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Don’t be fooled by Wonder Woman: the number of female film protagonists fell in 2017

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Moya Crockett
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Despite women-led movies smashing records at the box office, there was an overall decline in the number of female protagonists in films last year.

Think back to 2017 and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was something of a bumper year for women in cinema. Two of the highest grossing films in the UK – Beauty and the Beast and Star Wars: The Last Jedi – featured female leads, while directors Dee Rees and Kathryn Bigelow helmed serious period pieces Mudbound and Detroit. Multiplex epic Wonder Woman (also directed by a woman) and the deliciously raucous Girls Trip (written by two women) smashed records around the world, and critics raved over female-centric indie fare like The Florida Project, 20th Century Women and Patti Cake$.

But all these bright spots may have distracted us from a more disappointing truth: in 2017, the overall number of female protagonists in films actually went down.

According to a new study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, major studios generally failed to support female-dominated films last year. Less than a quarter (24%) of the protagonists in the 100 highest grossing films in 2017 were women, a decline of 5% from 2016.

The study also showed that cinemagoers were more than twice as likely to see men on the big screen than women, and that male characters were allowed to speak significantly more than female ones. Some 76% of the top 100 films had 10 or more male characters with speaking roles, while only 32% of the most popular films included 10 or more female characters who said anything at all. 

Women in film also faced an age barrier. The majority of female characters in the highest-grossing films were in their 20s (32%) and 30s (25%). Less than a third (29%) of female characters were in their 40s or older compared to almost half (46%) of male characters who were over 40.

2018 films with female protagonists, from left: Black Panther, Lady Bird, and the upcoming Ocean’s 8 and A Wrinkle in Time 

There were some welcome improvements in terms of racial diversity on screen, with more women characters of colour in the top 100 films of 2017 than ever before. However, Hollywood is still a long way away from embracing anything close to equal representation on screen. The number of black female characters increased from 14% in 2016 to 16% in 2017, the number of Latinas more than doubled from 3% to 7%, and the percentage of Asian women made an incremental leap from 6% to 7%.

Overall, it seemed as though independent film companies were a better place for women than major studios. Actresses were much more likely to appear as the sole female protagonist in independent features (65%) than studio features (35%).

The report might make for disheartening reading, but we’re holding out hope that 2018 will be a better year for women in film. Movies including Black Panther, Molly’s Game and Lady Bird have already provided meaty roles for actresses, while highly-anticipated upcoming releases Tomb Raider, A Wrinkle in Time and Ocean’s 8 seem all but guaranteed to do big business at the box office.

Want more recommendations of female-led movies to watch? Check out our guide to the 26 films every feminist needs to see in 2018, or our round-up of the women directors making waves this year

Images: Rex Features / Warner Bros / Disney 

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk, where she is currently overseeing the Visible Women campaign. As well as writing about inspiring women and feminism, she also covers subjects including careers, podcasts and politics. Carrying a tiny bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.

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