A Terrible Year for the Box Office, An Even-Worse Year for Women’s Roles

The percentage of top grossing films with female protagonists dropped by almost 28% in 2020.

Promising Young Woman Carey Mulligan
Hollywood movies are still a male-dominated product by and large. Focus Features

The percentage of top grossing films featuring female protagonists dropped dramatically from 40% in 2019 to 29% — a downturn of almost 28% — in 2020, according to the latest It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World report released today by Dr. Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. Meanwhile, 49% of films featured male protagonists, and 22% had ensembles. The study defines protagonists as characters from whose perspective the story is told.

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The box office totals tell a sad story, though the depressed economics of the film industry at large in 2020 can also be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. box office plummeted 80% last year to a 40-year low of just $2.2 billion.

However, the percentages of females as major characters and in speaking roles increased slightly last year. The percentage of major female characters rose from 37% in 2019 to 38% in 2020. Major characters appear in more than one scene and are instrumental to the action of the story. The percentage of female characters in speaking roles (major and minor) climbed from 34% in 2019 to 36% in 2020.

“As protagonists in films, females took a step back in 2020, after two consecutive years of growth. This decline is reflected in the low number of female-driven films nominated for a best picture Oscars,” Lauzen noted. Of the eight Best Picture nominees this year, just two (Promising Young WomanNomadland) revolve around female protagonists.

According to the study, 78% of films featured more male than female characters. Only 17% of films had more female than male characters, and 5% of films featured equal numbers of female and male characters.

Regarding race and ethnicity, the percentage of Black females in speaking roles declined from 20% in 2019 to 17% in 2020. The percentage of Latinas increased slightly from 5% in 2019 to 6% in 2020. The percentage of Asian females declined from 7% in 2019 to 6% in 2020.

For over a decade, the annual Celluloid Report has examined the most fundamental characteristics of females on screen. Every edition of this study has found:

  • female characters remain substantially younger than male characters.
  • female characters are more likely than males to have a known marital status.
  • male characters are more likely than females to have a known occupation.

Female characters remain younger than their male counterparts, dramatically declining in number when they reach their 40s. The percentage of female characters dropped from 29% in their 30s to 16% in their 40s. The percentage of male characters only declined slightly from 31% in their 30s to 28% in their 40s. Further, films in 2020 featured almost twice as many male characters 60 and older as female characters (10% vs. 6%).

This is also reflected in the striking age disparity between male and female acting nominees at major awards ceremonies such as the Oscars and Emmys. This year, the average age of the Best Actress nominees at the Academy Awards is 44.2 while the average age of Best Actor nominees is 52.8. Last year, it was 37.6 versus 51.4.

“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 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.”

This year’s study reports the findings of a content analysis of over 1,700 characters appearing in the 100 top (domestic) grossing films of 2020. Overall, the study has considered the representation of almost 22,000 characters appearing in approximately 1,000 films released between 2002 and 2020.

A Terrible Year for the Box Office, An Even-Worse Year for Women’s Roles