Even if you loved ‘Barbie,’ don’t expect a rush of women-led movies

Barbie‘s success was monumental. Unfortunately, it’s not the full picture of what’s happening to women in Hollywood.

Barbie dominated conversations amongst friends, at the water cooler, and at family dinners. The Greta Gerwig creation, led by Oscar nominee Margot Robbie was omnipresent cultural force last year. Featuring numerous women in starring roles and behind the camera, the film was seen as a success for women in film, but a recent study shows a different side to this story.

The study It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World: Portrayals of Female Characters in the Top Grossing U.S. Films of 2023 analyzed 2200 characters from top-grossing films and found that only 77% of them had more more male character speaking roles than female character speaking roles. The report developed by Dr. Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, showed that 18% of the top-grossing films had more female characters than male ones and 5% of the films evaluated had equal numbers of female and male characters.

While the report tracks the changes within 2023, Dr. Lauzen’s team began tracking female representation in film for over two decades. Unfortunately, the results have been dismal. Dr. Lauzen’s team uncovered that women in speaking roles declined from 37% from the previous year to 35% in 2023, films with sole female protagonists dipped from 33% to 28%, and the number of female characters within major roles remained at 38%.

Additionally, transgender speaking characters only made up 0.1% of that 35% of women in speaking roles. Not to mention, for women of color, there was a steady decline in on-screen representation with the exception of Asian and Native American women increasing from 8.1% to 9.2% and 0% to 0.6% respectively. Characters for Black women and Latine women decreased from 18% to 15.3% and 6.9% and 6.3% respectively.

“Because ‘Barbie’ claimed so much of our cultural space in 2023, female characters may have seemed more abundant in films last year,” Dr. Lauzen stated. “But the overall percentage of female characters in speaking roles contracted, as did the percentage of female protagonists.” 

Age also played a role. The study highlighted that female characters were younger than male characters, with female character representation starkly declining from their 30s (30%) to their 40s (13%). However, male characters did not experience a decrease until they reached their 50s.

While the behind camera, directors and screenwriters like Gerwig, Celine Song, Sofia Coppola, A.V. Rockwell, and more shined during awards season, their efforts ensured that more women were represented on-screen. Movies that had one woman as a director and/or screenwriter were more likely to have a higher percentage of female characters as protagonists, in major roles, and as speaking characters that male filmmakers. Barbie dominated the culture in 2023, but this study shows that there’s still a long way to go for proper representation for women on-screen in film.

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