This year the Academy has more women to consider than ever before. Several new studies reveal that women in Hollywood are breaking new ground, both in front of and behind the camera. But it’s not all good news, as the research reveals that the highest grossing films were still largely dominated by men. 

Number Of Female Protagonists Increases

The biggest gains for women were in the percentage of top films with female protagonists in 2019. The percentage of female protagonists rose significantly from 31% in 2018 to 40% in 2019 according to a new study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. The study examined more than 2,300 characters from the top 100 grossing films of last year. Box office hits including Captain Marvel, Little Women and Frozen 2 contributed to these gains in the number of sole female protagonists in studio features. Male protagonists were featured in 43% of the films, and the remaining 17% had a combination of male and female protagonists. 

Men Get Two Thirds Of Speaking Roles

Despite gains in the number of female protagonists, audiences were shockingly still almost twice as likely to see male characters as female characters on screen in the top grossing films of 2019. And, to make things worse, the percentage of women with speaking roles was down from the previous year. Females made up 34% of all speaking characters in 2019, a decrease of 1% from 2018. Men accounted for the remaining 66% of the speaking characters. 

Female Characters Were Younger Than Male Characters

Perhaps not surprisingly, the women on screen were younger than their male counterparts. According to the San Diego State study, the majority of female characters were in their 20s (22%) and 30s (31%), while men were more likely to be in their 30s (32%) and 40s (26%).

Men Dominate Behind The Scenes

Another report by San Diego State examined the gender balance in the behind the scenes workers on the top 100 grossing films of 2019. Men have long dominated the director, writer, producer, executive producer, editor and cinematographer roles, and 2019 was no exception. Women comprised only 20% of these roles, although this was up from 16% in 2018. Only 12 of the top 100 films had female directors.

Women of Color Severely Underrepresented In Directors’ Chairs

Another study by the USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative examined both gender and racial disparities in the director’s chair. According to this study, four women of color helmed a top 100 movie in 2019. Stacy Smith, USC professor and study author, cautions against celebrating the record number of women of color in the director’s chair. She explains, “Less than 1% of all directors across 13 years were women of color. In fact, only 13 women [from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups] have directed a top film in 13 years.”

No Gender Differences In Critics’ Reviews

So why are so few women behind the camera? To determine if male-directed films were somehow better than female-directed films, the USC study examined critics’ reviews of the films. They analyzed Metacritic scores from 2007 to 2019, which are basically a weighted average of reviews from top critics and publications for a given film. They found no differences in Metacritic scores for male or female-directed movies, suggesting no skill differences between male and female directors.

One interesting finding did emerge with respect to women of color. Women of color received the best critical reviews (highest Metacritic scores) for their films compared to white men, white women, and men of color. Due to the small number of films directed by women of color, it’s not clear whether these results were reliable or will be able to be replicated in the future. 

Female Directors Less Likely To Obtain Nominations

Despite getting equal (or better) critical acclaim, women don’t seem to get recognition when it comes time for nominations for key awards. Smith notes, “Recognition from peers and other industry members can provide a critical boost to a director’s career. The public prominence that can result from a high-profile nomination can also create new role models for aspiring filmmakers or students.” 

Yet after examining the gender of director nominations across the last 13 years for the four major awards shows, the researchers found that 95% of nominations went to male directors. Only 5% went to women, and only one of these was a woman of color (Ava DuVernay). 

Clearly 2019 was a year of progress for women, but there’s still a long way to go. Having more women behind the camera can change the way we think about directors and leaders and having more meaningful roles for women can alter stereotypes about gender. Let’s hope more women receive the nods they deserve in the upcoming awards season.


Photo Source: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP