Women and actors of color made slight gains at the top of the highest-grossing movies of 2021, according to new research released Monday by Stacy L. Smith’s USC Anennberg Inclusion Initiative.
Among the 100 highest-grossing films of 2021, 41% of films had a female lead/co-lead, a rebound from 36% in 2020 and slightly below the peak of 43% in 2019. 2021 demonstrates progress since 2007, when the percentage of films with a female lead/co-lead was 20%. However, popular films still do not feature girls and women as leaders/co-leaders on par with their share of the US population.
“The advocacy and activism surrounding on-screen girls and women in film has been at an all-time high for over 10 years,” Smith said in a statement. “As the industry considers the fallout from the pandemic and the changing cinema market, policymakers should be wary that the progress they have made may stagnate or even reverse.”
The percentage of films with a lead/co-lead of underrepresented racial/ethnic groups also remained constant. In 2021, 32% of films had an underrepresented lead/co-lead, compared to 28% of films in 2020. Last year was similar to 2019 (32%) and represents a significant increase from 2007 (13% ). However, the percentage of films with an underrepresented lead/co-lead is still lower than the representation proportional to the American population (39.9%).
“We cannot underestimate the positive impact these 32 films can have on young audiences of color,” added Katherine L. Neff, lead author of the study. “Being able to see yourself on screen, and seeing yourself and people who look like you as a hero or a leader in a variety of different movies wasn’t an option when I was younger. People of color deserve to be at the heart of the narrative.
The study also examines the percentage of girls and women of color at the center of the storytelling. Only 11 films had an underrepresented female lead/co-lead in 2021, which is similar to 2020, when nine films centered on an underrepresented female lead/co-lead. 2021 represents a decrease from the peak of 17 films with an underrepresented female lead/co-lead in 2019, although an increase from 2007 (one film).
Movies were much less likely to have women aged 45 or older in lead/co-lead roles than men of the same age. Seven films in 2021 and four in 2020 featured middle-aged and older women, compared to 27 in 2021 and 22 in 2020 that featured middle-aged and older men. No film in 2021 or 2020 had a woman of color aged 45 or older in a lead/co-lead role, although seven men of color in that age bracket were the focus of top films in 2021 and in 2020.
“Clearly the industry still believes that women have a sell-by date in film,” Dr. Smith said. “The lack of stories about women 45 and older demonstrates the industry’s consideration for women in this age range. Additionally, women of color aged 45 and older are invisible in lead roles. What does this convey to the audience about the power and strength of women in their 40s and beyond? »
The study also presents the results of films released in 2021 by major and mini-major distributors. Walt Disney Studios was in the lead, as 85.7% of the company’s films had a female lead/co-lead and 57.1% had an underrepresented lead/co-lead. 20th Century Studios (54.5%) and Paramount Pictures (50%) both met or exceeded population-level representation for female leads/co-leads, while Warner Bros. (41.2%) did this for underrepresented leads/co-leaders.