The COVID-19 pandemic may have changed the moviegoing experience in significant ways, but it did not result in greater inclusion for marginalized groups. A new report maps where there has been progress—and where there hasn’t—across the most popular films from the last year.
The study by Associate Professor of Communication Stacy L. Smith and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative provides an update to the group’s longitudinal investigation of top-grossing movies. This year, the report covers the 1,600 top films from 2007 to 2022, with a particular focus on the most popular films from 2022. A total of 69,858 speaking characters were examined in the study, which explores gender, race/ethnicity, LGBTQ+ identity, and characters with disabilities. This is the largest and most rigorous analysis of inclusion in film to date.
The percentage of girls and women in leading and co-leading roles reached a 16-year high in 2022 of 44%. However, there was absolutely no change in the percentage of female-identified speaking characters, which at 34.6% was only 4.7 percentage points higher than the 29.9% of characters in 2007. Additionally, only 15% of 2022’s top 100 films featured a cast that was gender-balanced, or featured girls and women in 45-54.9% of speaking roles. This is not different from 2007. There was only one gender non-binary character across the 100 top films of 2022.
“It is clear that the entertainment industry has little desire or motivation to improve casting processes in a way that creates meaningful change for girls and women,” Smith said. “The lack of progress is particularly disappointing following decades of activism and advocacy.”
Turning to race/ethnicity, 31 of the top films in 2022 featured an individual from an underrepresented racial/ethnic group in a lead/co-lead role. This represents progress since 2007 (13 films) but fell below the 16-year high reached in 2021 (37 films).
Among all speaking characters, there was only notable progress for one community on screen. The percentage of Asian characters increased from 3.4% in 2007 to 15.9% in 2022. While the percentage of white characters decreased over the same time frame, there were no other differences observed for characters from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. Across the top 100 films in 2022, 38.3% of all speaking characters were underrepresented, slightly below the U.S. population benchmark of 41.1%.
When examining the intersection of gender and race/ethnicity, the authors found that for girls and women of color in leading/co-leading roles, 2022 was a high point. Nineteen movies had an underrepresented female-identified lead, an increase from 1 film in 2007 but little different than the 16 movies in 2021 or the 17 in 2019 with a girl/woman of color as a protagonist.
Further, the report includes an “invisibility analysis” to show how many films failed to feature even one female-identified speaking character from specific racial/ethnic groups. In 2022, there were no films that included an American Indian/Alaska Native girl/woman, 99 were missing Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander girls/women, and 95 did not have even one Middle Eastern/North African female-identified character. Seventy films were missing Multiracial/Multiethnic girls/women, 61 did not feature any Hispanic/Latinas, 44 did not have any Asian girls/women, and 32 were missing Black/African American girls/women. In contrast, 7 movies did not include any white girls/women on screen.
“These trends suggest that any improvement for people from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups is limited,” Smith said. “While it is encouraging to see changes for leading characters and for the Asian community, our data on invisibility suggests that there is still much more to be done to ensure that the diversity that exists in reality is portrayed on screen.”
Only 2.1% of speaking characters in the top films of 2022 were LGBTQ+, a percentage that has not changed meaningfully since 2014. There were 5 transgender characters identified in the top films of 2022, which is a 9-year high point for the report. However, 4 of these 5 characters appeared in just one movie, Bros. Of the 87 total LGBTQ+ characters depicted in 2022, more than half were male-identified and 58.8% were white. A total of 72 movies in 2022 did not feature even one LGBTQ+ character and 84 were missing girls/women who were LGBTQ+.
The report also explored the prevalence of characters with disabilities. In 2022, 1.9% of all speaking characters were depicted with a disability. There has been no change in the portrayal of characters with disabilities since 2015 when the percentage was 2.4%. Most characters with a disability were shown with a physical disability (82.7%), followed by communicative disabilities (33.3%) and cognitive disabilities (17.3%). Fifty-four films in 2022 did not feature a character with a disability on screen, and 76 were missing girls and women with disabilities. The majority (69.1%) of characters with disabilities were male-identified and 76% were white.
“When we look beyond gender and race/ethnicity, it is clear that Hollywood’s problems with inclusion are even more pronounced for the LGBTQ+ and disability communities,” Smith said. “The lack of progress in these areas suggests that executives and content creators are relying on practices that continue to marginalize and exclude talented voices from all backgrounds.”
Behind the camera, the report examined inclusion among key film personnel. In 2022, 8.8% of top-grossing film directors were women, a percentage which has not changed from 2021 (12.4%) and, while an increase from 2007 (2.7%), is on par with 2008 (8%). A total of 88 individual women have directed a top-grossing movie over the last 16 years, compared to 833 men.
Among screenwriters, 16.3% of the top-grossing writers were women in 2022. This figure was consistent with 2021 (16.8%) but reflects an increase since 2007 (11.2%). The authors found a similar trend for producers. While 26.8% of producers were women in 2022, this was similar to 2021 (24.8%) but higher than 2007 (19.7%). The authors did identify a significant increase for women working as composers on popular films. In 2022, 8.2% of composers were women, which was a 16-year high point, particularly as there were no women composers of top films in 2007. Finally, the gender of casting directors was assessed. Women comprised 81.4% of casting directors in 2022, an increase from 70.4% in 2021 but slightly below 2007 (86.1%).
In terms of race/ethnicity, 19.5% of directors were from an underrepresented racial/ethnic group in 2022. Across all of 2022’s directors, 80.5% were white, 10.6% were Asian, 3.5% were Black, 3.5% were Multiracial/Multiethnic, and 1.8% were Hispanic/Latino. Only 3 directors were women of color; all were Black women. Over the 16-year sample, only 5.2% of directors were Black men and few were Asian (4.3%) or Hispanic/Latino (3.7%) men. Women of color comprised a mere 1.6% of directors across all 1,600 films.
In addition to describing the current state of inclusion, the authors provide solutions that focus on changing the process that result in skewed outcomes and using criteria in decision-making. “We have offered these same solutions for years,” Smith said. “It’s clear that the industry is either not listening or not implementing the straightforward practices that would result in an influx of talented artists from a variety of backgrounds. Until the industry takes meaningful action, not only will companies miss out on these perspectives and stories, so will audiences.”
The study is the latest from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and can be found here.