Hollywood Blockbusters Featured Record Number of Lead Roles for Women, People of Color in 2018

Hollywood movies offered up more meaty roles for women and people of color in 2018, a sign that public pressure on the film business to become more inclusive appears to be yielding results.

“Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” may have generated the lion’s share of press attention for shattering barriers, but they were just two examples of a larger change taking place across the entertainment industry. A record number of major studio releases boasted female leads or leads from historically underrepresented racial or ethnic groups, according to a new report from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Thirty nine of the 100 highest-grossing movies in 2018 had a female in a leading or co-leading role, an increase from 33 films in 2017 and a substantial jump from 20 films in 2007, the year that USC first started crunching the numbers. Twenty seven movies had leading or co-leading characters from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups as opposed to 21 films in the previous year. Eleven films featured a female lead from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group compared to just four in 2018. There was also a 12-year high in the percentage of Black and Asian speaking characters.

“The good news is companies are making more of an effort to be inclusive,” said Stacy L. Smith, director of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and one of the study’s authors. “We’re seeing movement. Of course, we always want it to be faster, but all of the activism and advocacy appears to be yielding results.”

She added, “We’re seeing that studios are recognizing that all that mythologizing about who can lead a film or carry a film was just that — mythologizing.”

And yet, there’s still substantial room for improvement. Major movies largely ignored the LGBTQ population and failed to include many characters with disabilities. Just 1.3% of characters in the top 100 films were LGBTQ. From 2014 to 2017, there was only one transgender character. In 2018, less than 2% of characters were shown with a disability, which represented a four-year low.

“You’re basically seeing the erasure of whole communities,” said Marc Choueiti, program director at the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and one of the study’s authors.

Women may have been given more opportunities to carry a movie, but they weren’t offered as many supporting parts. Actresses accounted for only 33.1% of speaking roles in the 100 top movies of 2018, a modest bump from the 31.8% of speaking roles they had in 2017. When they did appear in movies, women were often sexualized. Just under 30% of female characters were shown in revealing clothing compared to 7.4% of male characters, and women were more than three times as likely to have a nude scene than their male counterparts.

As women get older, they are less likely to find employment in a business that appears to be ageist. Eleven movies were led by a female actor over 44 years old, versus five in 2017. That’s progress. However, that paled in comparison to the kind of roles being offered to men. Twenty four movies featured a male actor over the age of 44 in a lead role.

Women of color also were chronically underemployed. Researchers found that 33 of the 100 most popular films were missing black female characters, 54 were missing Asian female characters, and 70 lacked Latina characters.

“When Hollywood casts women, it still mostly thinks about casting Caucasian women,” said Smith.

Women still struggled to find work behind-the-camera. Across a 12 year period, just 4.3% of directors were female and 3.2% were Asian — a percentage that failed to improve over that time frame. Latinos comprised just 2.7% of the directors of the 100 top films of 2018 and 3.6% of those jobs went to Middle Eastern or North African filmmakers. That’s a problem and an obstacle when it comes to fostering a more inclusive work environment. The study argues that one reason that there was a significant increase in the number of black characters on screen is that the number of black directors rose from 6 in 2017 to 15 in 2018.

Smith and her colleagues said they were optimistic about the changes taking place in the industry, but they noted that many movies fail to include female characters or people of color. Twelve of the 100 highest-grossing films failed to have any black or African-American speaking characters, 47 lacked any Latinx speaking characters, and 32 failed to include any Asian speaking characters.

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