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Study Finds Drop in Female Protagonists in 2020, Continued Ageism

Promising Young Woman Oscars
Promising Young Woman Oscars

According to this year’s “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World” study, female protagonists in 2020 were lower than the previous two years. Other findings confirmed large age gaps between male actors and female actors.

The percentage of major female characters grew 1 percentage point in the last year, from 37% in 2019 to 38% in 2020. The percentage of speaking female characters grew 2 percentage points, from 34% to 36%. However, despite these small increases, the percentage of female protagonists dropped 11 percentage points, from 40% to 29%.  

For the study, protagonists were defined as whether or not the story was told from their perspective. The study took into account the top 100 grossing films of the year, analyzing over 1,700 characters in the process. Further findings showed that 79% of films contained more male than female characters. 4% of films featured an equal number. 

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Interestingly, in 2020 female protagonists were most likely to appear in horror films (39%) and not so likely to lead comedies (9%). Male protagonists, on the other hand, were most likely to appear in dramas (49%) and least likely to lead a horror film (8%). 

Representation of women of color did not improve in 2020. 71% of female characters in 2020 were white. This marks a 3% increase from 2019. 

Age discrepancies between male and female characters were also apparent. The majority of female characters were in their 20s (24%) and 30s (29%). The majority of male characters were in their 30s (31%) and 40s (28%). Male characters over 40 accounted for 52% of all male characters. For females it was only 32%. For characters over 60, there were nearly twice as many male characters as female characters. 

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“We see a handful of mature female actresses and assume that ageism has declined in Hollywood. But unless your last name happens to be Streep or McDormand, chances are you’re not working much in film,” Lauzen, founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, stated. “The tendency to feature younger female characters in films emphasizes the value of their youth and appearance at the expense of allowing females to age into positions of personal and professional power.”

Lauzen also pointed out that the drop in female protagonists is evident in the Oscar nominees. This year, “Only two films on this year’s slate of nominees, ‘Nomadland’ and ‘Promising Young Woman’ feature female protagonists.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, representation behind the camera had an effect on representation in front of it. In films with at least on female writer and/or director, 60% of protagonists were female. However, when there were exclusively male writers and directors, only 17% of protagonists were women. This is further evidence that Hollywood’s representation issues need to be dealt with behind the scenes as well. 

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It will be interesting to see the results of the study moving forward. Was 2020 just an anomaly, considering the Covid pandemic and varied release dates? Or will this drop in female protagonists persist?

For more information, you can read the full report here.

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