When Hollywood executives greenlight a major movie, they’re still likely to default to a white man as the hero. Despite some improvements in the last decade, the protagonists are still far from reflecting the diversity of the U.S. population, a major theme in a research brief released Monday by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.
One of the group’s annual studies assesses the diversity of leading and co-leading characters in the year’s most popular movies. Among the top 100 highest-grossing movies of 2021, 41% featured a female lead or co-lead, the study found. It’s a significant improvement from just 20% in 2007, the first year the initiative, founded by USC professor Stacy L. Smith, began its annual studies. But it’s just about the same as in 2019, when the percentage of top movies featuring a female protagonist reached a record of 43%. Over the last four years, that number has hovered around 40%, which is still below gender parity.
Throughout the research brief, the researchers used 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, as a particular point of comparison. This was in order to assess whether Hollywood’s gains in inclusion — made only after years of significant public pressure — have continued or waned.
“The advocacy and activism surrounding girls and women on screen in film has been at a fever pitch for more than 10 years,” Smith said in a press release. “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 racial and ethnic diversity of film protagonists has similarly hit a plateau. Of the 100 top movies in 2021, just 32% featured a person of color as the lead or co-lead. Over the last few years, that number has largely remained flat and continues to be below proportional representation. (According to the latest census, about 40% of the U.S. population identifies as a person of color.)
Women of color still rarely get to lead a major Hollywood movie, the researchers found. In 2019, 17 of the top 100 highest-grossing movies had a leading or co-leading character who was a woman of color. In 2021, the number actually declined somewhat significantly. Only 11 of the top movies had a woman of color as one of its protagonists: Gemma Chan in “Eternals,” Stephanie Beatriz in “Encanto,” Kelly Marie Tran in “Raya and the Last Dragon,” Rachel Zegler in “West Side Story,” Taylor Russell in “Escape Room: Tournament of Champions,” Jennifer Hudson in “Respect,” Isabela Merced in “Spirit: Untamed,” Maggie Q in “The Protege,” Alexis Louder in “Copshop,” Taylour Paige in “Zola” and Chanté Adams in “A Journal for Jordan.”
Finally, the researchers analyzed diversity in age, confirming there is often a disturbing “sell-by date” for older women on screen. Hollywood is generally OK with showing men aging on screen, with 27 top movies in 2021 featuring a man 45 or older as a leading character. By contrast, only seven of the top 100 films in 2021 featured a female protagonist who was 45 or older. All seven of those women were white.
The group warns that many of these decisions are made with an unfounded sense of financial risk. Hollywood executives still seem to be far more willing to take a chance on stories about white men, viewing them as a safer bet than stories about women and people of color, despite so much financial evidence to the contrary.
“Companies and producers must critically examine the resources given to films with women and underrepresented leads — and women of color in leading roles in particular. Then, companies must level the field by ensuring that the movies starring women and people of color are not systematically disadvantaged through the allotment of budgets, marketing, or in the distribution process,” the researchers wrote. “At each stage of the green light and budget trajectory, executives must seek to decouple ‘risk’ from identity and assess whether the questions they ask themselves to gauge ‘risk’ for films with women and underrepresented leads are the same they pose about white male-driven movies.”
The research brief is part of the group’s fuller study of the diversity of characters in Hollywood films, which will also include LGBTQ and disability representation and will be released later this year.