movie slate behind red popcorn bucket
A new report from Associate Professor of Communication Stacy L. Smith and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative reveals that the number of girls and women in lead/co lead roles in top films was identical to 2010.

2023 was a historic low for women leads/co-leads of top films

Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig may have been snubbed by the Academy Awards this year, but that is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the entertainment industry’s exclusion of women. A new report reveals that the top-grossing films of 2023 featured the same number of girls or women in leading roles as 2010.

The report from Associate Professor of Communication Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative covers 1,700 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2023 and examines the gender, race/ethnicity, and age of the leading and co-leading actors for each movie.

Only 30 of the 100 top-grossing movies in 2023 had a girl or woman in a lead or co-lead role. This is a substantial downturn from 2022 when 44 films had a girl/woman lead. The number of movies with a girl/woman lead in 2023 was identical to 2010. The report breaks down the percentage of films with girls/women leads by distributor. Walt Disney Studios and Paramount Pictures held the top spots while Universal Pictures and Lionsgate Films were in last place. These findings are in stark contrast to what the researchers have observed in Netflix content, where over half of all feature films since 2019 have depicted a female lead/co-lead.

“This is a catastrophic step back for girls and women in film,” Smith said. “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.’ These numbers are more than just a metric of how often girls and women are in protagonist roles. They represent the career opportunities offered to women in the film industry. This year, we found that those opportunities have drastically constricted. Even by looking at the films that were moved to 2024 because of the strike, we cannot explain the collapse of women leads/co-leads in 2023 other than to say that this is an industry failure.”

There was one bright spot in the research– the percentage of lead/co-lead actors from an underrepresented racial/ethnic group increased from 2022. In 2023, 37 top-grossing films had a lead/co-lead from an underrepresented racial/ethnic group compared to 31 in 2022. Films released by “other” distributors, Walt Disney Studios, and Warner Bros. Pictures had the highest percentage of underrepresented leads. Paramount Pictures (22.2%) and Lionsgate (20%) released the lowest percentage of movies with underrepresented leads/co-leads. No company reflected proportional representation with U.S. Census figures (41.1%).

“Notably, the increase in underrepresented leads was not driven by content from the legacy studios,” Smith said. “It was films from smaller distributors and international fare that were responsible for the uptick we found in 2023. This year should have reflected the commitments major studios made in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, but these are not the places responsible for the push for greater inclusion.”

The increases for underrepresented leads/co-leads did not translate to women of color. A total of 14 movies in 2023 had a woman of color as the protagonist compared to 18 in 2022. While the 2023 figure is substantially higher than the lone film from 2007 with a woman of color in a leading role, it is still a decrease from 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. “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.”

The age of leads/co-leads was also a focus of the study. Only 3 movies in 2023 had a woman aged 45 or older in a leading or co-leading role. Only 1 was a woman of color. There were 8 films with an underrepresented man in a leading role who was 45 years of age or older. In contrast, 24 films had a white man age 45 or older in a leading/co-leading role.

Finally, the report investigated how often directors of films with women and underrepresented leads/co-leads were from the same identity group. Of the 30 movies with a girl or woman in a lead/co-lead role, 36.7% were directed by women and 63.3% were directed by men. Roughly half (51.3%) of the 37 films with an underrepresented lead/co-lead had an underrepresented director, while 48.7% did not. In contrast, 4.3% of films without a girl/woman lead had a woman director and 9.5% of films without an underrepresented lead had an underrepresented director.

“There is a clear relationship between who works behind the camera and who we see on screen,” Smith said. “Yet opportunities are still curtailed for women and people of color. Even when the identity of the director might correspond to the identity of the lead character we still find that women and people of color face limits that their white male peers do not.”

“In light of the multiple bills introduced in state legislatures with the goal of restricting or eliminating DEI initiatives at public universities, storytelling matters more than ever,” Smith continued. “The entertainment industry can serve an important role in our democracy to champion diverse and inclusive voices both on screen and behind the camera—but that is not what we see happening this year. A change is needed, and quickly, let entertainment become one more institution that falls to outdated, biased, and exclusionary rhetoric.”

The report is the latest from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and can be found here.