Despite industry upheaval, the story is the same for women, people of color in leading roles

The coronavirus pandemic upended the theatrical film market in 2020 and 2021, but despite the industry upheaval, a new report shows that at least a few things haven’t changed in popular films. 

The research brief, entitled “Inequality in 1,500 Popular films,” is the latest from Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, and resumes the Initiative’s annual look at gender and race/ethnicity of lead/co-leads of top-grossing films, spanning 2007 to 2021.

Across the 100 top-grossing films of 2021, 41% of movies had a female lead/co-lead, a rebound from 36% in 2020 and slightly below the plateau of 43% in 2019. 2021 demonstrates the progress made since 2007, when the percentage of films with a female lead/co-lead was 20%. However, popular films still do not present girls and women as leads/co-leads on par with their share of the U.S. population.

“The advocacy and activism surrounding girls and women on screen in film has been at a fever pitch for more than 10 years,” said Smith. “While the industry reckons with the fallout of the pandemic and the evolving theatrical market, decision-makers must be wary that the progress they have made can stagnate or even reverse.”

The percentage of films with a lead/co-lead from an underrepresented racial/ethnic group also remained consistent with prior years. In 2021, 32% of movies had an underrepresented lead/co-lead, compared to 28% of films in 2020. 2021 was similar to 2019 (32% or 32 movies) and represents a significant increase from 2007 (13 movies). However, the percentage of films with an underrepresented lead/co-lead is still below proportional representation to the U.S. population (39.9%).

“We cannot underestimate the positive impact the 32 movies with leads and co-leads of color released in 2021 can have on young audiences of color,” said the study’s lead author, Katherine L. Neff. “To be able to see yourself on screen, and to see yourself and people that look like you as the hero or leader in a variety of different films was not an option when I was younger. People of color deserve to be at the heart of storytelling.”

The research brief also examines the percentage of girls and women of color at the center of storytelling. In 2021, only 11 films had an underrepresented female lead/co-lead, which is similar to 2020, when nine films were centered on an underrepresented female lead/co-lead. This represents a decrease from 2019, when 17 films had an underrepresented female lead/co-lead. In comparison, in 2007, only one film featured an underrepresented female lead/co-lead.

Movies were far less likely to have women aged 45 or older in lead/co-lead roles than men in the same age bracket. Seven films in 2021 and four in 2020 featured women at mid-life and older, compared to 27 films in 2021 and 22 films in 2020 that featured men in this same age range. No films in 2021 or 2020 had a woman of color age 45 or older in a lead/co-lead role, though seven men of color in that age bracket were the focus of top films in 2021 and in 2020. 

“It is clear that the industry still believes women have a ‘sell-by’ date in film,” said Smith. “The lack of stories about women aged 45 and older demonstrates the industry’s regard for women in this age bracket. Additionally, women of color aged 45 and older are invisible in leading roles. What does this convey to audiences about the power and strength of women in mid-life and beyond?”

The brief also presents the findings across films released in 2021 by major and mini-major distributors. Walt Disney Studios led, as 85.7% of the company’s films had a female lead/co-lead and 57.1% had an underrepresented lead/co-lead. 20th Century Studios (54.5%) and Paramount Pictures (50%) both met or exceeded population-level representation for female leads/co-leads, while Warner Bros. (41.2%) did so for underrepresented leads/co-leads.

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