Report: 2023 Was A Historically Low Year For Representation Of Women In Lead Film Roles



Mar. 20 2024, Published 8:10 a.m. ET

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The top grossing films of 2023 featured a historically low number of women lead or co-lead, according to a new report from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which showed 2023’s top films had the same number of girls or women in leading roles as films in 2010: 30%.

Only 30 of the 100 top-grossing films had women in leading roles, a significant downturn from 202s, which saw 44 films with a woman or girl lead, according to the report, which analyzed 1,700 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2023 and examined gender, race/ethnicity, and age of leading and co-leading actors for each movie.

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“This is a catastrophic step back for girls and women in film,” said Stacy L. Smith, report author and USC Annenberg associate professor of communication, in a news release. “In the last 14 years, we have charted progress in the industry, so to see this reversal is both startling and in direct contrast to all of the talk of 2023 as the ‘year of the woman.’”

According to the report, Walt Disney Studios and Paramount Picture had the most number of girl/woman leads, while Universal Pictures and Lionsgate Films had the least. In contrast, researchers at USC Annenberg recently reported that more than half of all feature films by Netflix since 2019 have had a women lead or co-lead.

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Representation For Underrepresented Groups

One the positive side, the report found that the percentage of lead/co-leads from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group increased from 2022, up to 37 films in 2023 from 31 in 2022. Walt Disney Studios, Warner Bros. Pictures and “other” distributors had the highest number of underrepresented leads, while Paramount Pictures and Lionsgate had the lowest.

Notably, no film company reflected a proportional representation of the US Census figures (40%) in their films.

That increase in underrepresented leads did not translate to women of color leads, according to the report. Fourteen movies in 2023 had a woman of color as the protagonist, compared to 18 films in 2022.

“The film industry continues to not show up for girls and women and the backpedaling on progress for women of color in leading roles is disappointing,” said Katherine Neff, the study’s lead author, in the press release. “This is true not only for young women of color but for underrepresented women in middle age and older, whose stories are often completely erased.”

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The Gender Age Gap

The study also looked at the ages of leads and co-leads, finding that only three movies in 2023 had a woman aged 45 or older in a leading or co-lead role, and only one was a woman of color. Comparatively, there were eight films with an underrepresented man in a leading role who was 45 years old or older. Twenty-four films had a white man aged 45 or older in a lead role, the study said.

Another area of research was how often directors of films with women and underrepresented leads/co-leads were from the same identity group. Of the 30 top-grossing films in 2023 that had a girl or a woman lead/co-lead, 36.7% were directed by women, and 63.3% were directed by men, the report showed. About half (51.3%) of the 37 films with an underrepresented lead/co-lead had an underrepresented director.

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By: Gillian Smith

Gillian Smith is a professional communicator by day and night, leveraging more than a decade in the news industry to share stories that have a positive impact on society. Gillian believes everyone has a story worth telling, and she has made it her professional mission to tell those stories in a responsible way. Gillian received a BA in journalism from Ithaca College and a Master's in Journalism Innovation from Syracuse University. She is currently the director of external communication and media relations at Suffolk University.

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