscreen are also more likely to be far younger than their male counterparts with the average age of onscreen characters falling between their 20s and 30s whilst men are shown to be almost a decade older falling in the range of 30s to 40s. Hollywood has always had an expiration date on women in film, degrading them to roles which are less interesting or challenging, though this has been getting better in recent years the problem of only seeing young women onscreen is still one which should be addressed and is worryingly highlighted in the study.

That isn’t to say that all the news stemming from the report is negative. The findings also showed that women were more likely to be a lead in a comedy or drama which is exciting news as it’s casting aside the stereotype that women can’t be funny and in recent history the uptake on female led comedies has been a positive one. Films like Bridesmaids and last year’s widely popular Girls Trip are triumphantly waving the flag for female comedy.

There was also an increase in the representation of women of colour with the numbers of black women onscreen rising and of Latino and Asian women almost doubling compared to the previous year. In fact the number of white women in film went down to 68% compared to 74% in the previous year. That’s a significant decrease and a welcome change showing that though there were less stories focusing on women during the year the nature of those that were told was more diverse and there was a clear attempt to move away from the white-centric narrative problem in all films but particularly for female led films.

The year also brought us the fifth woman ever to be nominated for an academy award for directing with Greta Gerwig’s nomination. The nomination is much deserved and warranted but the low numbers of women nominated for the category sadly reflects the low numbers of women in the role with only 11% of films having been directed by women last year.

While its difficult to tell as of yet if the box office success of female franchises last year will change this year’s statistics, from my observations of this year’s film calendar the first two months of the year have already shown an exceptional amount of female led films with Molly’s Game, Ladybird, The Shape of Water, I, Tonya and Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri not only being critical and award show darlings but putting the female film count for the year already solidly on track. This year also sees the release of potential franchises such as Tomb Raider and Oceans 8 as well as other predominantly female casts like Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time.

Overall the report highlights a problem that we’ve long been aware of but hopefully in the light of many successful films, franchise launches and a vastly different political climate can and will be changed for the better in the immediate future. We can all do our part by continuing to support female helmed films and demand that Hollywood do a better job in the future. Films like Wonder Woman and Black Panther have endlessly proven a little representation goes a long way and the world is a diverse and endlessly changing entity which filmmakers should strive to portray for their eager and captivated audiences.


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