Hollywood 2022: Women of Color Still Underrepresented as Movie Leads

Women of Color Still Underrepresented as Movie Leads

Among the lead or co-leads in 2021’s 100 highest-grossing films, 41 percent were women, and 32 percent hailed from a historically excluded race or ethnicity, according to the latest research brief from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.

Over the last several years, the shares of movie protagonists who are women or people from the global majority have fluctuated within a handful of percentage points, but both remain disproportionate to the real-life U.S. population.

In its latest study, USC’s Inclusion Initiative, which has annually tracked gender and race/ethnicity of lead characters for the 100 highest-grossing films each year since 2007, reports that 41 percent of leads or co-leads in 2021 were women, and 32 percent were from a historically excluded race or ethnicity. (Nearly 40 percent — 39.9 percent — of the U.S. population is not white.)

“We cannot underestimate the positive impact these 32 movies can have on young audiences of color,” lead author Katherine L. Neff said in a statement. “People of color deserve to be at the heart of storytelling.”

Inequality in 1,500 Popular Films also found that just 11 of the 100 films in 2021 featured a woman of color as lead or co-lead.

Back in 2007, the earliest year AI2 began analyzing such data, only one film managed that feat (Dreamgirls), whereas 2019 featured a high of 17. Older women (those 45 and up) were also much less likely to star in a movie than their male counterparts: seven movies versus 27. Although seven men of color were leads or co-leads in 2021, not a single non-white woman over 45 was tapped for such a part last year or the year before.

“It is clear that the industry still believes women have a ‘sell-by’ date in film,” AI2 founder Stacy L. Smith said in a statement. “The lack of stories about women age 45 and older demonstrates the industry’s regard for women in this age bracket. Additionally, women of color age 45 and older are invisible in leading roles. What does this convey to audiences about the power and strength of women in midlife and beyond?”

The research brief also looked at the distributors behind the films. The vast majority of Disney movies (85.7 percent) starred a woman, and more than half (57.1 percent) of the studio’s releases in 2021 featured a lead or co-lead from a historically excluded race or ethnicity. 20th Century Studios (54.5 percent) and Paramount (50 percent) also achieved gender parity in their lead roles, while Warner Bros. (41.2 percent) achieved proportionate representation in terms of people of color.