San Diego State University

There Were Fewer Lead Women on Silver Screen in 2020, SDSU Film Study Finds


The percentage of top-grossing films featuring female protagonists dropped from 40% in 2019 to 29% in 2020, according to the latest "It's a Man's (Celluloid) World'' report released Tuesday by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

Of those films, 49% featured male protagonists and 22% had ensembles. The study defines protagonists as characters from whose perspective the story is told.

However, the percentages of females as major characters and in speaking roles increased slightly last year, according to Martha Lauzen, executive director of the center.

The percentage of major female characters rose from 37% in 2019 to 38% in 2020. Major characters appear in more than one scene and are instrumental to the action of the story. The percentage of female characters in speaking roles -- both major and minor -- climbed from 34% in 2019 to 36% in 2020.

"As protagonists in films, females took a step back in 2020, after two consecutive years of growth,'' Lauzen said. "This decline is reflected in the low number of female-driven films nominated for a best picture Oscar.''

In 2020, 78% of films featured more male than female characters. Only 17% of films had more female than male characters and 5% of films featured equal numbers of female and male characters.

Regarding race and ethnicity, the percentage of Black females in speaking roles declined from 20% in 2019 to 17% in 2020. The percentage of Latinas increased slightly from 5% in 2019 to 6% in 2020. The percentage of Asian females declined from 7% in 2019 to 6% in 2020.

For over a decade, this report has examined the most fundamental characteristics of females on screen. Every edition of the study has found female characters remain substantially younger than male characters, female characters are more likely than males to have a known marital status and male characters are more likely than females to have a known occupation.

The percentage of female characters in their 30s was 29%, compared to 16% in their 40s. The percentage of male characters only declined slightly from 31% in their 30s to 28% in their 40s. Films in 2020 featured almost twice as many male characters 60 and older as female characters -- 10% vs. 6%.

"We see a handful of mature female actresses and assume that ageism has declined in Hollywood,'' Lauzen said. "But unless your last name happens to be Streep or McDormand, chances are you're not working much in film.

"The tendency to feature younger female characters in films emphasizes the value of their youth and appearance at the expense of allowing females to age into positions of personal and professional power,'' she continued.

This year's study includes analysis of more than 1,700 characters appearing in the 100 top domestic grossing films of 2020. Overall, the study has considered the representation of almost 22,000 characters appearing in around 1,000 films released between 2002 and 2020.

For more information about the findings of this study and/or the center, visit

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