Women are inching ahead in Hollywood—well, white women anyway

Leading lady.
Leading lady.
Image: Reuters/Aly Song
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Fierce women—Star Wars’ Rey, Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen, and Mad Max’s Imperator Furiosa—dominated three of last year’s biggest films. And they weren’t alone.

There were more roles for leading female characters in top-grossing US films than in any other year in recent history, an analysis of films from 2002 to 2015 found.

In 2015, female characters made up 22% of lead roles and 34% of major characters in the top 100 grossing US films of the year, the report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University showed. Female characters still trailed men by a wide margin—males made up 52% of leads and the other 26% were ensembles—but they made big strides. In 2014, females made up just 12% of leading roles and 29% of major characters.

Unfortunately, not everyone benefited equally from the rush of new female roles in Hollywood. The majority of female characters in last year’s highest-grossing films were white. Only 13% of the female roles were for black characters. And Latina and Asian characters made up 4% and 3% of the roles, respectively.

Female characters of color were also less likely to hold major roles than white characters, the study noted.

And gender stereotypes persisted in the films, despite the uptick in female roles. For example, movies emphasized the occupations of male characters more than female characters (78% of male characters had identifiable jobs compared to 61% of female characters), and the marital status of females more than males (58% of male characters and 49% of female characters had unknown marital statuses), the report showed.

These findings suggest that there are more opportunities for women in film today. But they also highlight the gender- and racial-diversity issues plaguing Hollywood that have led some actors to boycott the Oscars and others to speak out against inequality in the industry.