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2023 Marked ‘Historic Low’ for Women in Leading Film Roles, According to New Study: ‘This Is an Industry Failure’

In a year where the box office was dominated by the $1.4 billion-grossing “Barbie” — produced by its star Margot Robbie and directed by Greta Gerwig — one might expect to find a plethora of other hit films led by women and girls among Hollywood’s top earners.

However, 2023 marked a historic low for women in leading roles among the year’s 100 top-grossing films, according to the latest USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative report.

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Researchers led by Dr. Stacy L. Smith found a major regression in terms of representation, with only 30 movies featuring women and girls in lead and co-lead roles. That figure marks a sharp downturn from 2022, which tallied 44 films, and a number identical to that in 2010.

“This is a catastrophic step back for girls and women in film,’” Smith stated in a press release describing the research findings. “In the last 14 years, we have charted progress in the industry, so to see this reversal is both startling and in direct contrast to all of the talk of 2023 as the ‘year of the woman.'”

The study — authored by Katherine L. Neff, Smith and Dr. Katherine Pieper — covers 1,700 top-grossing films released from 2007 to 2023 and examines the gender, race/ethnicity and age of the leading and co-leading actors for each movie.

“These numbers are more than just a metric of how often girls and women are in protagonist roles. They represent the career opportunities offered to women in the film industry,” Smith explained. “This year, we found that those opportunities have drastically constricted. Even by looking at the films that were moved to 2024 because of the strike, we cannot explain the collapse of women leads/co leads in 2023 other than to say that this is an industry failure.”

Researchers noted some progress, including the fact that 37 of the 100 top-grossing films were led by an actor from an underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, increasing from 31 in 2022. However, these did not translate to women of color, who were the protagonist in just 14 movies, down from 18 in 2022, thought that figure is substantially higher than 2007, when just one movie was led by a woman of color.

In order of box office receipts, those 14 women were: Halle Bailey (“The Little Mermaid”), Dominique Fishback (“Transformers: Rise of the Beasts”), Leah Lewis (“Elemental”), Melissa Barrera (“Scream VI”), Ariana DeBose (“Wish”), Fantasia Barrino (“The Color Purple”), Sophie Wilde (“Talk to Me”), Storm Reid (“Missing”), Salma Hayek (“Magic Mike’s Last Dance”), Lana Condor (“Ruby Gillman, Teenage Kraken”), Ashley Park (“Joy Ride”), Ayo Edebiri (“Bottoms”), Nichole Sakura (“Suzume”) and Greta Lee (“Past Lives”). Variety confirmed that “Killers of the Flower Moon” star Lily Gladstone, who become the first Native American woman to be nominated for best actress at the Academy Awards, is categorized as a supporting character for the purposes of this study.

“The film industry continues to not show up for girls and women and the backpedaling on progress for women of color in leading roles is disappointing,” stated Neff, the report’s lead author. “This is true not only for young women of color but for underrepresented women in middle age and older, whose stories are often completely erased.”

Only 3 films featured a women 45 years of age or older in a lead or co-lead role: Keri Russell in “Cocaine Bear,” Nia Vardalos in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and Salma Hayek in “Magic Mike’s Last Dance,” who was also the only woman of color to make the list. Notably, the study excludes the ensemble films “80 for Brady” and “Book Club: The Next Chapter,” which were both driven by all-women casts of actors over 45.

In contrast, 32 films depicted a man in the same age bracket, meaning that for every 1 film led by an older woman, there were 10.7 led by an older man. Twenty-four of those parts were played by white men and 8 by underrepresented actors, including Bradley Cooper (“Maestro”), Cillian Murphy (“Oppenheimer”), Denzel Washington (“The Equalizer 3”), Harrison Ford (“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny”), Jeffrey Wright (“American Fiction”), Keanu Reeves (“John Wick 4”), Leonardo DiCaprio (“Killers of the Flower Moon”), Paul Giamatti (“The Holdovers”), Tom Cruise (“Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning”) and Vin Diesel (“Fast X”).

Breaking the findings down by distributor, Walt Disney Studios featured the most female-driven films with 46.1% of the year’s output centered on at least one girl/woman, followed by Paramount (44.4%), Warner Bros. (38.5%), Sony (30.8%), Universal Pictures (21.1%) and Lionsgate (20%). As such, the report notes that the legacy studios have fallen behind streamers like Netflix, where over half of their feature films since 2019 have a female lead/co-lead.

In terms of racial/ethnic representation, none of the distributors reflected proportional representation with U.S. Census figures (41.1%), but films released by “other” distributors (i.e. smaller companies like A24), Walt Disney Studios, and Warner Bros. Pictures (both with 38.5%) had the highest percentage of underrepresented leads.

Smith noted that the increase in representation was thus driven by content from smaller distributors and international fare, not the legacy studios who made pledges to increase diversity in 2020. “This year should have reflected the commitments major studios made in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, but these are not the places responsible for the push for greater inclusion,” she stated.

In summary, the researchers warn that DEI efforts are failing in Hollywood, particularly as it pertains to women and girls from all backgrounds and urge the industry to take the right lessons from a megahit like “Barbie.”

“One film does not represent progress across the industry and cannot bear the burden of lifting the industry to inclusion,” the report concludes. “The results this year point to an industry grown apathetic about efforts surrounding diversity and inclusion. While it is critical to celebrate the achievements of significant films like ‘Barbie,’ there must be more than one or a handful of films that reflect the experiences of women and people of color each year. Until the industry stops hiding behind a single exemplar, change will remain elusive.”

[Pictured: Salma Hayek in “Magic Mike’s Last Dance,” Margot Robbie in “Barbie,” Greta Lee in “Past Lives” and Halle Bailey in “The Little Mermaid”]

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